Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy

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Grammatica, Dialectica, Rhetorica: the Trivium in Music Theory Pedagogy

Enoch S. A. Jacobus, Berea, Kentucky

A great deal of the national conversation on education has centered on the latest trend and the use of technology in the classroom. While many of these ideas have merit, I find myself increasingly intrigued by the notion of combining new ideas with old ones—very old ones. I am referring to the trivium, that relic of medieval university curriculum to which we don’t give much recognition any more, even in liberal arts institutions. And on the face of it, why would we? Grammar, logic, rhetoric: these are great for giving a speech, but most of us don’t do that. Music belongs to the quadrivium, after all. But every field of study has its grammar, logic, and rhetoric, if we think of these words in more general terms. (All dictionary references from New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.vv. “grammar,” “dialectic,” “rhetoric,” and “trivium.”)


__grammar ˈgramər __ noun

the whole system and structure of a language or of languages in general, usually taken as consisting of syntax and morphology.

ORIGIN late Middle English: from Old French gramaire, via Latin from Greek grammatikē (tekhnē) ‘(art) of letters,’ from gramma, grammat- ‘letter of the alphabet, thing written.

What do students normally think of as music theory? Probably what we in the discipline would only consider the “nuts and bolts.” Constructs like scales, intervals, and time signatures are these nuts and bolts, a kind of musical grammar. But so often my students think music theory is the identification of such things; that in labeling the Roman numerals or identifying the tone row they are “doing theory.” For a long time as an undergraduate, I thought that doing analysis meant accounting for and classifying every note in the score. I fear most students make that mistake, believing that information alone will get them through the gauntlet of the undergraduate music theory curriculum. And perhaps I am to blame for failing to dissuade them of that delusion. If the assignments I hand out and the exams I proctor are entirely focused on getting students to identify, define, and label musical data, then I can hardly blame them for thinking that’s all there is. Medieval scholars knew, as do we, that one may understand what a nail and hammer are, but knowing neither builds the house, nor makes it a particularly solid house. This brings us to dialectic.


__dialectic ˌdīəˈlektik __ noun

the art of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions.

ORIGIN late Middle English: from Old French dialectique or Latin dialectica, from Greek dialektikē (tekhnē) ‘(art) of debate,’ from dialegesthai ‘converse with.

Once we know what the materials are and what they do, how are they put together to form something we recognize as a house? What underlying logic makes sense of an assemblage of wood and nails? The second member of the trivium, dialectic (logic), helps us arrange information (the nuts and bolts) into meaningful patterns, so dialectic here does not mean merely syllogizing to win an argument. It is particularly relevant to music theory, which is predicated on the belief that there is an internal logic to the way music unfolds. When a new way of unfolding (in the colloquial sense, not the Schenkerian) is invented, music theorists work to unlock that logic. The cadential second-inversion triad is so called because it logically flows to the dominant just before a cadence. Some students get this; they are the ones who can transfer a concept learned in one example and apply it to a new one.

Musical logic underlies all of Peter Schickele’s musical humor. Imagine listening to P.D.Q. Bach’s Short-Tempered Clavier as a student versed only in the music’s grammar. Although we could identify the blues scale used in the C major prelude, we would miss the joke of such a phenomenon occurring in a piece supposedly written in the early eighteenth century. A student might pick up on the fact that something sounded amiss, but may not know why.

I, as a teacher, have a responsibility to draw students’ attention to the underlying dialectic. For this reason, I frequently differentiate between the way a particular musical phenomenon might appear “in the wild” as opposed to “in the zoo.” I want my students to understand that under the controlled laboratory conditions of the classroom, we tend to see clear, obvious examples. I want to balance that out by giving them “field experience,” where they may have to sort out a number of factors that muddy the waters. At this stage, they should know how to wield a hammer and how to put a house together (i.e., put up the walls before the roof).


__rhetoric ˈretərik __ noun

the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, esp. the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.

ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French rethorique, via Latin from Greek rhētorikē (tekhnē) ‘(art) of rhetoric,’ from rhētōr ‘rhetor.

Is the house well designed? Can we look at its structure and appreciate the architect’s gift for form and function, light and darkness, line and space? Can we design and build our own house? Rhetoric is the skillful employment of grammar and dialectic. In music theory it equips students to evaluate and draw out some significance to their analysis. Ultimately, it isn’t the labels that make me a musician; nor is it understanding the logic of musical mechanics. The rhetoric of music involves not only its technical correctness but also its artfulness.

Compare a student’s attempt at writing a fugue exposition to one of Bach’s, and one can immediately see that even if the technical requirements are correct, the student’s composition will lack the rhetorical elegance of Bach’s. Asking students why they chose their respective solutions can lead them into a more considered approach. Following this up with a discussion that compares their versions with Bach’s would make it more readily apparent under what circumstances he “broke the rules,” and how he got out of part-writing jams. This is why composition projects can fill such a vital role in a student’s music theory education. Such projects push students beyond simply identifying musical events and toward creating technically, musically satisfying solutions. We start with part-writing exercises, which lean more toward dialectic than rhetoric. Composition projects, such as harmonizing a preexisting melody, can move students into a deeper engagement with the rhetoric of music. Further still, students can write their own melodies and then harmonize them. Over the span of multiple classes, students are led into rhetorical thinking.

Writing analytical prose can accomplish similar rhetorical goals, provided we encourage students to avoid the onerous “play-by-play.” We do students a disservice if we wait until their final year or two before asking them to write analytical prose of any substantial length. Early attempts need not be long; even in the first year of study, a paragraph or two may be a good place to start.

The Place Where Three Roads Meet

__trivium ˈtrivēəm __ noun

an introductory curriculum at a medieval university involving the study of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

ORIGIN early 19th cent.: from Latin, literally ‘place where three roads meet,’ from tri- ‘three’ + via ‘road.

I have already implied that these three echelons of pedagogy are somewhat artificial because they can exist simultaneously. Ideally, the curriculum would entail cognitive progression operating on multiple levels. Even as each class period progressed from grammar to dialectic to rhetoric, on a larger scale, the school term would begin with heavy emphasis on grammar, gradually lean more on dialectic as the term continued, and finally end with greater practice in rhetoric—rather like the nested elements of a compound form. I think cognitive progression is the assumed direction of many music departments, but I am unaware of many that intentionally communicate this to students.

Although the trivium may seem an archaic notion, one may find it surprisingly resilient in light of more recent innovations in education. The trivium bears striking congruence with the schema of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom essentially subdivides each part of the trivium into two subcategories (grammar = knowledge and comprehension; dialectic = application and analysis; rhetoric = synthesis and creation. For another investigation of Bloom’s taxonomy as it relates to music learning, see this article by Deborah Rifkin and Philip Stoeker). But the goal is the same—progression from fundamental knowledge to understanding how it is assembled and eventually to value judgements and creation of new ideas—from engagement with music that is shallow to deep. I don’t want my students to splash in the kiddie pool and think it’s the ocean.

This interpretive renewal of the trivium blends well with that of the inverted classroom. The lecture, often freighted with music’s grammar, leaves little time for in-depth analysis or evaluation. The traditional lecture, like textbook reading, is essentially an info dump that, when moved outside of class, frees the class period for higher levels of cognition and musicality. For my part, I want students to graduate beyond the sterility of pedagogical examples to the organic, sometimes gritty, mysteries of real music as soon and as much as possible. What better way than to disseminate the basic information in pre-recorded lectures and model for them how music theory can enhance their listening experiences, performance decisions, compositions, and appreciation for those of others.

(For further reading on this topic, please see this transcribed lecture by Dorothy Sayers.)

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This work is copyright 2013 Enoch Jacobus and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.