02 December 2011

Why Music Theory?

The study of musical theory, especially at pre-university/conservatory level, is very rare.  The apparent spike of interest in the subject amongst younger students is wholly due to the obligation on those taking ABRSM graded practical exams at grade 6 and beyond to have passed a grade 5 theory exam.  Educationally this makes sense, as a basic understanding in theory is absolutely essential in anyone wanting to take music in any shape or form seriously.  But in reality it probably does more harm than good, since those teaching it are usually instrumental teachers whose obligation is to get their students to pass the exam and so, themselves, have a very peripheral interest in and knowledge of the subject.  Music theory is one of those subjects which is uniformly badly taught and becomes a matter of deep interest only once the student has broken away from the teacher and has the time and luxury to investigate its charms unaided.

The charms of theoretical trills!
Enough to make Beethoven go mad?
I love musical theory, but readily confess to having hated it as a student.  All those hours spent dissecting trills into upper and lower auxiliaries, counting up the number of notes to make the required multiples of four, working out whether to add a triplet or quintuplet to get it to finish on the right note, the murky world of mordents, inverted mordents, turns on the notes, turns after the note, not to mention learning by rote those reams of alien Italian, German and French terms and remembering names for harmless little signs which you had no problem playing, but never knew their proper name – is that an appoggiatura or an acciaccatura, is that a tenuto sign of a marcato sign?   When I did my statutory study of theory to get through ABRSM grade 5, my teacher made no attempt to instil any enthusiasm into the subject nor, indeed, relate it to what I was doing in my practical lessons, and, despite getting the usual 99 marks in the exam (ABRSM used to – perhaps still do – mark theory exams out of 99 merely to imply that nobody could ever get 100; something they certainly still do in practical exams, banning their examiners from issuing top marks at any level) I remained completely disinterested in theory right through my university days.

And that dislike of theory is widespread.  Ask teachers and students why they choose to do Trinity practical exams over ABRSM at the upper grades, almost always the response is, "Because Trinity doesn't need you to do any theory". 

Superficially, this is absolutely right; there is no theory pre-qualification demanded at any stage in the Trinity exams.  In actuality, however, it is wrong, for there is a theoretical element in all Trinity practical exams.  This might take the form of Musical Knowledge questions - which by grade 4 require a pretty extensive knowledge of key relationships and modulations and by grade 5 extend to an understanding or musical form and structure, while all the way along expecting a thorough understanding of the signs, terms and ornaments the students encounter in the music they play – or Aural Tests – which are based around the aural (and from grade 3 visual) identification of those same elements in a piece of music.  On top of that, just as in any other exam board, an understanding of theory is essential for a successful performance of the set pieces.  How can you, for example, give a good performance of a Grade 3 Gigue if you do not understand the concept of compound time or, at its most basic, play a Grade 1 Allegro, if you do not know what Allegro means?  Theory is part and parcel of any musical performance, and it is a shame that, if it is taught at all, it is generally done execrably.

I often allude to what I describe as the Dolce question.  Ask a student what Dolce means and they will nearly all answer "Sweetly".  Correct, so far as it goes, but then ask them what that means and they are stumped.  If a composer writes Dolce above a phrase, just knowing what Dolce means is pointless; you need to apply the theoretical knowledge to the practicality of a performance.  Theory is an integral part of any performance, not an adjunct to allow you to pass on to higher grades.

It is a matter of constant amazement to me how teachers so often fail to connect the theoretical with the practical in their lessons.  After hearing a succession of grade 6 students rushing through a Vivaldi Largo with no concept as to what Largo meant and a plethora of young children spoil their chances of a good exam result by assuming leggiero to be synonymous with legato, my irritation with bad teaching got the better of me and I raised the issue at a teachers' meeting.  To my horror I realised that this failure to teach anything other than the mechanical of producing the sound and the literacy skills necessary to read the notes is the norm rather than the exception.

My understanding is that whatever appears on the page in front of the student needs to be taught.  From the title down to the page number there are implications on the performance.  Before you even play a note, if you see that the piece is called Waltz, has a key signature of one sharp and ends on a chord of E, is in ¾ time, is marked doloroso and begins with a piano dynamic, you have a very good idea what the music's message is – this is going to be a slow, sad, perhaps ghostly echo of a ballroom dance.  With that information to hand, how much easier it's going to be for the student to learn the piece, rather than merely learning all the notes and then wondering, after a fast, lively, loud and cheerful performance, why the examiner has failed it.

I was, to a certain extent, rather hoist with my own petard when I set an exam for conservatory students recently.  Presenting them with a couple of pages from an unlabelled score, I asked them to come up with a suggestion as to the work and composer from the evidence on the score.  It was a Haydn Minuet and Trio from a String Quartet and I was expecting comments about style; harmonic relationships, writing for instruments, regular phrase structures, etc. etc..  A number, however, noticed at the very bottom of the page, photocopied from a miniature score, the tiny legend "H-46678".  Trained to look for everything on the page they quite rightly suggested that this was the publisher's code and that H probably stood for Haydn.  Quite right; but how many students, inculcated with ABRSM grade 5 would have shown such insight?

1 comment:

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