[Smt-talk] Specialization versus Generalization

David Froom dfroom at smcm.edu
Fri Oct 11 07:05:54 PDT 2013

I think what has been missing from this conversation is that in the US (among other places), we live in a marketplace of ideas, without much centralized authority. 

In some countries (I have a bit of knowledge about how this works in Italy), decisions about certification and curricula are centralized and the reach is detailed, down to specifics of what music theory is taught, for how many years, with a country-wide multi-day standardized exam at the end. Most Italian composers I know (composition is my primary area) find this incredibly stifling, and are envious of our system. Some attribute a perceived relative lack of compositional success to their detailed and demanding prescribed study. I have heard envy expressed by some of them for the more open system we have. Some others think their system is just fine. I have also heard US musicians speak in praise of -- or with disdain for -- the Italian model. And with disdain for or with pride in what we do in the US. But, at least in Italy, a central authority controls this, and can mandate for the entire country down to the small details what happens in music theory curricula nation-wide.

In the US, there is no central authority that demands we all follow Schenker or anyone else, or makes pronouncements about who may teach what.  Rather, much latitude is given to individual institutions. The ideas of Schenker (or Schoenberg or Riemann or anyone else) have impressed many people who are now teachers. Those teachers, in turn, believe for themselves that the ideas are important to teach. Teachers teach what they believe, perhaps guided by their departments' shared beliefs, and according to their own perceptions of what students need. I'm not saying this is good or bad, only that this is what happens in the US.  

Our central authority, if there is one, is NASM -- but even there, membership in NASM is elective. Many fine institutions are not NASM members. And, with regard to curriculum specifics, NASM's are pretty broadly written. 

I know Prof. Ninov speaks with deep conviction. I personally find some of his ideas compelling, and some (especially about 20th and 21st century music) considerably less so. I would love to see theory teachers have a demonstrated high level of craft -- as they do at my college. I would be distressed to be told that I am not allowed to believe in the importance of 12-tone music (and post-12-tone thought) in a modern music theory class. I must also respectfully disagree with his sweeping pronouncements about the inadequacy of US students.  I've seen my share of students who struggle with this material at a basic level, but I've also met and taught many US students of astonishing brilliance and ability who clearly benefitted from their US education. 

I don't want to debate these things in this forum, but I do read discussions here with interest, and I'm nearly always impressed with the passion and the intelligence of the writers. 

In our marketplace of ideas, it is Prof. Ninov's responsibility to persuade us, one at a time, that we should follow him and reject the ideas of those with whom he disagrees. If he thinks US professors are unenlightened, he needs to demonstrate that to us in such a way that we might come to agree with him.  

He might consider becoming active in NASM. I would guess, from what he's written, that he would like to see NASM adopt very strict and detailed rules about theory curricula and who may teach what, and that he would wish for NASM to de-certify the schools that reject those rules. I also suspect that he'd run into much opposition in pursuing these goals.

David Froom
St. Mary's College of Maryland

On 10 Oct 2013, at 6:21 PM, "Ninov, Dimitar N" <dn16 at txstate.edu> wrote:

> Dear Colleagues,
> In relation to the discussion on specialization versus generalization, I would like to summarize my thoughts with the following passage.
> Frequently, we hear the claim that the “integrated approach” to music theory leads to the development of a more complete musician. In our current situation, this literally means that if you studied for three semesters (the fourth one is lost to calculating sets and drawing matrixes) a little bit of harmony, counterpoint and musical form – all in one single “integrated” book – you would gain more theoretical and practical knowledge in theory than if you spent two years in studying separately harmony, counterpoint and musical form from books written by composers or other professionals (who make a living off the creative application of those disciplines). If many colleagues believe that that is the case, I will probably not be able to convince them in the opposite. On the other hand, I believe that specialization eventually leads to greater professionalism and greater completeness in the study of music theory. 
>    Eventually, one thing is certain. The deficiency of skills in the craft of harmonization severely affects one’s scholarship and undermines the development of original ideas which can only emerge in the process of “doing things”. In this sense, I believe that professional theorists cannot rely on research and verbal speculation alone, unless they are historical musicologists. But even then they must possess musical talents and  certain performing skills.
> Thank you,
> Dimitar
> Dr. Dimitar Ninov, Lecturer
> School of Music
> Texas State University
> 601 University Drive
> San Marcos, Texas 78666
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