Music Theory

Music Fundamentals

I finished teaching a Music Fundamentals class last week for the first time, and I loved it. The class felt liberating to me. Instead of hard-pressing harmony, I took a large chunk of the semester exclusively on rhythm and meter and included a section and composition on melody before talking about chords. We also dug deep into why notation exists in the first place and how to take advantage of its benefits. Then we jumped into harmony, reaching even seventh chord labeling in diatonic harmony (and identification inside or outside a key). We ended class with a final composition project, built from harmonic schemes with the Western-standard part-writing. Within all this, I found opportunities to play tonal, post-tonal, pre-tonal, salsa, swing, and popular music styles, and I would love to incorporate an even more expansive selection next time I have the opportunity to teach the course. I loved teaching Music Fundamentals because I taught about music, how we engage with it, why composers make the choices they make, and how to communicate those ideas in the notation system we have adopted. 

Before the class began, I knew that my students would feel like they were in a "remedial" course. I concluded that they are not in a remedial course because they had no needed to be "remedied." Knowing the great variety of circumstances in schools across the country, how can we suppose that every incoming student will know basic harmonic theory? So the course was designed to be a 2-credit hour college course. I included challenging material, and my students rose to the challenge. They can read music and identify beat patterns in 9 32 time. They can get around alto clef easily, and if they understood everything in the lessons, they can read any type of clef presented to them. They know how to label seventh chords with several double flats and read key signatures with 6 or 7 sharps. They proved it in written assignments and piano assignments. They did it in prose and in notation. These are challenging for students only because they do not fit into the realm of their familiarity; they are much simpler when students understand why meters exist, how clefs came to be and what they represent, and what accidentals refer to and their function as part of a key signature. Tricks like transposition and inversion, understood by the majority of the students to some degree, also facilitated their musical dexterity. I'm proud of my students for stepping up to the plate, and in some areas, I believe their core understanding of music notation excels that of many of their peers who did not take such a course. Music Fundamentals does not need to be a "remedial" course, and it should more than make up for any lost ground from limited music instruction prior to college.

I am writing this in gratitude for the opportunity to teach and as an advocate for teaching all music core classes based on those fundamentals more universal to all music than four-part writing and the common-practice period. I think there is a fear to embrace the limitless world of music outside the standard repertoire, but the wonderful and relevant music of all times and places beckons us seek after greater nuance in our craft and a more expansive comprehension of the sound we deal with. I have plenty of revisions to make to the course next year (if I get to teach the course again), but I'm happy to report that the experiment worked in that our class achieved excellent results, mastering all the "remedial" topics and thankfully much more.

Musicking and Improvisation


I was reminded of the concept of "musicking" yesterday, which is the late Christopher Small's term to help people think of music as an action rather than a thing (though adding a "k" to a word makes it feel archaic so I use the term warily). Thus, listening to music is musicking, performing music is musicking, and creating music is musicking. Sheet music or recordings themselves are not music until someone engages with them. While he goes in depth on this topic in his book Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening, I would rather talk about how musicking as brought life to the music around me.

I recently joined UMKC's Imp Ensemble, a free (not necessarily jazz) improvisation ensemble. Several years ago at BYU I was part of a similar group called GEM (Group for Experimental Music). Both these ensembles provide a creative outlet where I am invigorated to musick without the restrictions of societal convention. I believe that we should strive to engage with our culture by putting forth our best contributions to the art, I also believe in what Ned Rorem termed "the distortion of Genius." It helps to step outside the bounds of classical concert music culture to reassess one's work and musical purpose. Next month, the Imp Ensemble will be performing at West Bottoms as part of the West Bottoms Reborn initiative. More details here.

This upcoming Tuesday, my work Improvisations VI: Just, Plane, Natural will be performed by Gabbi Roderer, an amazing flutist (see the event details here). This is the third in a series of improvisation pieces for soloist and live electronics that I originally wrote for myself as a way I could continue improvising outside of a group. But now they have become a fascinating means of collaborating with performers as musicians, tapping into fellow performers' intuitive abilities to musick, not according to the societal norms of their repertoire but according to the dictates of their ear in response to the electronics (which are wholly dependent on the performer's playing).

These improvisations are free for the performer, but while this sounds liberating, it actually invites the performer to solve their own compositional puzzle. The piece only progresses with a tap of a pedal that initiates a change in the electronics. These changes provide the overall structure of the piece while leaving pacing up to the performer. The puzzle for performers is to effectively navigate these changes to achieve their artistic vision. In this manner, the performer also becomes a creator and sculptor of sound in time. The performer also must engage carefully in listening. It is a perfect example of musicking to a composed work without the strings attached.

This work is a joint effort, a true collaboration. Rather than the composer acting as dictator or even as visionary, the composer becomes the facilitator and architect, providing a space and flow to accentuate the performer's work. While the composer is not active on stage (though I can easily code in my own laptop part and devise the form in real-time), the contribution of the electronics provides a unique mark that, while at times sounding very different in each iteration, infallibly remains. The contributions of composer and performer are equal; the electronics can only be engaged by the performer's input and the performer must engage with the electronics to play out the work. Through this partnership, the new work is born every time, and I love this sort of relationship. 

If you are a musician and want to musick with these Improvisations or have insights or comments on these concepts, I'd love to hear from you. Feel free to comment below.