05 October 2013


A typically green New Music Box article about teaching 4-part writing develops into an atypically productive and stimulating discussion. Commenter Sam L. Richards makes, for me, the key contribution, which deserves to be reblogged at length:

I think if the classroom is going to focus on four-part writing, there must be a sufficient justification for doing so; there must be a sufficient justification for placing a particular style of chorale writing of a particular Austro-Germanic composer from a very particular time period at the center of our 21st-century music pedagogy. When viewed like this, our four-part pedagogical preoccupations appear to be a rather specialized skill. Indeed, writing a good four-part chorale is a rather specialized skill, as is writing a Chopin-like nocturne, a Webern-like short, an Adams-like whirlwind, or a Muhly-like musing. [SK interjects: Dude, you're on a roll here, but please never utter that last name in the company of the other three again.] Bach-like chorale writing is a prerequisite to none of these.

It is important to also acknowledge that a four-part writing centric pedagogy also necessarily, yet often clandestinely, emphasizes and educates with only a few musical parameters in mind: pitch and harmony. Timbre, texture, trajectory, energetics, emotion, rhythm, meaning, cognition, context, feminism, an engagement of philosophical aesthetics, et al are usually not only marginalized, but not engaged at all. These are not advanced subjects whose reservation for a graduate course can be easily justified.
[SK's emphasis added] They are now essential elements of the current musico-theoretical discourse. Most of the parameters which appear in my partial list above can easily be engaged in conjunction with pitch and harmony; in other words, one need not first master the esoteric art of baroque part-writing before they begin to engage musical meaning. One need not learn to mimic the chorale style of a particular period in order to learn about energetics. The limited mode in which pitch and harmony are so frequently taught is not a prerequisite to musical learning, musical thinking, or, to invoke the late Adam Krims, an engagement of “theory about music”.

I fear that our pedagogy often educates our students into cultural irrelevance instead of out of it. While acknowledging that such a style, no doubt, possesses harmonic, and voice-leading similarities to many other styles, placing it at the center or treating it as a foundation of one’s early musical training (or later musical training) is not only a pedagogical move, but an aesthetic one which serves to marginalize other styles which do not “adhere” to its practices.

Can I get an amen, hold the plagal cadence?

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