@JonPowles tweeted the following question yesterday afternoon: So why on earth should [university] music students study music theory? This struck a chord with me (pardon the pun) from the point of view of a former music teacher. K-12 is of course an entirely separate issue from tertiary studies, and I’ll address them as such below, but the key word I keep coming up against regardless of the domain is relevance.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that music syllabi in general (both K-12 and tertiary) are some of the most outdated in the curriculum. Very little, if anything, has changed over the last century, except for an optional nod towards ‘popular’ music or ‘music technology’. There is a very big and very loud ‘old guard’ of educators and theorists who insist on certain ways in which music should be taught, usually within the narrow window of ‘western music tradition’. Nobody questions the presence of music theory or musicianship, and nobody questions the way in which it is taught.
K-12 curriculum is my personal bugbear. I trained as a secondary music teacher, but spent most of my teaching career in T-8 music. What I’m about to say is as relevant to 3 year olds as to 13 year olds. Music theory should not be part of the mandatory syllabus. Every time I looked at the syllabus, especially the stage 4 syllabus, I wanted to boot it across the room. I can’t tell you the number of times I was asked ‘But miss, why do we have to learn this?’ and couldn’t answer honestly. Rote-learning crotchets and major scales and accent markings bears no relevance whatsoever to a student who has no plans to engage in music studies beyond year 8 (the vast majority of students). In fact, it bears little relevance to anyone other than the less than 1000 students in the state who sit for Music 2/extension exams. It is an outdated and terribly old-school syllabus. Even the two main educational theorists influencing music teaching today (Orff and Kodaly) are both dead and their work is going on 100 years old. I would dearly love to see the current mandatory stage 1-4 syllabi scrapped in favour of something more like ‘music appreciation’. What is relevant to all students is learning to love music. Learning to listen widely and critically, to be able to perform, improvise and collaborate, to be able to engage in self-expression. None of this requires a working knowledge of music notation (other than knowing that it exists and why) or an ability to parrot the six concepts of music. There is absolutely no reason why a year 8 student should need to be able to do a melodic or rhythmic dictation, or know how many sharps are in D major. What about the students who do want to study music beyond year 8, you ask? Almost without exception, they have already learned music theory in their instrumental lessons, and sit in the mandatory classes, bored to tears. Nobody wins. The elective syllabi offer more scope, but time and time again I saw students taught ‘traditional’ theory via the major composers at the expense of any functional knowledge of harmony, critical thinking or breadth of experience. Very few teachers are able to teach advanced composition or musicological analysis – the vast majority of music 2/extension students are full performance electives. If you ask most people ‘how is the current elective music syllabus relevant to students’ lives?’, I’m willing to bet most will answer ‘it’s the pathway to tertiary study’ or something similar. And this makes me sad – there is more, much more, to music than that.
Music theory at tertiary level is something that has been concerning my husband (a composition lecturer) for years. He is of a very functional bent, and aims to give students a practical and wide-ranging functional knowledge of harmony and theory. And yet he constantly comes up against the fact that music theory is by and large taught by musicologists. Now, several of our dear friends are musicologists, and I don’t intend to slight their vast and comprehensive knowledge in their area of research. However, an advanced knowledge of species counterpoint bears little relevance to any tertiary student other than those intending to move into the musicological academia. I completed my undergraduate degree this century, and yet the vast majority of my harmony units covered theory that was several hundred years old. Even when teaching senior music I have never had to articulate the difference between a Neapolitan 6th and a German augmented 6th. My knowledge of music theory far exceeds any relevance to an intended or unintended future career. For people like me, this is fine, as it holds a certain nerd value, but for most students, music theory that is half a millenia old just isn’t relevant. It is convoluted and outdated. I am not arguing that music theory should not be taught – tertiary music students need an in-depth knowledge of functional harmony, voice leading, melodic constructs and so on, so that they can engage in music as well-rounded and intelligent individuals. But theory as it is taught today ignores such a large proportion of the richness of music and ideas – how many students, upon learning ground bass theory, can tell you that virtually every rock, jazz and blues piece today is a chaconne? How many students can talk about the relationship of 4th species counterpoint to 20th century musical theatre? How many students who learn to realise figured bass can then walk you through a II-V-I jazz progression and choose an appropriate mode to improvise over it with? How many piano students who have spent their degree learning intimately and virtuosically all the works of Chopin can even play in time? How many students can explain why (or even know that) keyboard Bach sounds fantastic played by Bela Fleck (banjo), Nick Parnell (marimba/vibes) or Yngwie Malmsteen (metal guitarist) but awful whenever it’s played on piano (apologies to those who enjoy it)? It’s time for the bricks-and-mortar institutions to scrap their curricula and take a good, hard look at what’s relevant now and in the future.
If you’d like to add your two cents to the debate, you can either post below, or comment on Jon’s Quora thread on the topic.