Schenker, Earlier

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.

-Robert Gross

8 thoughts on “Schenker, Earlier

  1. I was trained in Schenker, and I like Schenker a lot.

    However, in terms of what is needed today for music theory/analysis/musicianship, more-Schenker would be only a small part of the solution.

    Some topics that are needed now would include: Sonic Effect (electric guitars and much much more); Production (how to organize and deliver a performance with great effect); the dramatic-role of a Performer; Audience dynamics; Philosophical/Mathematical/Spiritual dimensions of any musical experience; How to describe musical experience; Dalcroze/spatial aspects; Dionysus/Apollo; boredom in its various dimensions; hooks; beginnings and endings; pulse in its various aspects; …

    In contemporary view, I think the principal relevance of Schenker is: Long line (in its various aspects); management of tension; management and intensification of nuance. These topics are of great importance, but maybe only 10% of what is important in total.

    To take a step back: Schenker is (in my mind) sort of a culmination of music theory/analysis that focuses on scores and notes. Scores and Notes are far removed from the “totality of music”. Schenker is pretty much the dead-end of a long tradition of analysis/theory (that focuses on scores and notes).

    What is needed now are models of music that are not focused on scores and notes. Two pioneering examples:
    [a] Herbie Hancock’s series “RockSchool”. You can find much of this series on YouTube.

    [b] My own work , which is an extensive model of *how music is experienced*

    Models like this are badly needed. And these two models are insightful, deep, and rigorous in their own way.

    — Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.


    1. Thanks, Dr. Malitz, for your thoughts. I quite agree with you, and I probably should have hastened to emphasize that when I say I want to see “Schenker, earlier,” it’s more that I want to see Schenker-like principles earlier, and, moreover, almost exactly the ones you mention (long-line, tension management, etc.). I dare say that additional emphasis on these principles and the principles for which you advocate are not mutually exclusive. I assume you are also conversant with the work of the sadly late Thomas Clifton, whose book Music As Heard I thought was instructive. Indeed, when I look at your site, I am very much intrigued, but I would have more confidence if I saw an extensive bibliography that includes books like Thomas Clifton’s, so that I know that you’ve invested a certain amount of time in various precedents that your ideas, which seem worthy to me, may have.


      1. Robert, what other books do you think are the best precedents to what I have been working on. I would characterize my work either as “foundational work on models for music” or as “how to describe the experience of music”. In the course of my research, I have reviewed 100+ items in the literature, but this review process has been hit-and-miss; there is a very large amount of literature, and I haven’t found a way to identify the most important materials. Thanks In Advance ! — Isaac Malitz


      2. I’m just giving you some free advice, and you can take it or leave it. I think you will appear more credible to a first-time viewer with an extensive bibliography, as is the standard for every peer-reviewed publication out there. Look. I get it. My bailiwick is post-tonal prolongation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten dinged by peer reviewers who expect me to re-litigate Joe Straus’s “The Problem of Prolongation in Post-Tonal Music” yet again. And again. And again. Every blessed time. I can’t draw a single dotted line from one note to another note in an example without someone telling me I need to cite and discuss Straus’s “Problem.” (And it is Straus’s problem, frankly.) But I accept that and I do it, because I understand that people want to know that I’m not a crank. My ideas about post-tonal prolongation are really freewheeling and liberal. So it it actually very much in my best rhetorical interest to ground as much of my freewheeling argument in bibliographic precedent as much as I can so people will take me seriously. Your mileage may vary. But in my opinion, I think that your ideas would be more compelling if we saw some of the bibliographic legwork which, I’m afraid, it is up to you, not me, to do. Good luck.


      3. I don’t plan to do a long-bibliography anytime soon. But I am trying to make sure that I am at least acquainted with the very best literature out there. So if you have a short list of things besides Clifton that you have liked, let me know.

        I probably will add a brief Reading List to fairly soon. I’ll let you know when I’ve done that.

        To get an idea of research etc. involved in OMS, you could look at .


  2. I am acquainted with Clifton’s work – although I haven’t had an opportunity to read it straight through (can’t find a copy!).

    Clifton is definitely concerned with the *experience of music*. And he seems to approach it like a classic *phenomenologist*, which basically means “Be super-clear about what you are trying to observe; remove distractions and impediments; and then observe, observe, observe”. (My Ph.D. is Philosophy/MathematicalLogic . When a grad student, I had the opportunity to study phenomenology via Husserl and his followers. I’m no expert in Phen. , but I have a good grasp of the general methods and intentions).

    I think Clifton is good, but can be improved on. The foundation I use for this is from the field of Artificial Intelligence (“AI”). A major part of AI is concerned with *modeling human intelligence*. So a subset of that is the *modeling of how humans experience things*. And a subset of that is “modeling how humans experience music”. It turns out that AI is a very valuable resource for *modeling experience* because: [1] This is a critical part of AI; [2] The field of AI is of course very active, and it has accumulated a massive body of knowledge in terms of “what works”/”what doesn’t work” re models of various kinds; and finally [3] Much of the research in AI is rigorous and comprehensible.

    So, when AI is added to Clifton’s attitude, what you get is: A method of observation that is not only sound methodology, but also analytically detailed. As I have fleshed things out, I have 90+ specific categories of what to look for. So observations can be done rapidly and can be very detailed. At the same time, the overall methodology is organized so that one is free to move outside those categories (the observer is not boxed in). Everything I do is in plain English (or close to it), and nicely organized. So I guess you could say that I have taken Clifton to the next level, or I am “Clifton on steroids” (!)

    The primary model from AI that I use is “The Society of Mind”, which was developed by Marvin Minksy, the eminent pioneer of AI. Society of Mind is very easy to learn at an introductory level. Take a look at: [5 min. to read]
    Then download the book (free) from:
    Browse the book for about 20 min. you will get the hang of it
    Minksy does not spell out how to model the experience of music specifically.
    But he provided sufficient basis that I was able to proceed.
    (I corresponded with Minsky in early phases, that was helpful).

    It turns out that the above model does not cover all of the bases.
    So you will see that in my OMS website, I reach into other fields to flesh out the model further.

    Let me know if any questions or input . What I am doing is very new, and I need plenty of input, even brutal criticism where appropriate.

    Best regards,

    — Isaac Malitz


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