Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 2

Table of Contents

Beyond Part Writing: Modernizing the Curriculum

David Kulma, Winthrop University
Meghan Naxer, University of Oregon

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.
L. Poundie Burstein

Burstein’s introductory article to the first volume of Engaging Students outlines the concerns of a music theory teacher in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Following Burstein’s lead, it seems fitting to reassess our goals as teachers and musicians as we consider our undergraduate theory core curriculum. Research in music theory has diversified in its stylistic reach and historical application, yet the breadth of tools and repertoire introduced to undergraduates has not changed alongside it. Not only has music theory changed, but music theory students have changed. To prepare our twenty-first-century students for their future as well rounded musicians, we need to give them more musical tools and expose them to more repertoires. Our students are already musicians when they walk in the door and we must acknowledge their extensive musical experience as listeners and performers. In order to integrate the core curriculum with the needs and incoming experience of our students, we must re-evaluate what we teach.

The content distribution in the typical core curriculum as outlined in many popular textbooks (Aldwell, Schachter and Cadwallader, Clendinning and Marvin, Kostka and Payne, Laitz, Roig-Francolí, Turek) heavily emphasizes part writing. We define part writing in its current pedagogical form as the specific combination of voice leading and harmonic syntax in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century styles that has appeared in textbooks since Walter Piston’s Harmony. It is the most-covered topic in these textbooks, and occupies the largest portion of our core sequence. Is this emphasis warranted?

Historically, part writing surfaced in the early nineteenth century as a way to handle harmony in the living compositional practice. However, musicians in the past century have moved beyond part writing as the only model of good music making. As Dmitri Tymoczko argues, we now have ways to consider the varied practices of twentieth- and twenty-first-century composers, medieval and Renaissance music, and popular music all as an extended common practice we can discuss with our students. This view of music history and style requires a more general approach, and de-emphasizes the centrality of eighteenth-century part writing.

In the classroom, part writing has obvious shortcomings. Students have difficulty sifting important ideas from stylistic idiosyncrasies. When they are faced with a prose-heavy textbook that emphasizes traditional common-practice music, they often come away with the feeling that part writing is equivalent to music theory, and then assume it is always applicable or wholly irrelevant. All of us know that music theory is more than what we teach our undergraduate students, but we rarely offer them glimpses into our full discipline. Reducing the time spent on part writing can open new worlds for students by incorporating recent music theory scholarship into their growing toolkit.

For those interested in newer pedagogical practices (flipped classes, video instruction, standards-based grading, online course materials, use of technology in class, inquiry-driven activities, etc.), these methods bolster our interest in creating well rounded musicians. Flipped and critical pedagogies focus even more on individual student learning in academic classrooms. This renewed emphasis requires re-examining our goals for our students, including:

  • giving students more autonomy and agency by incorporating their individual interests and needs
  • “putting the student, rather than the instructor or the progression of content, at the center of the class” – Kris Shaffer & Bryn Hughes
  • creating an environment where students can safely fail and learn from their mistakes, instead of being penalized
  • asking students to reflect on their experiences and progress

When part writing becomes a set of memorized rules rather than a flexible tool, it limits the engagement and agency of our students. By adopting these pedagogical goals and de-emphasizing part writing, we can create a better learning environment for our students, and recognize their musical intuitions and knowledge.

For instance, our students live with music full of parallel fifths. Modality is more common than common-practice tonality. These sounds are appealing to our students, and we should not spend as much time going against the grain of their incoming musicianship. We should find a way to build up from the foundation of this musicianship. But if we follow our traditional theory curriculum, we spend months marking student homework with errors that are stylistic in other time periods. Common practice part writing can remain a part of our theory sequence, but not as the main event. How can we bridge the gap between our students and part writing? What are our choices?

Here are some possible ways to transform our curriculums to de-emphasize common-practice part writing:

First, separate voice leading from harmony with a renewed emphasis on counterpoint and a more generalized study of chordal syntax.

Emphasizing counterpoint gives our students a tool that is more applicable across many style periods. It teaches them how to handle melody and dissonance with more skill. This choice separates harmonic syntax from voice leading, giving us the opportunity to introduce different styles and their distinct harmonic ideals. This philosophical approach is not a new construct, but one recognized by other theorists, most notably the treatment of harmony and counterpoint in separate volumes by Heinrich Schenker. Currently, more and more teachers are placing their own materials online, and Kris Shaffer’s upcoming open theory textbook follows a similar approach. We also recommend letting students create their own harmonic progressions as a process to learn harmonic syntax, without prior knowledge.

Second, expand part writing to move outside of the common practice. Include tonal compositional practices that allow for parallel fifths and modality. Incorporate popular music as its own worthwhile study.

Focus on guidelines rather than rules. Note tonal styles where parallel fifths sound good and exceptional places in Bach that require parallels. Twentieth-century tonal (and even atonal) music can be viewed through a part-writing lens; we just have to change our style expectations and how we guide our students as they mimic this music. Also teach students how to write the various harmonic cycles of popular music. Give them the opportunity to write pop songs on these cycles and let them make up their own progressions and compare them. Ask them how these chord variations change the mood, feel, etc. Encourage deeper learning through analytic thinking.

Third, teach part writing as a historical tool like organum, counterpoint, and twelve-tone theory. Greatly reduce the current focus and time spent on part writing.

Make part writing a special unit over a certain numbers of weeks. Dig deep into Bach and Mozart to give students an understanding of this regulated style. Have them write model compositions to give them stylistic facility, and then move onto other material. This opens up space to spend more time on fundamentals, form, aural skills in a combined course, and other topics already in place in the core curriculum. Also, more time can be devoted to less-often discussed musical styles: study earlier music (chant, organum and sixteenth-century counterpoint), popular music, neglected composers of the twentieth century (Sibelius, Hindemith, Vaughan Williams, Prokofiev, Copland, Britten, Shostakovich, Messiaen, etc.), and twenty-first-century music.

We advocate teaching voice leading separate from harmonic syntax and devoting less time to part writing. We should acknowledge the role of part writing in the history of music theory and adapt this content to be a flexible, applicable, and engaging tool for our students. Music has changed a great deal in the past hundred years, and in our increasingly digital age, we know that music will change even more over the next century. Music pedagogy is also changing rapidly as we explore new ways to engage with our students. We must embrace these differences and introduce flexibility into our classes now so that our students are ready to be twenty-first-century musicians.

This work is copyright ⓒ2014 David Kulma and Meghan Naxer and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.