Bridging the Gap – Theory Blog

Hello Fellow Theorists:

I am proud to announce that the Verona High School Music Theory program is collaborating with Dr. Jennifer Snodgrass of Appalachian State University,  who is writing a book titled  Teaching Music Theory: New Voices and Approaches (Oxford University Press). Accompanying the book will be a You Tube channel with videos of classrooms excerpts, including our classes here at VHS. Additionally, each participating teacher has been asked to participate in an online blog format. With that said, please enjoy:

Widening the Lens: A Holistic Approach to Music Theory
Introduction & Part I: Rhythm

I love theory. Actually, I really love theory. More importantly, I am proud to say our students in the Verona High School Instrumental Music Department here do as well. Theory is a powerful tool, and perhaps one of the most effective modalities at our disposal to help us connect with our students.

My best musical days are invariably tied to theory: I love to study to my scores and to analyze the harmonies (or lack there of), whether they are rooted in the traditional language of the Western European canon, or whether they are grounded in more modern, esoteric, and singular sonorities. The most invigorating part, however,  is bringing the notation to life in in band or at the piano in theory. In is truest artistic form, theory emancipates us, giving us the tools to make informed choices about the directions of our melodic lines, our conducting gestures, intensity of our climaxes, etc.

However, it is imperative that we approach the discipline in musically and pedagogically sound ways. If we get to caught into the “rules” of tonal harmony, or bogged down by prescriptive, paint-by-numbers curricula, theory can become bland, dull, and myopic (I hope our goals supersede a “5” on the AP exam). Mostly sadly in this manner theory is neither musical or fun. So, I pose the question:

How wide is the lens in which we look at music theory? If our lens is thin and narrow, we may foster a mindset in our students that “all” music follows the parameters of four-part voice leading, or that parallel octaves do not exist in music. Though our students might leave our class with a great knowledge of ii-V-I’s, they might have trouble articulating their thoughts on Steve Reich’s Nagoya Marimbas.  Though the traditions of 18th century tonal harmony are important tools for musicians, they do not and can not encapsulate all music, as no single approach can.

However, we can expand the lens in which we look at music theory! I would propose three additions to the traditional music theory curricula to foster a broad, comprehensive, and musical approach to our daily ventures:

  • Rhythm: More emphasis on the development of rhythmic skills and the role rhythm plays in composition
  •  Full Score Study: Theory has an overwhelmingly tendency to emphasize short passages, never giving the students the opportunity to see and hear the “big picture”
  • Infusion of Scholarly and Philosophical Readings: We undoubtedly want our (music theory) students to be critically reflective thinkers, not just doers

Part I –  Rhythm 

Full Disclosure: I am a drummer. I have been known to take rhythmic dictation of the windshield wipers on the cross campus buses at Rutgers, or to point out an accelerando motive at my door when my egg drop soup arrives.  Putting aside your pre-conceived notions about me, I will endeavor to continue.

Theory has a serious problem that leading doctors have termed “VCS” (Vertical Chord Syndrome).  We have all been trained to look vertically at a chord, stack it into thirds, and put down a roman numeral. Though this is certainly a functional skill, placing too much emphasis on this can take away from other pedagogically sound theoretical endeavors, including the analysis of form, growth/development, and melodic contour (to name just a few). But the most glaring omission is when we angle our lens away from rhythm. 

A Tchaikovsky Example 

Let us look together at an except from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony 5, Movement II. Click on the following link and peruse the score a bit: Tchaik. Excerpt Clearly the harmonic structure at the onset of this excerpt rests on the simple diatonic chords of D major. However, if we ignore the rhythm here we lose the true essence of Pyotr.

Take a peak again at four measures before G, and we will see the graceful, delicate, and nimble way that Tchaikovsky uses the oboe slightly off the the beat to answer the beautiful main theme in the 1st violin. By starting this oboe line on the third eighth note of the measure, Tchaikovsky creates an ethereal and effortless conversation that can not be captured by looking at the vertical chords.

Now look at two measures before G in the same oboe counter line. Tchaikovsky ingeniously and subtly uses augmentation and diminution to embellish the mid-point of the famous horn melody (obviously now sounding in the violins) that we all know and love. I do not believe that the IV6 and V7 chords here fully encapsulate Tchaikovsky’s intent, as his choice of rhythm is paramount.

Rhythm in Our AP Classes at Verona 

Our theory classes often start with me at the djembe playing rhythms to the class that the students count back right away (and I do mean right away). To get the most of our time together (especially considering that we embrace a myriad of activities in one class period),  I purposely do not have the students write down the patterns, as we are able to get much more concentrated practice in by counting aloud. I try to keep my ears as open possible to what the students are counting back to me. If I hear they are not counting it back to me with precision, I may slow down the passage, or slightly accent/emphasize the portion they may have missed.

We typically start the year with variations of 16th Note Rhythms. From there we tackle basic triplet rhythms, and from that point on all bets are off: 6/8, 9/8, 7/8, hemiola, poly-rhythms, shifting meters,etc. You name it, we try it~ I am actually in pure amazement on how well my classes have handled these activities this year, and I am even more grateful that they apply these skills to to their daily musicking.

Finally, and with all transparency, I did question myself when I first began to integrate these activities into the class. I was quite nervous to attempt this considering the demand of the AP exam, and how busy they are already in our theory  class and beyond. However, a few years down the line I find that the ventures in rhythm prove to be transformative in my student’s musicianship.