[Smt-talk] Specialization versus Generalization

Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Mon Oct 7 15:56:32 PDT 2013

Dear Steve and colleagues,

Thank you very much for your input concerning my appeal for more specialization and professionalism in the three main theoretical disciplines. 

I accept most of Steve Laitz’s arguments because they are based on our realities today. But I keep dreaming of an ideal situation (why not a conservatory in US) where undergraduate students will study separately the three fundamental disciplines in greater depth. This is not a wishful thinking, for such practices have been in existence for centuries. Berlioz writes with reverence about studying “counterpoint and fugue with Reicha”; students form the St. Pitersburg conservatory still finish their harmony course by writing a modulation prelude along the tradition of Rimsky-Korsakov (I just came back from the First Congress of the Russian Society for Music Theory in St. Petersburg); I finished my three-year counterpoint course in Sofia by submitting a riccercare, two inventions and two fugues (one of them in contemporary style) and taking a 2h and 30 min. exam where analysis of a Josquin example and a prelude and fugue form the “Well-tempered clavier” was assigned. At the same time, I was astounded when a colleague from Barcelona Conservatory emailed me (upon my inquiry) that they studied harmony and counterpoint for four years each! I am still suspicious towards the veracity of this information, and you can check it on your own.

My appeal is based on the realization that low standards seem to have enveloped the whole study of music theory to the point of being widely recognized as “beneficial and promoting diversity”, while it is exactly the opposite – they deprive students from developing as a comprehensive and diverse musician, from thinking critically and being creative. They force the student to think in a box, to unquestionably accept the limitations of a certain book’s chapter, and to repeat like a parrot questionable definitions that have been defied by musical practice. For example, when one hears the statement, “Minor five is not used, right?” one can only throw one’s hands in despair and make their inferences about the benefits of the “general level” of theory studies in academia and the “professionalism” they bring about. In a variety of “screening tests” throughout the country, the students are required to list “the diatonic chords in minor”, with the expectation for them to provide seven chords, two of which are not purely diatonic, according to the key signature (V and viio). Nobody cares to explain to the poor pupil that a key and a scale are two different things, that all the diatonic triads in a key are legitimate and are used with no exception (including Vm, which is indispensable in connecting T with VI or S6 via descending bass line, and is also used in sequences), and that it is erroneous to limit the chords in a minor (or even in a major) key to seven, because, for example, the use of VII is much more frequent than the use of viio. Thus, if students knew what a modal mixture is (examples being harmonic and melodic minor as well as harmonic and melodic major), and if they had been asked to provide a more or less common collection of the triads in minor, they will have to list all the diatonic triads according to the key signature, and add to them the two harmonic dominants (V and viio). In the same way, in a major key, they will have to list the diatonic triads according to the key signature, and add to them the two harmonic subdominants (iv and iio). Rimksy-Korsakov has done that 120 years ago, and his book is translated in English, but alas…

On the other hand, focussing on each separate discipline for one or two years (depending on the major) will arm the undergraduate student with an in-depth knowledge on the processes that stand behind a beautiful harmonization, an elegant fugue exposition, a creative analysis of a sonata allegro. This approach will help the studying musician to understand the connections between linear and vertical, style and form, principle and freedom. That would be authentic, comprehensive musicianship, based on experience and logical relationships among the disciplines. Therefore, paradoxically and, at the same time, logically – a greater specialization during undergraduate studies will bring about greater general knowledge of music theory and, later on – greater teachers in the classroom, with greater culture and vision.

I have some propositions that I throw on the table, with the hope to spur some thinking along different parameters.

1.	Most of the material in a general “theory one” course should be studied in a preliminary course entitled “Elementary Theory of Music” that should be much more comprehensive than “basic musicianship”. It will give the students theoretical and practical knowledge on the pure diatonic system (old modes), the first steps of modal mixture in the form of basic versions of the major and minor scales, the main types of tertian triads and seventh chords, clefs, simple and compound intervals, types of meter, including irregular meters, etc. Only after all this has been studied, shall we talk about harmony, voice leading, harmonization, counterpoint and form. 

2.	Harmony and counterpoint to be studied for four semesters each, by those who major in performance, music education and studio recording, and for five or six semesters by those who major in composition, theory, musicology, and conducting (assuming that the undergraduate studies will be incorporated in an MM program with no interruption). Musical analysis as a separate course to be studied for one or two semesters, depending on the major. A final exam in harmony may include a harmonization of a melody and a bass line, analysis, composing of different types modulations, playing harmonic progressions and devising a modulation on the piano between two given keys. Now, such kind of final exam may be quite challenging not only for the student…and that would be the litmus for a teacher’s professionalism. Shouldn’t a person with a PhD in music theory or a DMA in composition be able to “take” this exam excellently?

3.	The current curriculum in Music Theory IV to be organized as a separate mandatory course, where emphasis shall be placed not so much on serial and pitch analysis as on the analysis of the music of those composers who have been widely recognized and appreciated as the greatest figures of the XX century: Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Orff, Honegger, Copland, Gershwin, and others, whose music is constantly on the podium worldwide. The Viennese School, the serial techniques and the minimalism are to be studied on a more limited basis (with a possibility for an elective course for composers and musicologists), and the pitch set analysis is to be mentioned in passing (because of its existence). The main point behind this curriculum change is to fill the theory studies with musical content that will help and inspire the students to develop as a better musician, to grow musically, rather than to use their energy for an activity that has nothing to do with musicality, i.e. calculating sets of pitches. As Professor Nicholas Cook was wondering in his book “A Guide to Musical Analysis” what kind of analysis that was which did not even require you to listen to the music you analyze (not a quotation)…Furthermore, you do not have to have the score with you either; someone can simply tell you what collection of pitches has been used in a certain excerpt, and your analysis may begin! Thus, after having analyzed in this manner a chromatic excerpt by Bach, for example, and by Schoenberg, you will not be able to tell who is who and which is which. Some colleagues will probably counter that this special method only works in atonal music. OK – Webern and Schoenberg. Results? The same. After your pitch set analysis, can you recognize the author or the passage? How did this process help you to grow musically?

The three ideas above are only the beginning of my virtual attempt to invite more ideas on the scene. I admit some of the obstacles: finances, liberal arts orientation, number of credit hours, lack of enough professional theorists/composers who have specialized in a particular field and are really passionate about what they are doing, etc. But since we have the example of some conservatories, some great books of harmony, counterpoint and form, and the honest desire of many colleagues (including many jazz musicians) to change the odds, I am optimistic about the prospective. There will be opposition, I know, and display of resentment, fear and perhaps an uninvited aggression. But my appeal is honest and I do not feel offended by such reactions. 

Thank you,


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

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