Contention in the Classroom - Encouraging Debate and Alternate Readings in the Undergraduate Theory Class

Matthew Bribitzer-Stull

All too often, core courses in undergraduate music theory are a one-sided affair; the instructor presents the requisite battery of voice-leading rules, chord progressions, and formal paradigms while the students dutifully work to master this material. But classroom opportunities for meaningful discourse between students are often rare. Of course, high-level musical discourse is ideally what music theory is all about. If we, as instructors, promote this idea to our students during the first years of study, it will help them realize that achieving the ability to engage in such discourse is exactly what the core curriculum is designed to help them do.The quality of musical discourse is directly proportional to the quality of empiric evidence used to support it. That is, musical arguments should be supported by data. This is not to say, however, that empiric arguments are "objective" or "true;" it is necessary for us to demonstrate to our students that the spirit of our discipline can be empiric without being unilateral. Despite its "scientific image," music theory makes no claims to objective truths, but rather seeks to articulate explanatory models for various kinds of music. Given this stance, "music theory" is a somewhat misleading title for the first semesters of undergraduate study - in most cases analysis occupies significantly more class time than theorizing does. And, it is analysis, the rigorous process of gathering data and describing musical relationships, that so often strikes our students as objective, mathematical, and uncreative. Most who maintain this position, however, are conflating analysis with description. The analytic act of employing empirically-gathered data to flesh out a musical argument is an interpretive, creative, and open-ended task, not unlike interpreting music through performance.