Peter Lucas Hulen

Teaching Music Theory

TeachingPractically speaking, music theory is mainly about tonal, post-tonal and atonal harmony; however, in order to study harmony one must understand other elements of music: melody, rhythm, texture and form.

In terms of pedagogy I think students ultimately need to to integrate music theory, aural skills, performance, and the sociocultural/historical contexts of music. This might suggest a comprehensive approach; however, I don't think students are ready for this integration until the upper division. They need to learn each sub-discipline on its own terms first albeit with as much cross-referencing as possible.

This rest of this page reviews textbooks and will probably only be of interest to music theorists.

When I was a Teaching Assistant at Michigan State we used Harmony and Voice Leading by Aldwell and Schachter. It has a very strong focus on linearity (vis-à-vis simultaneity), is informed by Schenkerian analysis, and is very dense and detailed. We Ph.D. students loved it and our professors regarded it highly; however, I don't think it is the best text for systematically introducing basic concepts at the lower-division level.

At some point MSU switched to Tonal Harmony by Kostka and Payne. I used it when I taught at Lansing Community College and have continued to use it at Wabash College. The main weakness with the Kostka and Payne is that it doesn't focus enough on linearity. I always stop in the middle of Theory I and present a self-made unit on cantus firmus and first and second species counterpoint just to give students a sense of single- and multi-line contour. I think their voice leading is ultimately better for it.

I was excited about The Musician's Guide to Theory and Analysis by Clendinning and Marvin. Reading through an examination copy confirmed that it would make up for the Kostka and Payne's shortcomings, and I was ready to adopt it. The workbook put an end to those plans, and showed me what is good about the Kostka and Payne: its layer-on-layer systematic building of concepts and algorithms for both inductive and deductive analysis.

The material in the Clendinning and Marvin is presented systematically enough. The problem is this: From the beginning to the end, it is necessary for a student to master an entire chapter before doing problem number 1 in the workbook. I would have to lecture for days without giving any assignments, and then pile them on at the end just when it was time to move on. I can't teach like that, and students can't learn concepts and skills as well.

The great strength of the Kostka and Payne is that it breaks down analytical concepts and problems into subsets that can be practiced and mastered while more complex overall concepts are being built up day by day. By the time students reach the end of a chapter, they are better able to apply complex skills and concepts for having built them up in layers. The Kostka and Payne still requires supplementing, for both counterpoint and atonal harmony, coverage of which is improved but still weak. But in pedagogical terms it is brilliant. I'm sticking with it for the foreseeable.