Taking Stock of Collections - A Strategy for Teaching The Analysis of Post-Tonal Music

Brian Alegant & Gordon Sly

Analysis is difficult. Teaching analysis is even more difficult. It is especially challenging to coax students to venture beyond the identification of things - formal sections, thematic ideas - toward consideration of the distinguishing qualities of individual works. In the area of post-tonal or extended-tonal music, several writings address the enterprise of analysis, including textbooks by Joel Lester, Joseph Straus, and J. Kent Williams. While each book takes a different approach, their philosophical orientations and strategies are similar. Each provides a solid theoretical backdrop, which includes various tools for describing and manipulating pitch-class collections, then uses analytical examples to illustrate the theoretical constructs.That these texts are more theoretically than analytically driven is understandable, since students must learn vocabulary and techniques, and need practice exploring the structural characteristics of pieces. But the end result this approach ought to have - namely, the incorporation of these skills into competent analyses - often never materializes. Even supplementing this preparatory work with presentations of longer analyses in class seems not to provide the skills we hope to see; students follow the examples in the chapters and nod their heads at each new discovery in our model analyses, but still struggle when trying to come to terms themselves with a new piece.This paper advances a pedagogical strategy for extended-tonal and post-tonal music that can help students learn the craft of analysis. The aim is to encourage a willingness to pursue the qualities that give compositions their individual character. The approach is heuristic and stresses modeling. It asks students to characterize compositional strategies; to identify and "trace the history" of prominent musical elements; to define and follow narrative plots and subplots; to rationalize a work's striking or eccentric events; and to explore the notion of musical "agency," by which we mean the capacity of a musical element to exert influence upon the course of events. We build upon the Lester, Straus, and Williams texts in two basic senses. First, we assume a familiarity with the constructs and techniques that are the subject of their instruction. Second, whereas their discussions mainly cite musical excerpts, appropriate for illustrating specific analytical tools and techniques, our interest is confined to whole pieces or movements.