An Experiment in Criticism: in which I defend Western art music

[NB This post has since been edited for clarity and typos] 

This post is the result of a number of recent confluences, among them my post on Lawrence Kramer’s essay in The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, Twitter conversations (more my lurking than conversing), and side-reading (C.S. Lewis again—when will this infatuation end? Never, I hope).

A few weeks ago, I became aware, via Twitter, of a Slate article by Ethan Hein, who has, I believe, now graduated from NYU with his master’s in music. His article has caused a fair amount of Sturm und Drang in the community of music theoreticians (at least those who are active in the online community). Bryn Hughes and Kris Shaffer have published well-written responses to Hein on their respective blogs, and I know others have as well, but I haven’t taken the time to read them all. Hein has made dubious assertions on his blog like:

Common-practice period classical music theory is fine and good, but in the hands of the music academy, it’s dry, tedious, and worst of all, largely useless. The strict rules of eighteenth-century European art music are distantly removed from the knowledge a person needs to do anything in the present-day music world (except, I guess, to be a professor of common-practice tonal theory.)

I disagree with such statements for a variety of reasons, but I won’t go into all of them here. Many people labor under the assumption that the ivory tower of the academy (and, yes, I admit it is too often an ivory tower) perpetuates outmoded and perhaps arbitrary ideas of what constitutes important (I would go so far as to say vital) musical experience. However, my purpose in this post is not to add yet another response to Hein in an internet already teeming with criticism. I bring up his words only because it is a recent iteration in a long line of “progressive” thought that keeps trying, seemingly, to knock down the columns of our cultural and expressive history so that the real estate can be used to erect a McDonalds or an interstate bypass. I exaggerate, of course. Some of those McDonalds will turn out to be TGI Fridays, and their Jack Daniel’s burger is DELICIOUS!  I’m scraping my metaphor-butter over too much toast, but I hope you can see my point. There is a certain distaste in postmodernity for “canons” and “rules,” believing them to be prescriptive. Saying that something is better than another has its pitfalls, but it can also be the very tool that separates the dross. Just as different metals have different melting points, so different repertories require different standards of evaluation. As democratic as it may sound, one cannot hold that “all [musics] are created equal.”

Therein may lie part of the problem—in many ways, this seems a uniquely American pathology (although I know it’s not exclusive to the New World). Some don’t like Common-Practice music because it’s too European or it’s too old. America wouldn’t know “old” if it toppled over and crushed it under a thousand years of recorded history. As to European-ness, prior to the 20th century, American music seemed to suffer from an inferiority complex with regard to the longer tradition of Europe. Look at what Nicolas Slonimsky wrote to introduce Richard Burbank’s 1984 reference book Twentieth-Century Music:

American music in the 19th century was but a faint reflection of German music. Edward McDowell, regarded as the first American composer of stature, received his musical training in Germany; his harmonies follow the Germanic mold. It was only after the First World War that the German influence on American music began to wane . . ..

Even so, composers still sought their education in Europe, exemplified by Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, Roy Harris, Elliott Carter, et al., who were all (as Slonimsky puts it) “wet-nursed” in Paris by Nadia Boulanger.

It took a long time for America to feel that it was coming out from under the shadow of the “mother continent.” But like adolescents, some Americans can still chafe at times against what they view as hoity-toity European-ness. Watch a recent episode of Downton Abbey and you’ll glimpse this conflict between the Old World and the New, between tradition and innovation, between the past and the future. We Americans (not all of us) love our fast food and our high-rises. New = better; if it’s not new, it’s disposable. 

When I toured Italy with Asbury’s Collegium Musicum, I was amazed at how many people came to our concerts—concerts filled with music too old to even be colloquially called “classical,” i.e., pre-Common Practice. At home in America, we would nearly have to pay our own friends to be part of inattentive audiences of half the size; and then, only if there were free food afterward. That’s not to say that all Europeans love “old” music, or drop whatever they’re doing to hear it performed. What I do mean to say is that I experienced a greater appreciation for the past, for “whence we come,” when I visited Europe—a quality I wouldn’t mind seeing more of in America.

But I doubt any of those reasons will change anyone’s mind who is not already so inclined. They are, in my opinion, some of the unacknowledged underlying factors in a debate that goes beyond any one argument or pundit. I’m actually reminded of a 2011 debate at Cambridge University between Stephen Fry and DJ Kissy Sell Out (I understand videos are available on YouTube, but I’ve only read summaries) on the statement “classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth.” Both decried the elitism of some art music enthusiasts, with which I couldn’t agree more, but they came to very different conclusions. On one hand:

. . . ‘classical music does not represent or embody the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of our world’ and that ‘pop music is by far the more creative field.’

—Greg Sandow, Juilliard, took the side of  DJ Kissy Sell Out*

On the other hand:

‘You can like two different things at once and not explode or be a hypocrite. Surely if education in a university is about anything it is the fact we can accept and absorb all kinds of ideas and celebrate and love all kinds of human expression.’

—Stephen Fry*

*Quotations excerpted from a write-up in Limelight

But what really sparked my fingers into motion today was reading yet another of C.S. Lewis’s writings, a bit of An Experiment in Criticism, in which he discusses people’s tastes in literature. As so often happens when reading Lewis, he has already eloquently orchestrated the tune echoing in the back of my mind. Although he is writing about literature, much of what he says is reflected in music as well, if we make a rough equation between great literature and Western art music. Admittedly, vivisecting what he said and placing it before you in a few pieces does him a disservice.

. . . the first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.

This has been my experience, most often of art music, almost never of popular music; and that is why it deserves to be studied by students of music theory. Lest you think me a fuddy-duddy, I listen to popular music too, and I enjoy it. Indeed I have found examples worthy of deeper study, and I know other scholars have too. But it rarely has the capacity to move me as art music has.

Though I shall concern myself almost entirely with literature, it is worth noting that the same difference of attitude is displayed about the other arts and about natural beauty. Many people enjoy popular music in a way which is compatible with humming the tune, stamping in time, talking, and eating. And when the popular tune has gone out of fashion they enjoy it no more. Those who enjoy Bach react quite differently. Some buy pictures because the walls ‘look so bare without them’; and after the pictures have been in the house for a week they become practically invisible to them. But there are a few who feed on a great picture for years.

I freely admit there is value to be found in popular musics and non-Western traditions. But let us not forget that we are, for better or worse, in the West. We should remember that there are traditions beyond that sphere of influence, yes, but the Western tradition is our tradition. Yours and mine, even if your ancestors hailed from a non-European continent. We share it because it has influenced the world. Only in the last 100 years has the tide of influence begun to give more weight to the world’s influence on the West, at least in terms of musical influence. As much as Jazz or Rock or Country seem to contrast with art music, they all owe a great deal to that tradition while simultaneously reinventing it.

It is a simple, practical impossibility to find enough time to teach students an entire world’s-worth of music; some things must be chosen to the exclusion of others. Sometimes I wonder at those who rail against the notion of canon. As if some esoteric oligarchy sits in a fusty room somewhere (probably in Europe, by all accounts) sending down judgements from on high. That room’s probably in Rome. First the Caesars, then the Pope—Rome must be a magnet for people who want to tell the world what’s what. The truth, I suspect, runs more like this: the best endures. There were plenty of composers of the Common Practice about whom we never hear. Why? Because their work wasn’t up to snuff. Like it or not, there will be a canon of 20th-century popular music in a hundred years. In fact, we already see it forming. How many popular songs from the early 20th century can you sing? Not nearly so many as were written, I’d wager. I’ve been teaching myself lots of them on the ukelele. They’re loads of fun, but they’re also drivel, and if I have to choose which to teach, I’m going to pick Stravinsky over Irving Berlin every time, even though I’d often rather listen to Berlin. The Beatles have already established a revered precedence in popular music. Is anyone talking about the Monkees? They both gained popularity around the same time, they both named themselves after animals, they both couldn’t spell those animal names properly. The two bands even interacted. So why have the Beatles endured to a greater degree? (No doubt, some would say, because they’re European.)

Canons form and evolve—like language. Some words never go away, some fall out of use, some are revived, some are newly invented. Dictionaries have to be updated to reflect the passage of time; we have dictionaries of British English, American English, urban slang, and on and on. Yet some words persist, and even the newer ones usually have their roots sunk deeply into ancient languages like Latin. People said Latin was dead too, you know; but without Latin, we wouldn’t have the vocabulary to argue how poorly the old vestiges of European culture serve us today.

To say that popular music is worthy of equal or greater attention in the classroom, if it is to be said at all, will require more time. Time sorts out many things, not least of which is the worthiness of a piece of art (be it music, literature, architecture). If it is truly as attention-deserving as one believes, then it will stand the test of time, whether or not one feels the compulsion to beat to quarters or release the dogs of war over it, in favor or against.

But I will let Lewis have the last word, because he, unlike me, is able to stick to the point and remember why we study the arts in the first place.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

Grammatica, Dialectica, Rhetorica: in which the three roads meet in music theory pedagogy

[The following are some thoughts I’ve been mulling over ever since my earlier post on the liberal arts.

UPDATE: The revised version of this essay has now been published in Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy. You can read it here.]

A great deal of the national conversation on education has centered on the avant-garde 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 traction 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.


  • 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 have thought 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 analysis was being able to account for every note in the score and classify it. 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 as a study 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.

It is music’s logic that 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 D 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 to one of Bach’s, and one can immediately see that even if the technical specifications are correct, the student’s composition will lack the rhetorical elegance of Bach’s. 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 tend to lean more toward dialectic than rhetoric. But then students can try harmonizing a preexisting melody, then writing their own melodies and harmonizing 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. Indeed, I think the ideal curriculum would entail each class progressing 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 a compound form. The music major curriculum should be an overall progression from grammar to dialectic to rhetoric. I think this is the assumed direction of many music departments, but I am unaware of many that intentionally communicate this to students.

One may note the rough similarity between this schema and that 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). 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.

The philosophy 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.

*New Oxford American Dictionary 3rd edition © 2010 by Oxford University Press, Inc.

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

One Thing Drives Out Another: in which I make excuses and get excited about a now-and-future project

Too many interests—to some extent, that’s what this blog is about. And that’s also what has prevented me from writing these last forty-ish days. That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. As my focus process shifts from the writing of my dissertation to final edits and looking toward the imminent defense of said dissertation in October, I’ve been scrambling to patch holes in the ship that will sail me to Ph.D.-dom.

Couple that with an idea that’s been simmering in the back of my mind for about nine months (which, I’m given to understand, is an excellent gestation period for both ideas and babies), and you get even more writing. I will “e’splain” with a timeline.

November 2011— publishes Exploding the Lecture by Steve Kolowich. Kolowich discusses the use and benefits of recorded mini-lectures by Mike Garver, Professor of Marketing at Central Michigan University. (I mentioned this in an earlier post.)


January 2012—gradhacker publishes “Publishing Your Presentations Online,” something that’s good in its own right, but got me thinking about ways to make visuals for mini lectures, and then perhaps make them available via podcast, iTunes U, etc.

YouTube user Vi Hart uploads this video on math and the Fibonacci Sequence. The short form and whimsical treatment of subject matter typically viewed as dry and boring by students makes me wonder if the same could be done with music theory.


April 2012—Vi Hart uploads another video, this time relating geometry to sound in time (as does my dissertation).


May 2012—I begin sporadically writing out mini lectures that I intend to record very soon, perhaps with my brother. We share many happy memories writing and recording a number of “radio plays” to audio cassettes.


July 2012—I discover YouTube contributor pbsideachannel via their video on Minecraft as a model of the theoretical post-scarcity economy. (Apparently the channel’s been around since February, but I’m late to the game.) The snappy scripting and pacing of each weakly installment creates bite-sized thought-candy. Incidentally, this show fits remarkably well with the underlying theme of oldworldforthenew—comparing, contrasting, and merging seemingly disparate ideas in the arts, philosophy, etc.


August 2012—I discover another YouTube contributor, MinutePhysics, who provided me with the most concise explanation of the Higgs-Boson particle I have yet to encounter. Again, the short form makes for smaller, digestible amounts of new material. The drawn visuals echo what I liked about Vi Hart’s videos.


So why not music theory too. Music theory is often thought of as a rather dry and opaque area of study in the minds of young (a surprising number of older) musicians—much the same way grammar is to English students, or maths or physics. It requires the logical side of our brain. For those who don’t take to the left side of their cerebrum, adding some whimsy and humor to the mix can make a difficult subject more palatable.

So in the last few weeks, as my academic writing load has decreased, I’ve put more effort into developing a fun, podcast-like, short-form series intended to make music theory more accessible. Of course, once that’s up and running, it will likely require some form of web support, so I’m trying to get a jump on that and learn something about HTML and CSS.

I’ll post something the first episode when it’s done.

iBooks Author: in which we enter the swirl of controversy

I recently started using Apple’s new software iBooks Author, aimed at aiding educators. (At the time of this post, the software is ranked 4.5/5 stars based on 826 ratings.) The application provides templates well-suited to textbooks, and that is the main purpose for which Apple seems to be marketing the product. However, there has been a certain amount of anathema leveled at the software since its debut.  Some of it is warranted, in my opinion; some of it is not.

The most legitimate complaints I’ve read have been in the review section of the application’s download/info page on the Mac App Store. These complaints mostly had to do with the lack of support for footnotes/end notes (both of which are truly a problem for software that purports to be for use in academia), the licensing agreement, and some reported software crashes or difficulties with previewing the books on the iPad (problems I have not had). recently published an essay by Alan J. Reid on the subject, which you can read here.  His complaints are quite different from those most people have.  He states that for the past three years, he’s been pursuing a Ph.D. in this very field: instructional design and technology, i.e., interactive digital text. Therefore he feels, and probably rightfully so, that he has an edge when it comes to discussing this topic.  This is what he says:

But that’s just the problem; you don’t need to be qualified. iBooks Author allows any Apple user to design and develop an interactive, multitouch textbook. No design experience necessary.

I should be ecstatic that a layperson is able to design instructional products with applications that, until recently, required a personal computer programmer to develop. The digital revolution is finally upon us!

Not exactly. I’m concerned that the act of creating a digital book for students will impede the learning benchmarks that are expected of them. Let me put it this way: When was the last time you saw a well-designed, engaging PowerPoint presentation, where the speaker did not read the words directly off of the slide, verbatim?  This is my point.  We have allowed everyone to become an instructional designer.

I have three problems with his perspective:

1. This is not a new problem; calling it “instructional design” because it involves technology gives it more insight into how effective teaching works.  Previous generations called it pedagogy. I have endured my share of poorly designed course packets, syllabuses, Powerpoint presentations, and even entire courses in my ten years of learning in higher education. Adding one more way for careless faculty to make rum-dumby materials won’t change the ongoing trend. (And I don’t see how it could be much worse than having to decipher an entire course packet of scribbled handwriting on a photocopy of a photocopy made fifteen years earlier—and yes, I’ve had to do that.)

2. Chances are, instructors who don’t care about how something is designed won’t bother taking the time and effort to learn new software and re-make materials of which they already have a preexisting crummy version.

3. I have studied under plenty of professors whose instructional design was quite meticulous (contrasted with no. 1, above). Why shouldn’t they be allowed to distribute materials digitally? Just because they don’t have a degree in “Instruction Design” does not mean they don’t pay attention or have an eye for those considerations.

More legitimate concerns have been voiced by others, such as the licensing agreement, which prohibits the sale of your “itextbook” in the .ibooks format through any medium other than iTunes.  However, if instructors wish to simply create free materials for use in class, or distribute the publication via PDF, they are free to do so.

The footnotes/end notes issue is the only raspberry seed in my wisdom tooth. Any academic software ought to be equipped with this capability, and I’m frankly shocked that Apple didn’t include it. It seems like a no-brainer. However, I imagine that this will be amended in future updates.

I’ve used the software, and I’m really excited about its potential—particular in regard to the interactive elements. One of my areas of interest is spatial/geometric representations of musical relationships.  The fact that iBooks Author can accommodate moveable 3D models almost gets me to ignore the footnote problem. Some musical spaces represented in three dimensions are just too complicated to ever be meaningfully represented in a set of 2D pictures.

So yeah, Happy Valentine’s Day!