[Smt-talk] The Craft of Harmonization

Paul Siskind siskinpa at potsdam.edu
Mon Oct 7 06:13:52 PDT 2013

Hello Colleagues:  With regard to Dr. Ninov's suggestions about the
"necessity for a national discourse on the theory curriculum in American
music departments," he's really just reviving time-worn debate about the
comparative value of teachers being "specialists" versus "generalists."
This contentious debate rears its ugly head periodically, and often
devolves into nasty accusations of whether or not individuals are "real
musicians" or "real scholars," etc.

It's clear that Dr. Ninov strongly advocates for the specialist
perspective.  But for those of us who approach our professional musical
and teaching lives from the generalist perspective, his use of phrases
like "real professionalism," "at a dilettante level," and "being a
speculator" is problematically value-laden, if not down-right insulting.

In his response, Dr. Laitz begins to turn the issue around, and frames it
within a more objective perspective of the practical realities of the huge
diversity of types of music programs we have in the US (and thus the
diversity of types of teachers/approaches that are appropriate to fill
these different types of positions).  I would like to take his argument
one critical step further, and frame it within the perspective of "What do
the students who are sitting in our theory classes actually need in order
to become successful in their endeavors within today's musical world?"

(Because I teach mostly undergrad students, I'm viewing it from the
undergrad curriculum perspective.)

In most core music theory classes in the US, one is faced with a group of
students who have a wide variety of: previous background/experiences;
professional aspirations; career trajectories; and practical needs. 
Furthermore, many students will change their trajectory over the course of
their careers (either by personal choice or by the vicissitudes of
practical necessity).  The question then becomes: How do we best serve
this diversity of students within our core curriculum?

Or to put it more concretely:  What type of curricula, teachers, and
teaching approaches best serve a core Theory classroom that contains
potential orchestral trumpeters, church organists, recital pianists, vocal
coaches, opera singers, pop singers, jazz saxophonists, musical theater
pit wind doublers, elementary school general music teachers, high school
band directors, drum corps percussion section leaders, composers,
theorists, musicologists, ethnomusicologists, artist managers, music
retailers, recording engineers, and those students who will eventually end
up in careers other than music but will remain music-lovers (and be our
audiences of the future)?

Sure, it would be great if our students always had expert specialist
teachers for every minute aspect of their total musical/professional 
training (e.g. "someone who can "work out skilfully (sic) canonic
sequences in invertible counterpoint").  But given the diversity of
students whom we are training (and their variety of pre-professional
needs), do we need to devote more than a few days within our curriculum to
that rather arcane topic?  And do we need (or can we afford) to populate
our faculty only with specialists who have spent their careers focused on
(and who approach their teaching from) just a narrow, specialized

Of course, there will always be those who will argue that the generalist
approach "dumbs down" our curriculum and "lowers our standards."  I've sat
through plenty of faculty meetings where insults such as these are
capriciously lobbed about among supposed "colleagues."

But given the reality of the diverse needs of the students whom we are
serving (within the reality of the eclectic system of higher education in
the US), I believe that the approach that Dr. Ninov advocates is simply
unrealistic, and would not serve our profession (i.e. music) well.

...Dr. Paul Siskind

> Dear Colleagues,
> I forgot to mention about another article of mine, entitled "The Craft of
> Harmonization".  It is published in two parts in "ðÒÏÂÌÅÍÙ ÍÕÚÉËÁÌØÎÏÊ
> ÎÁÕËÉ" (Music Scholarship), a Russian Journal of Academic Studies. The
> first part came up as 2012/2 (11), and the second part is yet to come out.
> The articles there are in both English and Russian, and it has been a
> great honor to see my work published in a journal governed by the Rectors
> of all Russian conservatories.
> My essay is devoted to the well-forgotten craft of harmonizing melodies,
> and it uses a comprehensive palette of means pertaining to the common
> practice period and its extension in the field of standard jazz harmonic
> idiom. My approach is non-Schenkerian, and its ideas stem from the best
> traditions of the schools of Rameau, Riemann, Rimsky-Korsakov, Schoenberg,
> Stor, Benzion Eliezer, Stepan Grigoriev, Walter Piston, Hans Tischler, and
> others, while, of course, it is shaped by my ideas, original melodies and
> harmonizations.
> Another problem that I treat in the introduction is the necessity for a
> national discourse on the theory curriculum in American music departments.
> I am an advocate of such changes that will let the disciplines of harmony,
> counterpoint and musical form emerge on their own  right, freed from the
> umbrella of a generalized theory sequence, and taught creatively by
> professors who have specialized in each of these disciplines - musicians
> whose working knowledge will allow them to harmonize all kinds of
> melodies, play harmonic progressions and modulations idiomatically, work
> out skilfully canonic sequences in invertible counterpoint, and analyze
> musical forms creatively, going beyond the limitations imposed in most
> books. The most important factor here is the realization that a theory
> teacher will become a professor of harmony, or a professor of counterpoint
> or a professor of musical analysis - he/she does not have to cover all of
> those disciplines at a dilettante level, but specialize in one of them and
> bring real professionalism to the school!
> Only through such an approach will our students gain an in-depth knowledge
> in harmony, counterpoint and musical form. Only through this kind of
> activities will they become creative professionals and overcome the stage
> of being a speculator.
> The journal could be found on-line by googling the Russian title (ðÒÏÂÌÅÍÙ
> ÍÕÚÉËÁÌØÎÏÊ ÎÁÕËÉ), but I do not know if its readily available for free
> public access.
> Thank you for your attention, and best wishes,
> Dimitar
> Dr. Dimitar Ninov, Lecturer
> School of Music
> Texas State University
> 601 University Drive
> San Marcos, Texas 78666
> _______________________________________________
> Smt-talk mailing list
> Smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org
> http://lists.societymusictheory.org/listinfo.cgi/smt-talk-societymusictheory.org

Dr. Paul A. Siskind                        Home:
Professor of Composition and Theory        Sweet Child Music
The Crane School of Music, SUNY-Potsdam    69 N. Main Street
Potsdam, NY  13676                         Norwood, NY  13668
(315) 267-3241                             (315) 353-2389

More information about the Smt-talk mailing list