On Why Classical Music is from Georgia (the country): An Assignment

Core Sequence Class I (Tonal Harmony and Counterpoint)

Bard Conservatory Of Music

John Halle

Assignment 1

Due: 8/29/16

A Harmony/Counterpoint teacher/student dialogue (Note: Instructions for completing the assignment at the end of the document.)

Q: Questions asked by a first year Bard Conservatory Student
A: Answers given by slightly disheveled middle aged teacher of Harmony and Counterpoint.

Q: Why do I need to take this class?
A: It’s required.

Q: Why is it required?
A: Graduate schools require that you be able to 1) harmonize soprano or bass lines in four parts 2) provide figured bass analyses of pieces from within the standard repertoire 3) understand something about the dominant musical forms of the so-called common practice period.

Q: But why do they require it?
A: Because they always have.

Q: That’s a terrible answer.
A: That’s not a question. You’re supposed to ask questions.

Q: Oh right. I’m sorry. Isn’t that a terrible answer?
A: Yes.

Q: Do you have a better one?
A: I don’t know. Should I?

Q: That’s not an answer
A: You’re right. But that’s not a question.

Q: You’re right. Sorry. Isn’t that not an answer?
A: Yes.

Q: Can you do better?
A: I’m not sure. Let me try.

Q: OK.
A: That’s not a question.

Q: Sorry. Can I help?
A: Yes you can.

Q: How can I help?
A: By asking questions about what you think you should learn.

Q: But how do I know what I should learn?
A: You don’t. That’s part of our job. To teach you what you need to know.

Q; But are you confident that you know?
A: No.

Q: Why not?
A: For lots of reasons.

Q: Can you share some of them?
A: Sure. Here’s one. We all know lots of musicians with nothing more than the most rudimentary understanding of music theory (and sometimes not even that) who play their instruments beautifully, perform compellingly both as soloists and in ensembles and have had hugely successful careers.

Q: Why is that a problem?
A: It’s not a problem for them.

Q: But why is it a problem for you?
A: Well, presumably at conservatories, what we teach should have a more or less direct practical application to students’ ability to prepare themselves for professional careers in music.

Q: And you’re saying that what you teach does not?
A: Let’s say it’s not so obvious that it does, especially now.

Q: Why is that?
A: For lots of reasons.

Q: Can you give some of them?
A: Well I already gave you one.

Q: You did, but are musicians like that typical?
A: No.

Q: Well then, how about those who are.
A: Some of them get something out of learning counterpoint and harmony.

Q: What exactly?
A: Harmony tells you the difference between wrong and right notes-at least in the music of the so-called “common practice” period which remains, for better or worse, and maybe for necessary reasons, the conservatory repertoire.

Q: You mean the difference between consonance and dissonance?
A: Not exactly. Lots of “right” notes are dissonances, and vice versa.

Q: How do you tell the difference?
A: Take the class!

Q: But can’t I learn that without taking the class?
A: Sure you can learn the definition, but not what it really means.

Q: Well, what else will I learn?
A: What do you want to learn?

Q: That’s a question.
A: That’s not a question.

Both: Ooops. You’re right.

Q: What else will I learn?
A: You’ll learn about chords, how they progress from one to another and how diatonic chords function as elements within harmonic progressions, how different melodies and basses can admit of many different sorts of harmonizations depending on the extent of one’s harmonic vocabulary and, ultimately, how to write melodies and harmonizations which make sense to the ear and are sometime very attractive.

Q: But can’t I learn the same thing from other kinds of harmony classes? Say the harmony they teach in the jazz program?
A: You can and you absolutely should. But there is a difference.

Q: What’s that?
A: Most jazz and so-called “popular” music harmony consists in treating chords as self-contained structures, e.g. C7, F# maj 7, E7 #9, etc. within a lead sheet as opposed to harmonies (or simultaneities) within a fully composed score.

Q: But baroque figured bass is something like a “lead sheet isn’t it”?
A: Absolutely, but remember that pieces including figured bass notation specify not just the bass, but also the melody and composers work hard to establish a relationship between the two parts which seems musically coherent and satisfying.

Q: Why does that matter?
A: Because it means that the piece is defined by two layers of counterpoint both of which are defining elements of the piece itself. In pop music, the bass tends to play a more functional role, supporting a melody line which is the primary, if not exclusive focus of attention.

Q: But that’s condescending. Lots of great bass lines in pop music are very melodic aren’t they?
A: You’re right. It was condescending. My mistake. In fact, the broad consensus among academics like myself (i.e. those teaching this class at most institutions) is that classical music is no “better” than any other, or to quote one of our better known musicologists, classical music is “only one (style) among many, and by not the most prestigious.”

Q: But do you really believe that pop is just as “good” as classical?
A: I’m not going to comment. I was just stating the fact that those who believe that are very much in the minority not only among students (who have always preferred pop music) but now among the faculty here at Bard very few of whom have much interest in or knowledge of the kind of music performed on our concerts and recitals (with more than a few notable exceptions, of course).

Q: That’s sad.
A: That’s not a question.

Q: Oh yeah. Isn’t that sad?
A: Well maybe, but it’s possible to get over it.

Q: How?
A: First by recognizing that different styles or genres of music have their own unique qualities and virtues and then to recognize what those are for the kind of music which forms the core of the conservatory curriculum (here and elsewhere).

Q: What do think those are?
A: Take the class.

Q: I am. I have to. But can’t you say more?
A: Well, I alluded to them before when I talked about counterpoint within classical music-the independence of the bass line which means that it can be heard as a self-contained melody but which also conforms to the “rules” of common practice harmony (e.g. not doubling leading tones, avoiding cross relations, and parallel fifths etc.) in combining with the other parts. That can also go for other parts as well.

Q: But if it’s so that that’s unique to classical music, why is that so?
A: The reason has to do with classical music, as opposed to all other styles being more or less entirely notated. And that means composers can create elaborate and complex plans for their pieces working out intricate relationships between the parts. While some parts are primary, others secondary, and still others seem insignificant often what these roles are is not at all apparent on the first, or maybe even after many, listenings. And so re-experiencing pieces is a constant discovery of many treasures which were composed into, and sometimes concealed within, the score.

Q: That’s a long answer. Can you keep your answers shorter?
A: I’ll try.

Q: But is the kind of complexity you’re talking about a good thing?
A: Yes and no. But I think we can first agree that complicatedness is a bad thing.

Q: What’s the difference between complicatedness and complexity?
A: I’ll let you think about that. If you really want an answer you should take some of my other classes.

Q: Which ones?
A: My class on language and music, for example.

Q: How does that answer the question?
A: Well for one thing, you will learn about other languages some of which at least seem to be very complex.

Q: You mean languages like Russian, Latin and Greek which have many different forms of nouns and verbs?
A: Yes, exactly. These are called “inflections” and as you may know, English is quite impoverished in terms of its inflectional morphology. For example, we only inflect our verbs in the 3rd person singular. (e.g. I, you, we, they walk. He/she walks.)

Q: What? Aren’t we getting off track here?
A: Maybe a little but bear with me: if you take the class, you’ll discover that, for example, the central asian Georgian language inflects for both the subject and the object resulting in a paradigm having (at least theoretically) thirty six forms for each tense.

Q: Wow. Isn’t it amazing that kids are able to learn that language?
A: Yes. But the music which you perform is similar.

Q: How so?
A: For one thing, in classical music all of the notes of the twelve note scale play a functional role.

Q: But don’t they in all forms of music?
A: No. Many (probably the majority) are limited to the five note (pentatonic) scale. Others are limited to the seven notes of the diatonic scale.

Q: But most of our music uses a seven note scale. How is our music different from theirs?
A: Take the class.

Q: How will that answer the question?
A: For one thing, you’ll see that while you’re right that the diatonic scale defines a basic foreground set of pitches, the availability of the other five notes is fundamental to the “common practice” both to create additional harmonies within a key (so called secondary or applied dominants) but also to allow for the possibility of modulation to other keys. Modulation is rare among the world’s musics-arguably it is unique to so-called classical music.

Q: So is that why you brought up Georgian?
A: Yes, exactly. Common practice “classical” music is like Georgian in this respect-making maximal demands on our (or on the child’s) capacity to make sense of what we hear when we are exposed to it. And conversely English might be compared to “simple” or “primitive” genres of music which generally (though not always) are limited to a small set of pitches.

Q: And also to a lesser degree the so called classical languages like Greek or Latin are more like Georgian in this respect, right?
A: Yes.

Q: And just as those formed the basis of education for many centuries, by analogy it might seem reasonable to take the common practice period as forming a similar function within musical education now. Right?
A: Exactly. The reasons why students learned the “dead” languages Latin and Greek wasn’t just to develop awareness of “classical literature” which was foundational to the culture of the west, though that was surely one factor.

Q: And the other factor was that one didn’t learn the language, so to speak, one learned those languages to learn something about language-i.e. the structures (visible and invisible) which are inherent in what it means to be fluent in any language.
A: Exactly.

Q: So then you’re saying that even if Bach, Beethoven and Brahms etc. are no longer perceived to be the central pillars of musical culture that they once were, there’s a reason to become fluent within the musical language they were communicating in. Right?
A: Yes, that’s essentially my (our?) position. By studying the grammar of classical languages whose underlying structure is, in many respects more apparent in its surface forms, we are able to learn something about what it is that makes utterances in all languages cohere and make sense. And the same thing can be said about common practice music, though there’s a lot more to be said on this.

Q: But all that seems overly intellectual. And it still makes me sad since you seem to be claiming that while our music might be unique, it’s not uniquely valuable. Isn’t that what you’re saying?
A: I think you have trapped me in a contradiction. But I think there is a way out of it.

Q: What’s that?
A: That’s your job.

Q: What, you want me to help you find a way out of your contradiction? That’s outrageous.
A: That’s not a question.

Q: Oh sorry. I meant isn’t it outrageous that you want me to help you find a way out of your contradiction?
A: Maybe. But you’re a Bard conservatory student and you’re supposed to be thinking about the bigger questions raised by music, why we play it and why we value the music we do. Isn’t that the reason why you came here?

Q: That’s not a question is it?
A: You’re right. Even so. I’d like you to think about what you have just read and continue the dialog.

Q: What? You mean, this is an assignment?
A: Yes, it’s an assignment.

Q: What do I need to do?
A: For next class, I would like you to continue this dialog picking up on any of the topics raised in the above.

Q: How do I do that?
A: You do not need to pick the dialog up at the very end continuing it on from there. You could choose to insert your new questions and answers at any point where an issue is raised that you have something to say on.

Q: Where might that be?
A: Your choice. If you need help you can talk to me outside of class or email me.

Q: OK, I’ll give it try.
A: That’s not a question.

Q: Right. Anything else you’d like to say?
A: Yes. It should be around 500 to 800 words. Longer if you’d like though I will expect that it meet the basic requirements for quality of expression which will be expected in your other classes. Namely, that it be clearly articulated, reasonably well informed, not containing any gross errors in spelling and punctuation and, hopefully, that it will be enjoyable for me and your fellow students to read. As we will next class. OK?

Q: That’s not a question.
A: Right!

Q: Oh yeah. When’s it due?
A: The beginning of next class. Enjoy!

Q: OK . . . ?

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