[Smt-talk] Expanded Music Theory

Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Tue Feb 21 13:28:27 PST 2012

Dear Colleagues,

I can see the concern of some colleagues, and I leave this issues to those specialists who know how to reduce a curriculum to fit particular needs. I named my message "Expanded Music Theory" to suggest that there is even a greater concern with an opposite sign; it is about the qualifications of those who graduate with a  bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree in music. These are the future instructors of music theory! 

As far as the study of music theory is concerned, we may identify its three fundamental disciplines as harmony, counterpoint, and musical form. In the majority of American colleges however, such distinction is not practically observed at an undergraduate level; instead, a sequence of theory I through IV is offered to students in the form of an “umbrella” that is supposed to cover aspects of the three fundamentals mentioned above. The main weakness of this system is evident: it does not offer an in-depth study of any of the constituent disciplines: there is no time for extensive exercises in harmonization, for mastering the techniques of invertible counterpoint, and for exploring musical analysis from basic formal structures to compound forms. 

A little bit of everything eventually results in becoming a master of nothing. Even at graduate level one hardly sees courses devoted to the craft of harmonization or special contrapuntal techniques. The truth of this situation emerges like a tsunami when graduate students are asked to harmonize a simple melody, as apart of review of fundamental principles of voice-leading. Upon reviewing such exercises done by newly admitted graduate students, one usually throws one’s arms in despair.

In contrast to the above situation, in many European conservatories the theoretical disciplines are studied separately. In addition, the curriculum is different for different majors. For example, students who major in theory, composition, conducting and musicology usually study harmony and counterpoint each for six semesters and musical analysis for two semesters. Students who major in instrumental performance, voice, and music pedagogy study harmony for four semesters, counterpoint for two semesters, and analysis for one semester. You can imagine the level of mastery that one can achieve by studying separately theoretical disciplines for a long period of time. 

Having said all of the above, I wanted to ask: Does it have to be so? Why "theory" instead of harmony, counterpoint and musical form, separated for the benefit of all?

Best regards,


Dr. Dimitar Ninov, Lecturer
School of Music
Texas State University
601 University Drive
San Marcos, Texas 78666

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