About a month ago, my professor and mentor, Brian Head, asked me to come up with the 10 most important reasons for an undergraduate music student to study music theory and aural skills. He and I (mostly he) are reworking the freshman and sophomore theory curriculum at USC so that it can serve the diverse educational goals that exist at this school. This is no easy task, as USC offers majors in music industry, popular music, composition, as well as the usual (and some unusual) performance-oriented majors. But I come from a background that emphasizes the liberal arts, which to me means that learning ought not to be a means to an end, but an end unto itself. In other words, we best serve ourselves as learners and musicians when we learn as much as possible without an a priori agenda. I’ve seen in many of my own students a selective approach to learning that often leads to failure. This happens because 18- and 19-year-old students cannot know what any one piece of their education will mean to them five or ten years in the future. I made similar mistakes as an undergraduate and will do anything I can as an educator to break that trend. So with that in mind, here, are my Top 10 Reasons to Study Music Theory and Aural Skills:
- To understand how music works. It really doesn’t matter what your particular field of music will ultimately be, music theory and aural skills gives you insight into how all the notes and rhythms are put together in a composition. Understanding this opens up doors to your own enjoyment of music as well as your comprehension of something that is mystifying to everyone else. If there is anything a graduate from a music school should know, it is a basic insight into how and why great composers and performers do what they do. This includes everything from rhythm, notes, and scales to harmony, voice-leading, and form.
- To be able to critically listen to music. We can all hear music. That is one of the greatest things about the art. But music students must learn how to listen critically to what he or she hears, identify what it is, and be able to speak intelligently about it. For me, this is what defines an expert. Of course, there is a wide range of nuances to listen for – should we stop at major and minor scales, or do we work for an aural understanding of Schoenbergian tone rows. Popular music producers may not need to identify the German sixth chord in the middle of a Beethoven sonata and classical pianists probably won’t need to identify Renaissance instruments, but who are we as educators to limit that knowledge. In any aural skills course, we should be teaching students how to listen for and identify the vast majority of what is written on the score, and the tools to research that which is not immediately obvious.
- To write and perform music accurately. This is a point that I think may be overlooked in many theory classes. But theory class was always the most engaging for me when I was asked to be creative. Performance majors practice for several hours every day, so why not allow them the chance to shine in their academic class (and be held as accountable as they would be for their private teachers). Composing in the styles being discussed is perhaps the best way to internalize concepts such as harmony, voice leading, counterpoint, phrase structure, and all the other details of music. Regular composition and performance exercises in theory and aural skills will not only improve understanding, but it may also make the abstract concepts meaningful in a real-world context.
- To be able to detect errors (and other deviations from the score). I had an interesting experience in a music history class this summer. Listening to and following scores of works that relied on musica ficta, I noticed on several occasions that performers often disagreed on how the ficta ought to be executed. This generated a great deal of conversation about performance practice and the amount of control performers of Renaissance music had and still have over compositions. Conductors, educators, music producers, and recording artists need the same sharpened listening skills. But the point is that you never know, as a musician, when error detection will come in handy. We can focus on this from day one in aural skills and hone it regularly.
- To be able to sight read well. This is so important for musicians of Western music because ours is a written tradition. Even if one is not on course to be a performer, everyone will benefit from being able to read accurately and effortlessly. Obviously, there is a mechanical element to this for instrumentalists that will only be achieved through hours of practice on one’s particular instrument, but the core of sight reading is being able to hear what you see. Sight singing class is the best place to focus on this strength, but in theory and aural skills, we can sing through examples and follow scores as much as possible to supplement it.
- To understand the styles and genres of Western music. Individual instructors will have to set practical limits on how much to include in their curriculum, but having an understanding of the styles and genres of the common practice and modern pop and jazz is a good place to start. Music is an elegant history of the evolution of cultures and the styles and genres in which composers write can tell us a lot about what was going on in society at large. Look at, for example, the way in which opera grew along side the emerging middle class, or how the hyper-rational serialist works of post-WWII Europe reflect a disillusionment with human passion. These connections to real human events, through a discussion of styles and genres, sew music into the fabric of human history.
- To be exposed to unfamiliar music.Exposing students to music they have never heard provides an opportunity to not only familiarize them with the literature, but also to practice unbiased listening. Early music and non-Western styles are often omitted from time-restrained theory classes, but an occasional sampling of these and other unfamiliar works can lead to discussions on how music operates outside the bounds of tonality. Exposure means nothing, however, if there is no fruitful discussion or writing, so listening should accompany the lecture or writing assignments.
- To be familiar with the masterworks of Western music. Music theory is nothing more than a codification of the works that are the most meaningful to us. If we neglect to show why the rules and procedures are so important – that is, how they produce effective works of art – we miss the point of theory entirely. But we cannot limit the canon to the works of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. We must also include Bill Evans, the Beatles, and Billy Joel. The masterworks can be used as either a point of departure, works for analysis, or a summation of the concepts discussed in class, but their presence must be ubiquitous to keep students focused on the crux of music theory.
- To improve critical reasoning skills. Though this is not specific to music (and admittedly stemming from my own liberal education), I believe we cannot consider music theory apart from the greater academic objectives of higher learning. College students, especially freshmen and sophomores, are struggling to recover from the “monkey see, monkey do” education of high school. In every college course, including music ones, we need to invite students to think beyond the exam and maximize their learning skills. Music theory classes are especially good places to sharpen critical thinking because we have a great deal of information that needs to be processed in a short amount of time when listening to or writing about music. Music theory classes can benefit greatly from one or two high-stakes writing assignments that ask students to make strong statements and back them up with evidence. Class discussion will multiply that effect as students will certainly have much to say after putting their thoughts into words.
- To develop excellent scholarship. It is important for music theory instructors to help students learn how to learn. Theory and aural skills classes are among the few academic classes a music major will take within the music curriculum. And it is often the very first academic class an incoming freshman will enter as a college student. It is therefore crucial for theory and aural skills instructors to set the bar high for mastery and learning, to guide the student through the rigors of higher education, and to continually communicate with them on how to improve their performance. Music theory instructors see their students with more frequency than many private teachers do, so they are in a unique position to hold their students accountable on a frequent and regular basis. Good scholarship learned early will set every student up for success in whatever area of music they ultimately decide to pursue.
What did you feel was the most valuable things you learned in college theory/aural skills? Did I miss anything here?