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Why This Site

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Why This Site?

This site exists for the purpose of resolving the many issues of current piano study and music theory that are illogical, incorrect, and extremely harmful. These issues are…

  1. All music theory texts lack sufficient definitions. Definitions that are included are unilateral without the possibility that words may have more than one meaning depending on context. This is not indicated in theory texts or music dictionaries.
  2. The study of music theory has little implication for the piano student. Theory exists only for itself. Theory therefore, is really not an issue. The pianist should be focused on what is there in relation to musical elements of patterns, functions, characteristic intervals, etc.
  3. The piano student has one method of piano practice; practice and memorize… practice and memorize. There is no learning in practice. Memorizing a piece of music is not learning, but ‘parroting’ by playing over and over until it is eventually memorized but with no understanding or awareness of what is there.
  4. Music is a language with its syntaxes, vocabulary, and harmonic qualities. It is regarded mostly as a concatenation of notes and little else. Notes are memorized, notes are read, and notes are corrected. Patterns, modulations, and functions, etc. are foreign concepts to the pianist, piano student, and piano teacher. Yet they are the basis of understanding the language of music. No theory text exists to address those concepts.
  5. The combination of theoretical agents is one the most glaring issues of music theory. The combination of functional symbols along with figured bass indications is one of the worst. ‘V7’ is an example that combines harmonic function with figured bass that results in the error of regarding it as a symbol of harmonic quality, which it is not. Combining quality with function is another problematic issue, viz, ‘ii-V-I’. These combined agents may be currently fashionable, but lead to greater misunderstanding than they inform.
  6. Symbols for all harmonic qualities have been created except for the dominant that has no symbol, viz, M, m, o, and Ø. There is none for the dominant. None whatsoever. And there lay the greatest enigma in all of music theory. Is it somehow necessary that the dominant exists without a symbol for its quality? One can only wonder.
  7. Without a qualitative symbol for the dominant, theorists have devised a way around the missing symbol; the ‘secondary dominant’. If a chord with a dominant quality is located on other than the fifth note of a major scale, it is ‘secondary’, with ‘V7’ unfortunately denoting harmonic quality; V7/V. Tonicization, the corollary of the secondary dominant is completely illogical as it looses its primary function. The theory of the secondary dominant must be eliminated from all future theoretical texts as irrelevant.
  8. Providing a functional symbol for a diminished seventh chord lacks even the most basic scholarship for these chords. A diminished seventh chord per se is not functionable except as a dominant sans root. The notes in the diminished seventh are equal distance apart, therefore no one note may lay claim as the root. A diminished triad however, is functionable under certain circumstances.

Articles, lectures, demonstrations, and performances will correct the many errors as enumerated above. They will be forthcoming in this site on a regular basis. Look for them.

The Purpose of Music Theory

Courses in music theory are required in all universities, colleges, conservatories, and piano studios, but its purpose has remained elusive, you just have to take them. Josef Lhevinne has remarked that advanced students that come to him for instruction at Juilliard ‘barely know what key they are playing in’, and he feels he is teaching some kind of ‘parrot’ whose playing ‘will always remain meaningless’.  How can this be given the fact that theory is a requirement?

The purpose of theoretical studies should be the recognition of scales, intervals, and chords, and what the music is doing by ear. Studies of the types of cadences won’t do this, nor will listing of the modes, or the indication of inversion by way of figured bass, etc., etc.  Playing by ear should be as obvious as driving a car by sight.  But piano students don’t listen, since they have no idea what to listen for as they play memorized notes.

The purpose of theoretical studies should be for example, the analysis of characteristic intervals and what intervals make up a harmony. But that kind of training doesn’t exist. Ear training, as it exists in a course of study is the singing of scale degrees, do-re-mi, an effort far removed from music itself.  Dr. Leopold Mannes lamented regarding, “the seemingly unbridgeable gap between their theoretical studies and the living experience of music itself”. — from Dr Leopold Mannes’ Preface to Dr. Felix Salzer’s book, ‘Structural Hearing’.

The memorizing of compositions is the lowest and most meaningless efforts of pianists.  But when functions of notes, identities of chords, and what they are doing and what they sound like in a piece of music at hand, music comes alive, and memory becomes automatic. I have never taken an advanced or moderately advanced student who could tell the difference between two different scales by ear, and explain their differences, for example.

Following Einstein’s quote, ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t know it well enough’, the entire subject of music theory may be reduced into two areas; function and identity. But these two areas are not to be found in any music theory text, college course, or piano lesson. ‘What are you hearing’, rather than ‘what notes are you playing’ should be the question. Teachers should teach by ear rather than hovering over students watching every note they are playing.

And most importantly, the teaching of improvisation from the very first lesson must be presented so that students begin to exercise their powers of choice rather only the learning of notes. Children learn the spoken language by ear and by choice of words. Music should be learned the same way.

Ralph Carroll Hedges, B.Ed., B.Mus., M.M.

Music Theory is Dominated by White, Christian Male Writers

Teaching today is strictly on the basis of  mindless memorization of artificial elements created only by men of unquestionable ‘authority’, that began with the religious philosophy of various nations. Women have always, and even to this day, been regarded as ‘impure’, therefore should not be a part of the religious, political, nor musical experience. Unfortunately race has also been entered into the foray, with people ‘of color’ as ‘illiterate’, ergo unacceptable. Musically, it is the white male European music that dominates as the only ‘acceptable’ music; that of JS Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, et.al., but certainly not ‘people of color’, female, or non-Christian: Fanny Mendelssohn,Clara Schumann, George GershwinJohn Mehegan, Hoagy Carmichael,George WalkerLudmilla Ulehla, Leonard Bernstein, et.al.

One of the first theorists that gave rise to our academic theory was Jean-Philippe Rameauwhose ‘Treatise on Harmony’, published in 1722 remains as  “…the definitive authority on music theory, forming the foundation for instruction in western music that persists to this day.” (Wikipedia) Music theory is dominated by white male authors… exclusively.  In addition, certain authors and texts are omitted from consideration, examination, or even reference in texts from all major publishing houses of music theory.  These include Ludmilla Ulehla’s ‘Contemporary Harmony’, Hermann von Helmholtz’s ‘On the Sensations of Tone’, and Giuseppi Tartini’s ‘Trattato di musica secondo la vera scienza dell’armonia’.

Theories covered in these texts published by major publishing houses of music theory texts by their hired PhD’s do not mention these important theories, nor the authors mentioned above.  One wonders, why?  Why are traditional theories of ‘types of cadences’, ‘key circle’, ‘figured bass’, ‘secondary chords’,  ‘tone-row’, et. al. given pages of space, but not one sentence to the afore mentioned theories or theorists?  Why is the woman theorist Ludmilla Ulehla, chairman emeritus of the composition and theory department of the Manhattan School of music not included in the list of music theorists on the web?  Unfortunately it is racist, gender, political, and financial.  The ‘PhD’ in music theory is supposed to know the literature and include theories regarding the music of Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Bill Evans, et.al. It isn’t there. Only the ‘acceptable’ is included in these texts, and ‘acceptable’ is not a yardstick for texts of instruction.

Ralph Carroll Hedges, B.Ed., B.Mus., M.M.

Music is a Language – Treat it like one

‘Music’ is not listed as a language in dictionaries. It should be, because it communicates. That’s what a language does.  The spoken language communicates concrete ideas; ‘Laurie stole Don’s heart’.  In this sentence, we know who did what and to whom. Concrete.  In the language of music ideas are abstract, not easily put into concrete terms. Music themes may represent concrete ideas, but not the things themselves.  Certain themes may represent certain characters in an opera as in the leitmotif,[1]for example. Music for a love scene or a battle scene may depict the mood, but not the ‘who-what-and where’ kind of thing that the spoken language is able to do.  Nevertheless, music communicates, and often very strongly.

Music theory treats music as a complex series of academic concepts[2]that by-and-large has little to do with music. However, music as a language may have a direct comparison with the spoken language.  Parts of speech may be compared to parts of chords.  The dominant (x) contains the active leading-tone, so may be referred to as the ‘verb’ in music.  Major or minor chords may be the subject or object of a musical sentence.  In the spoken language, the basic syntax is subject-verb-object, or ‘s-v-o’.  In the language of music, it works out to be m-x-M, where the subject is super-tonic, II (m), the verb is dominant V (x), and the object is tonic I (M).

As an example, the following is from the Chopin Prelude Op 28 nr 17 in ‘A-flat’ major.

Picture1

In the spoken language, the basic syntax is ‘subject-verb-object’ (s-v-o).  If the verb takes a direct object it is transitive.  The following line begins with a major chord, the subject.  It is followed by two dominant (x) verbs, and they are followed by a major chord that is the object of the sentence.  This may be likened to a phrase in the spoken language thusly; ‘Susan slept and dreamt of the water.  ‘Susan’ is the subject, ‘slept’ is the first verb and ‘dreamt’ is the second verb phrase. ‘water’ is the object.  There is a mood created in both the spoken word and the musical phrase. The spoken word is ‘concrete’, i.e. it spells out who did what and where. In the music language, it spells out only the mood of the phrase.  But it does communicate that mood, and the phrase moves to the object, the subdominant major chord (IV).  The verb in both the spoken and music language is transient when both have a direct object.

The following is from the Chopin nocturne Op 9 nr 2.  The second beat shows a dominant (x) on the super-tonic (II), a ‘verb’ that moves to its object, a ‘B-flat’ major triad. Following that is a ‘B’ dominant (x), a ‘verb’ followed by its object, an ‘E-major’ triad, and following that are two consecutive ‘verbs’ that have no object. They are intransient verbs.  The final dominant (V) in measure 12 is marks the half-cadence.  The following measure is a new ‘sentence’.

Picture2

Measure 13 begins with a subject on an ‘E-flat’ major triad, followed by a dominant (verb) without a root (oxm9)[3]and moving to its object, another ‘E-flat’ major triad.

The relationship between the spoken word and the language of music needs further research.

I’ve only just begun.  I am no longer just a music theorist… I am a music linguist.

Ralph Carroll Hedges, B.Ed., B.Mus., M.M.

  1. [1 Leitmotif: a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation. (From the Dictionary on the web).

[2]Academic: not of practical relevance; of only theoretical interest. …ibid

[3]The theory of the ‘missing root’ (sum and difference tone) may be found in Helmholtz, ‘On the Sensations of Tone’ pg 152 ff, and Ulehla, ‘Contemporary Harmony’ pg 114 ff, and Giuseppi Tartini, “Trattato di musica secondo la vera scienza dell’armonia'” (Padua, 1754), and on the web, (see ‘Tartini’s tone’ in Wikipedia), also see, ‘sum and difference tones’.