This question gets asked a lot. It’s really four questions: 1) What is music theory? 2) Does music theory really teach you what music is? 3) Does music theory teach you how to create music? And 4) how do you learn music theory? Let’s take these questions one at a time.
One of my Montclair State students recently did a class presentation on Venetian Snares, the stage name of highbrow electronica producer Aaron Funk.
The track uses samples from the first movement of Béla Bartók’s fourth string quartet, accompanied by shuffled slices of the Amen break. It sounds to me like an EDM artist trying to deal with “art” music. Eliot Britton wrote an art-musical scholarly response. Britton makes a good-faith effort to engage the track on its own terms, but he’s writing from within the classical academic tradition. That tradition can be a king-sized drag.
The climb from a popular musical style to acceptance as an elevated form of artistic expression is steep. The struggle to include jazz as legitimate art music took many years and the endeavour continues to this day. However, it is no longer acceptable for educated musicians to dismiss jazz as “dance music” because of its association with the dance hall. To dismiss jazz as an artistic musical form would be a rejection of a major element of North American music history.
Oh boy. Let’s unpack! Continue reading
In the Wall Street Journal, David Gelernter is very upset about Kids Today.
For most young people, music is a minor consumable, like toothpaste.
Okay. That’s debatable, by which I mean wrong, but moving along.
Here’s where it gets real. Emphases in original:
Musicians and music majors aside, my students at Yale—and there are no smarter, more eager, more open students anywhere—just barely know who Beethoven is. Beethoven. “He composed music”—that is the general consensus.
To know nothing about Beethoven? That is cultural bankruptcy. That is collapse. It goes far beyond incompetence, deep into betrayal and farce.
“Why should we know anything about Beethoven?” The question was asked in all seriousness by a sophomore just a few months ago. When I dredged up old, tired clichés, he listened carefully—and seemed convinced! What could be sadder? He was only waiting for the smallest bit of encouragement.
I told him (approximately), “You must know Beethoven’s music because no one has ever said anything deeper about what it means to be human, to look life and death in the eye, to know beauty at its purest and most intense—if you can take it. Because Beethoven asserts his own mere human self against the whole cosmos and makes it listen; he addresses God face-to-face, like Moses, whether God listens or not. And so people all over the world study and listen to and perform his music with reverence.” Clichés, but they were news to him.
No one has ever said anything deeper! NO ONE. Beethoven makes THE VERY COSMOS listen. He GETS UP IN GOD’S FACE. Can you take it? You can’t. You can’t even take it. This is you trying to take it:
While my son’s birth has been the most joyous event of my life, he has put a serious damper on my and Anna’s concert-going. I tell my musician friends: I’ll happily come to your gig, as long as it’s on a Sunday afternoon with walking distance of my apartment. Well, today, Björk obliged us by doing exactly that.
Anna and I have been to two of her shows previously, and both were delightful experiences, but they were also in support of her two weakest albums (Volta and Biophilia.) This time, however, Björk is touring with Vulnicura, a beautiful set of songs, her best work since Medúlla and a welcome return to the sonic palette of Homogenic. Here’s my favorite track:
Much as I love it, I thought it would be improved by adding samples of Marvin Gaye, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the bassist on Paul Simon’s Graceland.
Kratus, J. (2015). The Role of Subversion in Changing Music Education. In C. Randles (Ed.), Music Education: Navigating the Future (pp. 340–346). New York & London: Routledge.
Here’s a horrifying story from John Kratus:
In 2009 I gave a presentation on collegiate curricular change in music for the Society for Music Teacher Education in Greensboro, North Carolina. One of the first slides in my presentation was an outline of Michigan State University’s degree requirements for the Bachelor of Music in Music Education. The outline included certain numbers of semesters for applied lessons, large ensembles, theory and ear training, and history and literature, as well as music education requirements including three tracks (instrumental, string, choral/general), introduction to music education, conducting, instrument and voice classes dependent on student teaching. I asked the audience members how many of them taught in a college program similar to that. Nearly every hand went up. Then I revealed that the program I described was taken from the Michigan State University Academic Programs book from 1959. The course descriptions, the performance repertoire, even the delivery of instruction were, for all, practical purposes, nearly unchanged in 50 years.
Kratus goes on to say that music education is way more than fifty years out of date.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the type of music education provided to contemporary collegiate music majors has deep roots in the conservatories of European capitols of the 19th century. In fact more than its roots are located there–21st-century collegiate music has retained the stems, branches, leaves, flowers, seeds, and pollen of its 200-year-old predecessors.
DJ Earworm is the foremost practitioner of the art of the mashup. I don’t think there’s a more interesting musician in the world right now. I was on public radio with him once! His main claim to fame is the United State of Pop series, where he combines the top 25 US pop songs of a given year into a single, seamlessly coherent track. I’ve scattered several of them throughout this post. He has started doing more seasonal mashups as well; here’s one from this past summer:
It’s rare that an artist talks you through their production process in depth, so I was delighted to discover that DJ Earworm wrote an entire book about mashup production. He wrote it in 2007 and focused it on Sony Acid, so from a technical standpoint, it might not be super useful to you. But as with the KLF’s pop songwriting tutorial, the creative method he espouses transcends technology and time period, and it would be of value to any musician. Some choice passages follow.
I don’t have much of a relationship to… what should we call it? Modern classical music? That’s the term commonly used by ignoramuses like me, but it’s a silly one, contradictory on its face. The practitioners themselves call it “new music,” which is even worse, since it implies that all that other music out there that’s new is not really music. Steve Reich has the best term: notated music. It’s accurate and non-judgmental, and it encompasses the vast range of styles currently being explored by composers. Anyway, I don’t have much of a relationship to notated music. Terry Riley is a name that people in my circle throw around, but I hadn’t listened closely to him until I read an amazing New Music Box post about him. More on that below.
Terry Riley’s most salient influence on my musical life comes from A Rainbow In Curved Air. Fans of The Who will immediately recognize it as the template for the intro to “Baba O’Riley.”
Riley’s pattern-sequenced organ also inspired a ton of prog rock and ambient electronica. However, this post is not about A Rainbow In Curved Air. It’s about the piece that cemented Riley’s place in the High Culture Canon: In C.
In a recent comment, a reader posed a good question:
I’m classically trained (I do recognize a blues progression when i hear it though) so i would like to hear more of your insights into the forms, styles and methods of pop music — your observation that “most of the creativity in pop lies in the manipulation of timbre and space”, for example, was very interesting. To me the compositional technique of most pop and esp. rock/blues seems to based on noodling on a guitar and is directly the result of the tuning of the instrument and the ease with which a beginner can learn a few chords. The fact that many popular songs have been written by teams (mostly duos) of songwriters to me seems to corroborate my noodling theory — but I am very interested to learn if there are common practices, disciplines, methods, etc that have been used and transferred over time.
I have to add that I’m a little surprised to hear that pop musicians are baffled by the relevance of “academic” music theory to their music. If you wanted to teach a pop musician about the theory of his craft, what would you teach other than what is offered in any freshman theory course? (all right, you can skip the figured bass and species counterpoint).
My response: Continue reading
This semester, I had the pleasure of leading an independent study for two music students at Montclair State University. One was Matt Skouras, a grad student who wants to become the music tech teacher in a high school. First of all, let me just say that if you’re hiring for such a position in New Jersey, you should go right ahead and hire Matt, he’s an exceptionally serious and well-versed musician and technologist. But the reason for this post is a question that Matt asked me after our last meeting yesterday: What should he be studying in order to teach music tech?
Matt is an good example of a would-be music tech teacher. He’s a classical trumpet player by training who has found little opportunity to use that skill after college. Wanting to keep his life as a musician moving forward, he started learning guitar, and, in his independent study with me, has been producing adventurous laptop music with Ableton Live. Matt is a broad-minded listener, and a skilled audio engineer, but his exposure to non-classical music is limited in the way typical of people who came up through the classical pipeline. It was at Matt’s request that I put together this electronic music tasting menu.
So. How to answer Matt’s question? How does one go about learning to teach music technology? My first impulse was to say, I don’t know, but if you find out, please tell me. The answer I gave him was less flip: that the field is still taking shape, and it evolves rapidly as the technology does. Music tech is a broad and sprawling subject, and you could approach it from any number of different philosophical and technical angles. I’ll list a few of them here. Continue reading
Together with Adam Bell, I’m planning some in-depth writing about the phenomenon of pop musicians (like me) teaching in formal, classically-oriented institutional settings. This post is a loosely organized collection of relevant thoughts.
What even is “pop music?”
As far as the music academy is concerned, all music except classical or folk is “popular.” People who make bluegrass or death metal or underground hip-hop might be surprised to learn that their wildly unpopular music is referred to this way. In the past few decades, jazz has moved out of the “popular” column and into the “art” column. I myself have made a small amount of actual pop music, but for the past few years have mostly been involved in the production of artsy electronica.
How classical musicians learn: an absurd oversimplification
Classical musicians learn The Western Canon by performing and analyzing scores. The defining instrument of this music is the piano. All vocalists and instrumentalists are expected to be able to think in pianistic terms. Students are part of a pyramid-shaped hierarchical structure with long-dead composers at the top, followed by long-dead music theorists, followed by living music theorists and conductors and academics, and so on down to the individual section player. There is a contingent of living composers whose role in the hierarchy is confused at the moment. Most student composers are expected to operate within a tightly bounded tradition, whether that’s common-practice tonality or one of the various schools of modernism. The analysis of large-scale structure happens only at the very advanced level, if ever. Recordings are something of an afterthought.