Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy

Table of Contents

Music Theory Pedagogy in the iPhone Generation

L. Poundie Burstein, Hunter College and The Graduate Center, CUNY

The study of music theory involves investigating various matters that lie at the core of what is arguably the most powerful of the fine arts. In teaching and learning music theory, we examine how music is, can, or might be created, performed, and understood, as well as how music does, can, or might move and inspire us.

In earlier times and places, these various aspects of music theory training often were intertwined. This may be witnessed, for instance, in music theory treatises from the eighteenth century that combine the study of composition, keyboard performance, improvisation, and analysis in a holistic fashion. Such intermingling still remains common in certain areas of music theory instruction that take place outside the academy. For instance, modern private instructors of rock guitar, bluegrass banjo, or jazz saxophone often teach both creative and performance aspects to their students, even during the initial stages of their training. Yet such integration is not always so readily managed within a pluralistic university setting, where the students have diverse musical backgrounds and interests. Unlike in eighteenth-century Europe, today’s music theory teachers cannot assume that their students all define and relate to music in the same way. Even in classes devoted to popular music, professors cannot take it for granted that their students share similar tastes or goals.

As a result, addressing the specific needs and interests of individual students has become increasingly daunting. Music theory courses today tend to present general concepts through the study of one relatively specific musical style. In doing so, it is hoped that students in turn will be able apply these general concepts to the understanding of a variety of other styles, as well as to music production and reproduction. Unlike in some earlier eras, however, the study of performance and composition usually are probed only indirectly within the music theory classroom.

Yet today—no less than 250 years ago—students can hardly be expected to satisfactorily understand musical processes without holistic interaction with the subject. Classes that too strongly emphasize the abstract might be too dry or disconnected from musical reality. On the other hand, classes that too strongly emphasize specific techniques risk being too narrowly focused. Knowing how to negotiate between the extremes of over-abstraction and over-specificity forms a central challenge for the modern teacher of music theory.

The present e-volume explores these vital issues by discussing fresh possibilities for student-centered interactions in the field of music theory pedagogy. These include those brought about by new types of media. To be sure, new technologies pose a danger of encouraging passive learning, thus further disassociating students from the subject. If used in an innovative fashion, however, technologies can offer greater opportunities for allowing students to connect with the discipline of music theory. Indeed, such interconnections were promoted in the very making of this volume itself, which made use of crowd-sourcing in its construction.

In engaging with the essays in this volume, you might consider to what extent the strategies they offer may help inspire greater interactions within and among the various areas embraced by music theory. However they are achieved, the need for such interactions is one that can hardly be ignored by the modern music theory instructor. For the field of music theory pedagogy to continue to thrive within an increasingly pluralistic university setting, surely it must adopt new avenues for encouraging a student-centered, holistic approach to the subject.

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This work is copyright 2013 L. Poundie Burstein and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.