Here is a blog post making the argument that we need to integrate pop and jazz music theory into mainstream music department and conservatory undergraduate curricula.
I completely agree. The thing I would add is that we need to teach Schenker a lot earlier, and apply it to jazz and pop as well. It’s absurd that we make vertical everything in music theory, and save the linear dimension for grad school specialists. I’m not saying that everyone has to become a Carl Schachter-level Schenkerian; I’m just saying that we need to introduce linear concepts in all music theory at all levels as we go so that as composers and performers we are thinking in both the vertical and the horizontal dimensions, and making those connections accordingly.
I’m sure that there are those who would object on the grounds that traditional music theory, as it is structured, does not have the time to accommodate these additional demands. Theory is traditionally taught in four units in the freshman and sophomore years: semester one, devoted to first principles which often coincide with Baroque principles of four-part chorale theory (also known as part writing); semester two, devoted to expansion and refinement of these ideas, with some form and structure thrown in, which nicely coincides with the formal structures introduced in the Classical era; semester three, we add advanced chromatic— but still functionally tonal— ideas to our plate, which just so happens to coincide with what Romantic-era composers did; and then in the fourth semester we cover 20th and 21st century techniques, which, by way of a really amazing coincidence, coincides with what 20th and 21st century composers actually did.
Then a student is sometimes given a one- or two-semester elective. Some programs take this basic model and stretch it out to five semesters; some compress it into three; but what is amazing is the invariance of this model across the board. I would propose adding two more semesters: junior year, a seminar in jazz music, team taught by a theorist and a musicologist; and then a seminar in pop music, team taught by a theorist and a musicologist. I would make the course team taught because if theorists get an extra two semesters to do their thing, musicologists are inevitably going to want two more semesters to do their thing too.
More central to the argument of what this essay is about, though, is the need for linear reductive analysis from the beginning. When we make everything vertical, we are making the argument that music happens from event to event to event. This idea calcifies in the minds of young, impressionable musicians, and disadvantages them musically perhaps for their entire lives. The idea that there are broad-scale architectonic ideas at play in musical works should not be Masonic wisdom reserved only for an elite, secret order of initiates. We should teach this idea from day one: the vertical and horizontal dimensions in music are coequal.
I am not saying that inordinate amounts of time on graphing technique should be taught. I am saying that when an instructor gives a chorale part-writing exercise, Schenk it when he or she is done. In the first semester, look at real Bach chorales; they are often some of the most interesting literature to read from a Schenkerian perspective since this is the corpus of work most likely to reveal the rare descent from ^8.
In the second semester, when we’re teaching sonata form, the instructor might want to talk about why it is that one sees a descent from ^3 in major mode more often, and why one sees descent from ^5 in minor mode more often. (Here’s why, if you’re wondering: pieces tend to descend from ^3 as a norm. But in minor mode, I pushes to III just before the development section. III can support ^5 but it is just as likely to support ^3, with ^4 supported by V/III inevitably along the way. And it is very interesting to look at the salient differences between a development section in a minor-mode piece governed by ^3, which anticipates the arrival of ^2 before the interruption, and a development section in a major-mode piece governed by ^2, which maintains ^2 just before the interruption.)
In the third semester, it can be very instructive to look at chromatic voice leading from a linear perspective. Honestly, it is sometimes the only way to make heads or tails out of densely chromatic Romantic-era music. I remember as an undergrad studying chromatic harmony and thinking that the Roman numeral system was becoming extremely contorted to the point of meaninglessness, even though I was arriving at the received wisdom of acceptably correct “answers” on the assignments (going to remote key areas by a series of common-tone pivots and such). Why is this music the way it is? Is it really because of a string of improbable key areas forever modulating into one another with myriad pivot chords and common tone pivots? Or does one elegant linear progression really explain what’s going on?
Finally, when one gets to post-tonal music, linear progressions can really be one’s friend in reassuring the novice that comprehensive relationships can indeed be teased out of this seemingly abstruse stuff. One does not even have to get into the many controversies about post-tonal prolongation; suffice to say that the general idea of linear progressions are still at play (whether they are truly prolongational or merely associative). But you cannot do this if the scaffolding has not been put previously into place.
Many musicians will graduate from their undergraduate institutions and never look back at academia. We want these musicians to be as literate as possible, and to give performances or compose pieces in which there is some broad-scale concept of the architectonics involved in music-making. We need to start introducing Schenkerian/linear/prolongational concepts much earlier in our mainstream music theory tuition.