The College Music Theory Curriculum: The Synthesis of Traditional and Comprehensive Musicianship Approaches

Leland D. Bland

The effectiveness of the college music theory curriculum depends upon a design which will assure that students are involved early in thinking about musical structure and in seeking applications of knowledge gained in theory courses. The theory instructor cannot realistically expect to maintain interest for very long if students are forced to deal almost exclusively with details without some applications in broader contexts. Even in the beginning stages of theoretical study when the means are limited, courses should be designed to present material in usable forms which allow students a degree of success and satisfaction. The material should be arranged so that basic thought processes are established from the onset and then broadened through the refinement of techniques. Opportunities should be provided for continual practice in the synthesis of materials from seemingly diverse sources so that students will eventually be able to transfer knowledge and skills to a variety of musical situations. The most immediate and profitable application of theoretical knowledge should be toward improvement of sight-singing and ear-training skills.

A review of literature on music theory pedagogy in periodicals over the last decade or so reveals an abundance of criticism of how music theory courses have been taught. Many writers criticize college theory courses as having been too narrow in scope with too much concentration on the Bach chorale as a model for harmonic study. Practically all of the articles, many an outgrowth of the Comprehensive Musicianship Philosophy, have offered suggestions for reform.

One point of concern is the order in which certain historical periods are studied—namely, whether the common practice period or other periods should be covered first. One view is that study can most profitably begin with twentieth-century techniques. Robert Sherman outlines such a program and explains that students without a background in eighteenth-century style tend to comprehend twentieth-century compositional techniques more easily than those who have first had training in eighteenth-century style.1 Others favor a chronological coverage. Lloyd Ultman2 and Esther Ballou3 describe a program which, after the first semester, is an historical approach.

Between the above viewpoints are various mixtures of opinion. An example proposal advocates studying fundamentals the first semester, twentieth-century music for two semesters, and a two-semester course on music of the common practice period.4 Various other plans concerning historical order are found in connection with the Institutes for Music in Contemporary Education.5

Other concerns involve matters such as whether to take a harmonic, melodic, or compositional approach to teaching theory. Still another plan is suggested by Edward Applebaum. After criticizing (1) the teaching of harmony as an abstraction from which everything else evolves, (2) the over-reliance on Bach chorales, and (3) the imitation of styles, he proposes a two-year theory curriculum: First year. "Aesthetics, an integrated arts approach . . .; Music of Today, an exploration of the semantics and syntax of sound . . .; and Musicianship, a practical course in sight singing and ear training . . . ." The second year is basically a continuation of the first.6

Comprehensive Musicianship programs have produced many positive results over the past few years. Shortcomings have been noted, however, by some of the participants: (1) students attained hazy overviews of material and developed little ability to particularize; (2) students did not understand the application of the vocabulary and its relevance to music; (3) there was too much generalization, and too many critical details were not considered; (4) too many superficial connections were drawn between pieces and between styles; and (5) through broadening, musical standards were lowered.7

With the above suggestions for improvements in theory pedagogy in mind, can a curriculum be designed to overcome the purported difficulties, be flexible, and hopefully have value for music students? Such a plan seems to call for a compromise between (1) the traditional approach which often stresses the acquisition of seemingly unrelated skills at the expense of adequate application, and (2) the Comprehensive Musicianship approach which may become too general and lack enough treatment of particulars. Perhaps some compromises between various approaches mentioned above are in order.

Possible solutions may begin with the student as the center of the learning process—a thought implicit in Comprehensive Musicianship programs. A profitable first step could be an orientation of the beginning student to (1) the purposes of theoretical training, (2) the interrelation of different areas of musical study, and (3) possible implications for a future career in music. Of course, this general orientation will vary in its effectiveness, depending upon the background of the individual student. Some freshman music students will enter college with very definite career goals—whether these goals are realistic or not is another matter. Others may have definite career goals but only vague ideas of what lies ahead musically. Still others may be completely undecided on a career in music. Regardless of the students' immediate benefits, the theory program, as the core of the music curriculum, should initiate such an orientation program.

If an essential requirement for the successful theory program is early student involvement in thinking creatively about harmony, melody, counterpoint, and rhythm, perhaps a plan can be developed on the proposition that there is an elementary level at which fundamental principles of musical structure may be presented and understood. A curriculum based on this idea would treat basic concepts successively on gradually more advanced stages. In individual theory courses, students would be involved continually in relating specific details of musical structure to general principles, which in turn would help identify common bonds between various musical styles. The process would start with general considerations, such as brief exposures to species counterpoint or principles of harmonic progression, before proceeding to the specifics of any particular style. This design, similar to that of Jerome Bruner's spiral curriculum, would insure that students are often involved in a synthesis of material in gradually more complex settings. Bruner says,

. . . the curriculum of a subject should be determined by the most fundamental understanding that can be achieved of the underlying principles that give structure to that subject. Teaching specific topics or skills without making clear their context in the broader fundamental structure of a field of knowledge is uneconomical. . . .8

Larry Sledge discusses further implications of Bruner's ideas as they might apply to a college theory curriculum. "Such an approach would include traditional harmonic study but would preclude concentrated study on it in any general course."9 This "spiral" design, in its inclusiveness, might strain the ability of the transfer of knowledge for many students—resulting in over-generalization (as mentioned earlier in connection with Comprehensive Musicianship programs).

Perhaps the spiral approach could be combined with the traditional arrangement of individual courses. In this design an individual course would allow concentration on a particular area within the overall spiral plan. For example, in the first year of study, the common practice period would be covered, but with special treatment of particular features which might be considered to be links with the twentieth century or earlier periods. The twentieth century could then be undertaken with insight gained by groundwork already laid. Such an approach is a sensible compromise between (1) extensive concentration on various historical periods before moving to others and (2) superficial historical comparisons and overviews.

While covering the common practice period, preparation should be made for later approaching many aspects of twentieth-century styles as reinterpretations of earlier procedures or as intensifications of certain features of earlier practices. This would not necessarily entail continual comparisons of styles but would prepare for eventual comparisons when twentieth-century styles are studied. If these preparations were made properly, the understanding of twentieth-century techniques could be accomplished more efficiently and in more depth than time often has permitted in the past. For example, altered chords could serve for relating details of style to generalities within the common practice period, while in some cases they may be indicative of, or prerequisites for, new styles in the twentieth century.

Students who begin study in the common practice period can be introduced to all of the diatonic chords though simple writing and analysis projects. After they have an understanding of functions of all diatonic chords, chromatic harmony, which should be introduced long before it is "extreme" chromatic harmony (as in works by Wagner and Strauss), can be stressed as being indicative of trends leading to certain twentieth-century developments. For example, chromatic melodies, altered chords, enharmonic spellings, and irregular resolutions in Wagner or Franck could be cited as possible evidence of a tendency of some composers to use embellishing tones more than structural tones and to use chords and individual tones more for their intrinsic value than for their tendencies within melodic lines and harmonic progressions.

Extreme chromatic harmony can be understood in terms of the tendency of many late nineteenth-century composers to choose increasingly more remote melodic and harmonic options than are usually found in the works of earlier composers. These relatively remote options, resulting in chromatics, could be treated as a logical continuation of altered chords studied earlier in the course. Once this foundation has been established, several twentieth-century styles may be approached through their similarities to those in earlier times. For example, if techniques of manipulating motives and intervals in the late nineteenth century are treated as links into study of the twentieth century, even Schoenberg's serialism will not seem so formidable to students.

Although the exploitation of links between styles seems to suggest the need for a single integrated course, the traditional curricular design of separate classes over a three-year period may be more practical. A succession of courses could be arranged so that each individual course is merely an intensification of certain issues which have been part of the central core of theoretical study from the beginning stages. For example, before enrolling in an actual counterpoint course, students would have had considerable experience with basic concepts of counterpoint through analysis and writing projects.



Although there is an undeniable interaction between melody and harmony in tonal music, the relative emphasis on one or the other of these elements is evident in many college theory texts. Finding ways to cover the interaction between the two without becoming too sophisticated, inflexible, or general seems to be one of the fundamental problems in constructing a theory curriculum. Given that Bruner's assumptions are correct,10 the relationship between harmony and melody (contrapuntal considerations) could be understood by students in the early levels of study. An objection to this assumption could be that an understanding of the synthesis of harmony and counterpoint is too difficult for beginning theory students. However, throughout the theory sequence, learning would really involve several small syntheses. On each level of study, students would consider a basic aspect of counterpoint, a basic aspect of harmony or harmonic progression, and a synthesis of the two. The process would continue toward advanced levels. What are the separate basic considerations for counterpoint and for harmony before each synthesis? Species counterpoint has long served well for the understanding of fundamental contrapuntal considerations. Are there similar basics for harmonic progressions in the common practice period? Any attempt to formulate an answer to this question should be subjected to three criteria. The knowledge of harmonic progression: (1) should be simple enough to handle at first without an extensive knowledge of part-writing details, (2) should have enough substance to allow for some creativity, satisfaction, and awareness of purpose, even from the early stages of study, and (3) should be based upon principles which will allow growth toward advanced levels.

With the above criteria in mind, the study of harmony should begin with an introduction of traditional harmonic functions. Considerations of harmonic progression should be broad enough at first to avoid stylistic considerations. Subsequent study would relate these general harmonic progressions to specific cases in style. As the course progresses, new chords introduced would be treated as a means for enhancing the basic progressions and expanding harmonic options.

Since appropriate part-writing rules take months to master, experience in dealing with common harmonic functions and alternatives in creative work and practice in harmonizing melodies cannot be delayed until this mastery has been completely achieved. If harmonies were reduced to simplified forms at first, such as three-part triads, students could test the suitability of harmonic choices through melodic harmonization and composition projects before they can fully handle all of the details of part-writing. This is not to suggest that students should have total freedom in which to "flourish" and perhaps accidentally discover appropriate cadences and harmonic progressions. It does mean, however, that the theory curriculum should maintain a balance between meticulous prescriptions for getting from chord to chord and long periods devoted to two- and three-part counterpoint with little emphasis on harmonic progression.

Creative projects would not necessarily be confined to attempts at original composition. One continuing project could be the development of skills in systematically scanning the harmonic potential of melodies. While scanning melodies, students should be thinking about progressions in terms of harmonic planning—prolonging certain harmonies or choosing chords which lead toward structural goals. Such scanning would involve not only writing projects but analysis of the harmonic choices of a particular composer's work or of a specific composition. In addition, the scanning techniques would have direct applications in concurrent sight-singing and ear-training sessions. The desired end would be an involvement in creative thinking about choices and results in composing, analyzing, and performing music. If the curriculum is to maintain a balance between counterpoint and harmony, what are the basic procedures of counterpoint which can serve as a point of departure for later study?



The first exposure to voice-leading procedures should be general enough to avoid stylistic considerations but should allow students to deal later with successively more complex procedures as merely variations on basic principles of counterpoint. If part-writing, as counterpoint, is taught as a means to an end in artistic endeavors, students are made aware of the need to learn part-writing in order to achieve musical goals.

Rudimentary voice-leading procedures can be learned readily through species counterpoint. Attempted before writing four-part harmonizations, species counterpoint can clarify several basic procedures regarding voice-leading without getting into the specifics of a particular style. An exposure to at least the first and second species for two voices only can give introductory practice in (a) thinking intervals, (b) planning melodic contour, (c) handling consonance and dissonance, and (d) controlling motion between voices. Later, students can rely upon the experience with species counterpoint as a point of reference in handling more advanced voice-leading and style considerations in harmonic study.

The vocal performance of student exercises in class will confirm for most the aural effect of certain intervals and linear movements. For example, the reasons for the avoidance of parallel fifths and octaves in the common practice period can be clarified. Consequently, students are in a better position to understand styles which violate the seemingly sacrosanct rule against parallel fifths or octaves. Certain passages of Debussy's music may eventually be approached as merely a re-interpretation of the relationship between melody and harmonic color rather than a case of "breaking the rules." Although Debussy's music need not be introduced when discussing fifths and octaves, the instructor may profitably take this opportunity, along with many others as they occur, to make comparisons which will lay the groundwork for later study.

The integration of harmony and counterpoint should prepare students to deal effectively with important contrapuntal characteristics of nearly all compositions in the common practice period. An ample resource along these lines has been supplied by Salzer and Schachter in their Counterpoint in Composition.11 The counterpoint class, probably offered in the third year, may then be designed to give deeper penetration of compositions which feature counterpoint. In the counterpoint class, writing a fugue in the style of Bach, in addition to having value in the study of a particular style, should also be undertaken with the later objective of more fully understanding fugues in other styles such as those of Bartok or Hindemith. In this way, the instructor prepares for the student's understanding of connections between various styles.



The effectiveness of the college theory curriculum may not necessarily depend upon the order in which historical styles or periods are studied or upon a melodic or harmonic approach, but upon a concentration on the structure of the music itself. Although the common practice period is suggested as a point of departure, care must be taken to pursue special links between various musical styles. For those in music education, the theory curriculum should provide the training to view compositions from so many viewpoints and levels that the structure of the music itself suggests ideas for teaching that music.

The central problem in designing a theory curriculum is to find ways to provide the initiative and training for the professional performer and teacher to seek options and alternatives in performing, composing, and conducting. The solution is not to rely solely on courses in which students acquire narrow and specialized skills. Rather, the successful theory program should provide experiences with systematic and consistent methods for assimilating ideas from seemingly diverse sources and for adapting theoretical concepts to various musical situations. "Assimilating" and "adapting" are key words, for they emphasize the necessity for applying knowledge and skills to a variety of situations—most of which are different from the context in which the knowledge and skills were first acquired.

Theory courses should be designed to integrate subject matter and to allow general principles to be comprehended by the systematic study of their details at increasingly complex levels. In the early stages of theoretical study the instructor should, with the presentation of material in simplified forms, establish thought processes which, when expanded through the refinement of techniques, will be valid for more complex levels as well.

Although the design of the integrated course should minimize traditional boundaries between areas of music study, it should avoid generalized overviews at the expense of specific details. Above all, completion of the theory program should not leave the student with the resigned feeling of having completed a set of hurdles soon to be forgotten, but instead with the prospect of making new applications in the study of the musical art.

1Robert W. Sherman, "As Taught, Music Theory is an Anachronism," Music Educators Journal 56 (October 1969): 39.

2Lloyd Ultman, "Theory with a Thrust, Part II," Music Educators Journal 55 (October 1968): 49-51.

3Esther Ballou, "Theory with a Thrust, Part IV," Music Educators Journal 55 (January 1969): 55-57.

4Walter Watson, "New Approach to Teaching Theory," Music Journal 24 (March 1966): 98.

5David Willoughby, Comprehensive Musicianship and Undergraduate Music Curricula (CMP6) (Washington, D.C.: Music Educators Conference, 1971).

6Edward Applebaum, "A Practice of Narrowing Options: How the Theory-Based Curriculum Destroys Creativity," Music Educators Journal 58 (March 1972): 44-45.

7Willoughby, Comprehensive Musicianship, p. 38.

8Jerome S. Bruner, The Process of Education (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), p. 31.

9Larry J. Sledge, "The Application of Selected Writings of Gayne, Bruner, and Awsubel to Music Theory Pedagogy" (Ph.D. dissertation, The Florida State University, 1971), p. 55.

10Bruner, The Process of Education.

11Felix Salzer and Carl Schachter, Counterpoint in Composition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969).