Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 5

Table of Contents

Towards a Curriculum in Public Music Theory

J. Daniel Jenkins, University of South Carolina

A few years ago, when teaching an undergraduate theory class, I was having difficulty getting across the concept of monotonality. Suddenly, I remembered a clip from the animated program Family Guy. In this clip, the character Stewie, using only the term “chord,” explains the primacy of a tonic in monotonal composition. He suggests that his song is a harmonic journey beginning on a G major chord (“here I am in my house, nice and cozy”), proceeding through other diatonic chords in the key of G major (“talking a walk outside”), and returning to the tonic of G major (“and then I go back to my house”). For the rest of the semester, whenever the students were having difficulty analyzing a passage that was away from the home key, we talked about the eventuality of “going back to the house,” and it was clear to me that they understood the concept of monotonality.

There is nothing original or unique about Stewie’s metaphor of tonic as “home,” or in this case, returning to tonic as going “back to my house.” For example, Leonard Bernstein used the phrase “home plate” to refer to the tonic in his Young People’s Concert on the topic of sonata form. And while there is a certainly a question of the authorial intention, I would argue that both the Family Guy clip and Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert are examples of public music theory. In fact, public music theory has a long history that includes figures such as Bernstein, Keller, Schoenberg, Tovey, and many others. In order to understand the concept better, I taught a graduate-level class called Public Music Theory in fall 2016. In this essay, I will briefly discuss the content of the course, and focus on one assignment in particular. I am hopeful that it will spark discussion about what a curriculum in public music theory might be and about public music theory in general.

At the time I was teaching sophomores about modulation, I was also preparing an edition of Schoenberg’s program notes and musical analyses of his own music. His writings about his own music include not only program notes, but also public lectures, radio broadcasts, record jacket liner notes, and a script for a TV broadcast—media and venues that were accessible to a general public. It became clear that were he alive today, Schoenberg would have embraced blogs, podcasts, YouTube, and other novel opportunities available in our current media landscape. It seemed wherever I looked, in media both old and new, examples emerged that were geared to, or accessible to, a general audience that served to help listeners better understand a musical work, musical phenomena, compositional process, or musical effect. This eclectic collection of scholarship, journalism, podcasts, videocasts, and other various items became the content of the public music theory course.

Course outline

As the syllabus for the course shows, course content focused first on the media through which and venues in which one might produce public music theory. These included program notes, pre-concert lectures, radio, liner notes, television, podcasts, videocasts, and blogs. I filled out the schedule with topical discussions, including popular music, music cognition, and the role of musical analysis in music copyright disputes and other forensics. (The examples given in these links and in the syllabus are but a representative sample of the materials we looked at.) There were 20 graduate students in the course, representing a variety of the majors: PhD Music Education, DMA Performance (10), DMA Choral Conducting (2), DMA Piano Pedagogy (2), DMA Composition, MM Opera Theater (2), and MM Performance (2).

My goal for this course was to get students to both create and evaluate examples of public music theory, in the various forms that might take. While students received credit for reading and viewing the assigned material, mostly they were assessed on their ability to create examples of public music theory. For each medium we addressed, the students and I read or viewed examples of that public music theory in that medium and critiqued them, discussing those elements that contributed to a successful example of public music theory. From those discussions, we developed a rubric for each assignment that reflected the values that the students and I had agreed on. Through this process, students were able to take ownership in their assessment. Unfortunately, space will not allow a thorough discussion of all of the assignments. Thus, the remainder of the essay will focus on one particular medium of public music theory: program notes.

Program Notes as Public Music Theory

Consider program notes as an example. We began by reading scholarship by Lisa Margulis, Christian Thorau, and Jonathan Waxman about the history and effectiveness of program notes. We also read examples of notes by Donald Francis Tovey, as well as contemporary writers. We discussed the readings and critiqued the arguments, and talked about what made a good program note. One thing the students were particularly struck by was the role that music notation played in program notes early in the twentieth century—a role it no longer seems to play. We discussed the reasons for this change, which lead to a consideration of the role of music education in the public schools, the demise in the number of homes with a piano, the decrease in the number of middle-class parents who believed that their children must study a musical instrument, and other factors. By and large, the students concluded that you could not assume the knowledge of musical notation in writing program notes today. Thus, we ended up talking about alternative program note formats in both print and other media, including the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s listening guides and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s LiveNote app. With such innovations noted, we agreed the primary medium for program notes is still the written word, and thus, the students were tasked with writing program notes.

We created a Google Doc called “What makes a good program note?” that they all contributed to. According to the students’ comments, good program notes are concise, interesting, and engaging. They make connections between historical and contextual information and musical elements. They use audience-friendly language and avoid jargon. If there is texted music, the program includes translations, discussion of the librettist, and if it is an opera, discussion of the plot.

From this discussion, I developed a program note grading rubric with four main categories: one, the balance between historical, dramatic, and structural information; two, accuracy of the information; three, tone and terminology; and four, quality of the prose and grammar. First, the rubric rewards notes that balance historical, dramatic, and structural information. The terms dramatic and structural come from Lisa Margulis’s work on how program notes aid audience enjoyment. Dramatic statements focus on the expressive effects of the music. Structural statements are more analytical in nature and likely include some musical terminology. The second item on the rubric, the issue of accuracy, is something that the students discussed continually throughout the course. We would find that authors would make fanciful statements that created a good story or made audience members feel like the author had gotten to a kind of “truth,” but statements which nonetheless could not be substantiated. The rubric also rewarded careful attention to tone and terminology, which made the students continually think of their audience, and to find ways to avoid jargon or provide succinct definitions for musical terms. Finally, there were categories for the quality of the prose and for grammatical errors.

Due dates for the program notes were spaced throughout the semester. First, students submitted a concert program and roughly 1/3 of the notes. The students were encouraged to choose a program of music that they were going to perform, conduct, or compose. Most of the students did this, though some students made up programs of works that they would like to perform in the future or would like to know more about. I gave the students immediate feedback in written form, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of their approach. For the next two classes students submitted an additional third of the notes—a manageable amount of writing for them (and grading for me). During the rest of September and October, the students focused on other assignments, such as podcasts, videocasts, and blog posts. A second complete draft of notes were due at the beginning of November. This draft was optional, but several students took advantage of the opportunity to get feedback. The final program notes were due on the last day of class.

By the end of the course, most of students had demonstrated the ability to write effective, engaged program notes. I think program notes presented a greater challenge to vocalists and those studying opera theater. This likely reflects the fact that program notes were developed for orchestral concerts, not Liederabend or operas (save for Wagner, of course). At first, students whose programs were comprised of lieder or an opera often wrote more about story or character development than music. I did insist that they link their observations to musical phenomenon, in order to guide the audience as listeners. I would argue that their reticence reflected less a lack of desire on their part, and more a lack of models of these kinds of program notes for some types of vocal performances.

Some students used their program notes for actual concerts. One student, a choral conducting major, is also the conductor of Charlotte’s One Voice LGBT Chorus. He wrote extensive program notes for Codebreaker by James McCarthy, a cantata about the life of the British mathematician Alan Turing. These notes were then published in the program when he conducted the North American premiere of the work in spring 2017. Two other students, both non-native English speakers, not only wrote program notes for their solo recitals, but also put what they learned to use beyond fulfilling their assignment for the class, writing program notes for the end of semester concert of the graduate string quartet.

For other assignments, including podcasts, videocasts, and blog posts, the students and I reviewed and critiqued examples, and discussed the opportunities and challenges that each medium presented. Using the program note rubric as a point of departure, we worked together to develop rubrics for each assignment, deciding on what was most important. Students with no background in producing these items quickly learned how to create a podcast episode with Audacity and to make screen capture videos using PowerPoint or Screencast-O-Matic. Students wrote scripts for the podcasts and videocasts and drafts of their blogs. Unlike the program notes assignment, where the student received feedback from me before the final version was submitted, these assignments went through a peer review process before they were recorded or finalized. The students chose their own topics for the podcasts, videocasts, and blog posts. While some students chose to focus on repertoire they performed or heard performed, others chose more issue-oriented or historical topics.

Positive Takeaways and Lingering Challenges

As I reflect on this course and think about future iterations of the course, I note some positive takeaways and some lingering challenges and questions.

Positive Takeaways:

Critical thinking – In other graduate courses I teach, such as Schenkerian Analysis, Theories of Rhythm and Meter, and Tonality in the Twentieth Century, we spend so much time trying to understand a theory or methodology that students never reach the point of engaging in informed critique of that theory or methodology. This was not true of the material in the public music theory course, and it was very gratifying to see students employ their critical thinking skills in every aspect of the course, from content to style and presentation.

Relevance – Because the students chose their own repertoire and topics, the course was obviously relevant to their music-making.

Student Engagement – The level of student engagement with the course content was quite high. Most, if not all, of the students had read or viewed the assigned material before coming to class. Numerous times, I had to cut off discussion in order to end class on time.

Written and oral work – The students really had to hone their writing and public speaking skills in order to be successful in the course. Some students already wrote well when they began the class, but others showed considerable improvement with both written and spoken English. I think the course was especially beneficial in this regard for non-native English speakers.

Application to undergraduate teaching – Any of these assignments could easily be adapted to any level of undergraduate music theory, and one could likely teach an upper-division course in public music theory for undergraduate students.

Lingering Challenges:

Workload – By the end of the semester, it was clear that I had been too ambitious with the workload for the course. The students were troopers about it, but I will adjust this in future iterations of the course. I will make some of the required reading optional, eliminate a couple of topics, and provide more time to complete podcasts and videocasts.

Community Engagement – In future iterations of the course, there could be somewhat less focus on media, making more time for a community engagement project. The essays in this volume by Bourne, Peebles, and Williams give excellent examples of the types of community engagement projects that could be undertaken.

Expertise – Unlike other graduate-level theory courses I teach, where I know all the readings, repertoire, and topics quite well, it was not possible for me to be intimately familiar with every topic or piece of music the students wrote or spoke about. This is not a problem so much as it was a challenge—not just to me, but to music theory in general, to engage with more diverse topics and repertoire.

Public – Perhaps the most profound topic we discussed over the course of the semester was “who is the public?” This lead to an interesting discussion about how traditional modes of public music theory are geared at an older, whiter, upper-middle- and upper-class, urban audience. Coming to terms with that issue has consequences far beyond the context of any course, much less one in music theory. But, it was exciting to have such a conversation—a conversation I have never had in any of my other classes. Who are we trying to reach out to and what are we trying to say to them? If a curriculum in public music theory can help our students put those questions in the forefront, perhaps everything else will work itself out.

This work is copyright ©2017 J. Daniel Jenkins and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.