[Smt-talk] Specialization versus Generalization

Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Fri Oct 11 20:37:16 PDT 2013

Dear Professor Adams,

Thank you very much - this is exactly what I wanted to hear! I apologize for the use of "exclusively" and "all", for these descriptions were meant to provoke a strong voice in opposition to my "assumptions" -  a voice that would raise the curtain before some other approaches to music theory studies in US. Why, for God's sake, have you not become a prominent nationwide advocate of a ten-semester music theory course, or at least of a five-semester one? The benefits of such emphasis are obvious, but I am afraid that each time I say that, some colleagues would think of a modest lecturer and a bizarre Eastern-European who is talking non-sense. However, you are in a stronger position than me - why not initiate a very serious discussion in an attempt to eventually turn the tide? Discussing the necessity of more solid studies in harmony, counterpoint and form is not about "feeling like a character in a horror movie" - it is a necessity.

Bravo for this posting, and have a nice weekend!

With best regards,


Dr. Dimitar Ninov, Lecturer
School of Music
Texas State University
601 University Drive
San Marcos, Texas 78666
From: Kyle adams [adamsk01 at yahoo.com]
Sent: Friday, October 11, 2013 1:15 PM
To: Ninov, Dimitar N; smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org
Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] Specialization versus Generalization

Dear members of the list,

I enter this discussion with great hesitation, feeling like a character in a horror movie, with audience members shouting "No! Don't open that door!"

However, I feel compelled to correct an inaccuracy in Ninov's last post. Accusing David Froom of "highly exaggerated sentiment," he goes on to say that "exclusively, all of music departments and schools of music in US...have a uniform theory I-IV sequence." I have been fortunate to teach at four very different, wonderful institutions in this country, which, if I can say so, are non-trivial ones: Mannes, Hunter College (CUNY), Queens College (CUNY), and now Indiana University. Not one of them has a "Theory I-IV sequence;" let alone one that is "uniform" with any of the others. Mannes offers ten semesters of theory and all of the other institutions five, each one with at least four companion semesters of aural skills. I wish that Ninov would not be so cavalier in his use of words like "all."


Kyle Adams
Associate Professor of Music Theory
Jacobs School of Music
Indiana University

From: "Ninov, Dimitar N" <dn16 at txstate.edu>
To: "smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org" <smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org>
Sent: Friday, October 11, 2013 1:34 PM
Subject: [Smt-talk] Specialization versus Generalization

Dear Prof. Froom,

Thank you very much for your thoughtful and intelligent comments. I personally agree with your logic and with many of the things you said, with three exceptions which, allow me to say that, represent exaggerations. I honestly and definitely disagree with your implications that:

1.    Ninov wants to disallow people to believe in the importance of 12-tone music. You wrote: “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 did not imply any of that. I expressed my opinion that the bulk of music theory IV must belong to the music of the greatest composers of the XX century, whose music is constantly sought after and performed in the concert halls. I believe that this honor does not necessarily fall on the composers of the Viennese school or the minimalist school of whatever “avant-garde” school there may be out there. Yet these schools and composers do occupy most of our students’ time in theory IV. Instead of calculating sets, looking for vectors, and filling in matrixes, I think it would be much more beneficial for our students if they were introduced in fine analytical methods to the harmony and composition of Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Honegger, Hindemith, Orff, Compland, Millo, Gershwin, Enesky, etc. Do you think this is practiced enough (if at all) in our theory IV sequence? And then I said that, for serial techniques and pitch set analyses, there may be a special elective course for composers or others interested in this venue.

2.    Ninov says that US students are inadequate. You wrote: “I must also respectfully disagree with his sweeping pronouncements about the inadequacy of US students.”

With all due respect, I think it is not fair to suggest that. I love my students. To a great extent, our students are a product of our teaching methods, paired with their sense of creative freedom and query. If a teacher is inadequate without the help of a textbook and written definitions, and without the inner need of breaking molds and seeking more freedom of interpretation, then their students will absorb their inadequacy to a great extent, until they graduate and start thinking in a more independent manner.

3.    Ninov thinks that US professor are unintelligent. You wrote: “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.”

Again, with all due respect, this statement spills over as a highly exaggerated sentiment. Also, it betrays a certain neglect to or an inadvertent dismissal of a whole army of US professors who do not necessarily call themselves “music theorists”. For example professors of jazz theory and improvisation, professors of composition, simply professors of music. From these musicians I have learned a lot more than from “pure theorists”, who were neither composers, nor pianists, nor conductors or performers of any kind. I am hasty to say that, after my Bulgarian education and solid studies in harmony, I had the privilege to study Pedagogy of Theory and keyboard harmony with late Prof. Dorothy Payne as well as XX century music theory and composition with Prof. Samuel Douglas, both at USC-Columbia, SC. Dr. Payne was a wonderful pianist, which enhanced her lectures enormously, and Dr. Douglass was a contrabass player at the Columbia symphony orchestra.  These were great professors, whose four main characteristics were: very friendly individuals, super professionals, free from any kind of theoretical mold (inflexible theories and unquestionable definitions) and open to other musicians’ ides and arguments. They were “theorists” by trade, but much more than that. I also took a few lessons in jazz harmony and improvisation from Prof. Birt Ligon (USC) and Jeff Helmer (UT). The same wonderful experience. I also attended separate teaching sessions of all mentioned professors. They did not feed the students with a spoon, did not require a literal quotation of textbook definitions, but provoked their students to think for themselves, to come to conclusions, to argue, to formulate their own definitions, and most of all – to practice creative things (harmonizations, little improvisations, singing of harmonic progressions, outlines, etc.). We learn when we are inspired by great musicians and pedagogues, no matter whether they have a PhD, DMA, MM, or a BM.

“The mediocre teacher tells you what to do; the good teacher explains to you how to do it; the excellent teacher demonstrates to you how it works; and the outstanding teacher inspires you to do it yourself!” – William Arthur Ward

Finally, Dr. Froom – may I ask you a question? If you think that there is no central authority in US which imposes a fixed curriculum format, to which factor do you attribute the fact that, exclusively, all of music departments and schools of music in US (members or no members of NASM, Ivy League or no Ivy league, more prestigious or less prestigious), have a uniform theory I-IV sequence? I guess you hardly believe that all American instructors feel the same way about the organization of their curriculum…If it is not that, what is the reason of this kind of uniformity? Would it not be an interesting exception if we had at least one college or conservatory that offered the discipline of harmony as a separate mandatory undergraduate course? Would it represent "an offense" to a certain "American tradition", and alarm all the musical community across the country as something unthinkable and totally inappropriate? Or rather, would it not show sings of diversity in the "serious music" departments and proof of the absence of "central authority"? But I guess, these are already three more questions :)

Thank you, and best regards!


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