Formalism in the Music Theory Classroom

Roger Mathew Grant

Music theory pedagogy has anticipated the recent trend for alternatives to the careful historicism and contextual scholarship of the past few decades. In recent years, many scholars in the fields of literature and the arts have urged a reinvestment in the study of form and in formalist analysis. This "New Formalism" employs a diverse array of methods in order to redress a perceived neglect of the forms, styles, techniques, and material dimensions of the cultural products under consideration. Although some of our methods have changed, theorists remain committed to the technical vocabulary and formal abstraction necessary to understand musical systems. Nevertheless, instead of congratulating ourselves, we ought to use this moment to reflect on our classroom formalisms and ask questions about our commitments to the understanding of form.