[Smt-talk] Theorists and composers

Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Fri Jul 6 00:38:22 PDT 2012

Dear Colleagues,

Actually, Steven does not need to apologize for having started a ruckus; he touched a very important point that is being by-passed by many musicians, especially those who serve on search committees. Once I started a similar discussion, claiming that a "pure" theorist in music is a very strange profession that is more imposed in the field, rather than needed. Then some colleagues got offended, but I am afraid that this is true, for a pure theorist is one who cannot make music in any manner (by composing, or arranging, or performing, or coaching, etc.). When you are not a music maker of any kind, your insights in theory do not come from within the musical process but from speculations alone, and this is what you teach your students - how to speculate.

On the other hand, I think that a genuine theorist is one who can do things, and can harmonize melodies, because you cannot teach harmonization and  voice leading without having experienced the craft if harmonization. I agree with Schoenberg that [pure] theorists are masters of nothing, that some of them know this very well within themselves, and for that reason they feel intimidated among musicians with genuine experience.

About switching to hiring pure theorists rather than composers or composers/theorists for a theory teaching  position - I think that this is one of the reasons the level of theory studies is so low today; graduate students can express their thoughts perfectly in writing, they are so knowledgeable on Schenkerian theories and pitch-set analysis, oh...they are so good...only that they are total dilettantes in harmony and counterpoint, for they can neither harmonize, nor devise a sequence in invertible counterpoint. What they have become is a "pure theorist". Such pure theorists teach harmony and counterpoint in a funny manner, repeating like parrots what they have read in the textbook, without the ability and the idea of implanting in their students the seed of creativity and critical thinking. The result is devastating.

This tendency is visible today not only in the United States. But once, when people like Schoenberg, Hindemith, Walter Piston, Hans Tischler and many others taught in academia, the students they prepared could deal with theory professionally.

One big misunderstanding, in my view, is the false assumption harbored by many theorists, that music theory is science. Fortunately, it is not, and to their disappointment I must say that theory is of no value if it is based on speculations alone. You can destroy equally well a Mozart melody and a Schoenberg "melody" by stacking their pitches vertically and announcing a normal order or a best order. The result? You cannot tell who is who and which is which. You do not even have to have listened to those pieces of music to be able to analyze them with pitch sets! It is funny that this occupation is imposed as mandatory in some graduate classes. 

The more a theorist is lacking practical knowledge in fundamental disciplines, the more he/she is  interested in"abstract" theories. But they cannot hide the lack of knowledge. They do not make a big scholar. Without practical knowledge, you are a speculator. Period.

Thank you,


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

More information about the Smt-talk mailing list