Last term I met weekly with my advisor in a one-on-one seminar class we designed. I had to write a brief paper to outlines our activities over the course of the term, so I thought I’d post it here, too.
We began our term with a meeting to discuss my goals and interests in a seminar. My goals were a bit vague, but essentially I was looking for an introduction to major topics in Western music theory. After some discussion and brainstorming, we decided that the Cambridge History of Western Music Theory would make a good textbook for such an introduction. We outlined a method for our study: we’d assign 1-2 essays from the book to read each week, and then we’d meet to discuss them and decide new directions.
We began with the first essay in the book, Mapping the Terrain, by Leslie Blasius. In this essay, Blasius discusses what constitutes “music theory.” He begins by examining pre-16th century writers and theoreticians, whose writings he says are often concerned with uncovering universal relationships evident in music. From about the 16th century through to the early 19th century, the influence of rationalist and empiricist philosophies takes hold, and writers in these times concern themselves with creating taxonomies & encyclopedias of music and musical practice. We also see a distinction emerge in this period between harmonic theories and theories of musical affect, which endures through the early 20th century. Also in the 20th century, with the rise of philosophical perspectives that value subjectivity, theorists begin to posit their “own” particular theories of music, divorced from other thinkers and from historical context. As the century progresses, music theory and music studies become increasingly removed from one another, such that they are often considered entirely separate fields.
Our next project was Nicholas Cook’s Epistemologies of Music Theory. In this complicated essay, Cook discusses the epistemological problems of music theory, many of which he argues can be seen as problems reconciling empirical observation with systematic coherence. He frames these problems by contrasting the perspectives of theorists who argue for a ‘natural order’ to musical phenomena with those who argue that music is principally a human or ‘artistic’ endeavor. In the late 19th and early 20th century, he says, each of these seemingly distinct perspectives become points on a continuum of belief for theorists, and many see music as a “compromise between nature and art.” In the late 20th century, theorists like Lewin advocate a perspective that focuses on the utility of a theory for performance and analysis, rather than the ‘truth-value’ of a theory.
Next, we read an essay on Greek music theory by Thomas Matthiesen. We learned about the Pythagoreans, who believed that the important truths about music were found in its harmonious reflection of mathematical relationships, which represented the ‘ultimate’ reality. They were unconcerned with musical practice, but had many ideas about harmony and consonance that influenced Greek and later Western music practice. We learned about the Harmonicists, who attempted to apply Pythagorean mathematical principles to at least some of the elements of musical practice, and whose notions of harmony and consonance differed slightly from those of the Pythagoreans. We also learned about Aristoxenus and his followers, who were concerned with the philosophical and practical definitions necessary to reflect a view of “musical reality.” The Aristoxenians created 7 distinct categories of musical inquiry – Notes, Invervals, Genera, Scales, Tonoi, Harmoniai, Modulation, and Melody – and developed theories related to each that had far-reaching implications for early Western music theory.
We turned next to a study of Tonality, beginning with Bryan Hyer’s essay Tonality. Hyer’s essay is to a study of tonality what Blasius’ essay is to music theory in general; in it, he first discusses the many meanings that theorists may ascribe to the term tonality, and he then outlines a historical overview of how tonality (music arranged around a referential tonic) has changed in rhetoric, theory and practice from the 17th century to the present. He describes two main historical traditions of theoretical conceptualization: function theories, associated with the writings of Rameau and Riemann, and scale-degree theories, associated with Schenker and Weber. He discusses how tonality changed in music practice through the same period, focusing principally on the differences between late Renaissance, Classical, and Romantic music. Hyer finishes by talking about the rhetoric involved in our contemporary narrative of the ‘progress’ of tonality, showing an ironic (or maybe just appropriate?) teleological tendency in our historical perspective.
Next we read essays on Rameau (Joel Lester), 19th century Austro-German harmonic theories (David Bernstein), and Schenker (William Drabkin). Each of these essays discussed the work of major harmonic theorists. Lester’s essay describes Rameau’s 18th century theory of the fundamental bass and his development of harmonic ‘categories’ (tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant), which laid the groundwork for both the ‘function’ and ‘scale-degree’ theories that became well-developed in the next two centuries and beyond. Bernstein’s essay picks up where Lester’s leaves off, tracing the lineage of contemporary scale-degree, fundamental bass, and function theories through important Austro-German writers: Vogler and Weber lay the groundwork for scale-degree theory, Sechter and Mayrberger develop Rameau’s fundamental bass, and Riemann builds on Rameau’s function theory. Bernstein also discusses Schoenberg, whose theories of harmony have some resonances with Sechter, but are considered distinct. Drabkin’s essay gives an overview of Schenker’s compelling scale degree (stufe) theory, including his ideas of the urlinie; the background, middle-ground and foreground ‘levels’ of tonal works; techniques of prolongation; and the concept of linearity. He also gives a brief context for the emergence of Schenker’s ideas in the writings of Goethe, and discusses the reception of his theories, which was apparently quite cold in the beginning.
After we’d completed a brief survey of major ideas and movements in tonality, we decided to move on to a bit of listening and analysis. Using Allan Cadwallader’s book Analysis of Tonal Music as a guide, we worked on some preliminary analyses of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 2 No. 1 from a modern Schenkerian perpective. We discovered a particular descending 6th motive that appears in various guises throughout of the piece, demonstrating what Schenker might call techniques of prolongation and elaboration, and we saw how Schenkerian analysis can reveal the harmonic relationships that underlay the formal sections of the sonata. We also discussed how analyses like these can change how we perceive a piece of music when we hear it, often times helping us to appreciate them in a deeper, more meaningful way.
Our final meetings were spent discussing future directions. We agreed to continue to meet, and we decided on a couple of writing/research projects to undertake. One of these is this summary of our activities through the term. The other (or possibly others) is a general study of the broad philosophical contexts that existed at the time that major harmonic theories arose. Our hope is to reveal possible relationships between major philosophical movements and major harmonic theories, and to gain a deeper understanding of both in the process. We’re still working out the details of what this second project will include, but at present it looks like it may include analyses of music using three different analytical approaches, with some writing on the historical and philosophical context for each.