Joseph N. Straus - Elements of Music reviewed

Michael Buchler

Let's be frank: identifying intervals, writing scales, and finding Bß below middle C on an alto-clef staff are hardly musical activities. They might be important precursors to attaining musical literacy, but what good is musical literacy if it isn't partnered with a strong connection to aural experience? Teachers frequently broach such elemental topics as abstractions that must be mastered before moving on to any genuinely musical applications. Such musical applications, then, become a carrot dangled before the student as she or he attempts, once more, to spell that diminished sixth above A∂. But in fundamentals classes, it seems rare that students advance to the point of claiming any real musical prizes. This is particularly unfortunate for non-music majors who take fundamentals classes not to fulfill degree requirements or as prerequisites to first-year theory (often considered the first "real" theory class), but as their single elective that might help them acquire the skills needed to sing in a choir, read from a fake book, or otherwise gain an active musical avocation. For such students, especially, the material they cover in a fundamentals class may mean the difference between participating in music as an adult and not doing so.I am, therefore, skeptical of both fundamentals courses that cover only written skills and of resources that cater to such curricula. Thankfully, Joseph Straus has given us a new textbook for fundamentals courses: one that fully assimilates aural, performance, and written skills. Moreover, the book's assignments generally foster musical understanding and show why those concepts that we describe as "fundamental" truly are so. Of course, his is not the first textbook to integrate conceptual and aural skills, but it might well be the first to teach these concepts through a limited and well-chosen set of repertoire. Music is thoroughly woven through Elements of Music, and the text is accompanied by a compact disc that contains recordings of all featured compositions. Straus has a canny sense of what material is and is not important in a fundamentals class. Elements of Music contains nothing on the harmonic series and other topics in musical physics, there are no grandiose essays on why we study music or on the emotional content of music, and there is no pretense that sheer nominalism lies at the core of musical understanding. The tone and appearance of Straus's book are also wonderfully appropriate. Quite a number of current fundamentals books look like pre-high school textbooks, and their prose similarly (and more distractingly) condescends. Straus writes clearly, doesn't eschew more sophisticated prose, and steers clear of unnecessary bells and whistles. I cannot convey how happy I am to see a book that takes such a direct and simple path, that shows how genuinely musical the basics are, and that provides more than enough sensible exercises to engage the students' minds and ears.I do not to mean to imply that this book is flawless: I don't always agree with Straus's musical and pedagogical choices, sometimes I think he aims a bit too high, other times too low, and I wish that his musical examples had ventured farther into twentieth-century concert music. The big picture, however, is remarkably good, and were I choosing a fundamentals textbook right now, I'd undoubtedly pick this one. For the remainder of this review, I will write more specifically about the book's content, elaborating on the critical issues just raised.