The role of music theory in professional music education, a historic overview

Patrick van Deurzen


In the 19th century, we can observe a growing crisis in the pedagogical aspect of music theory at the conservatoire. Music theory textbooks, or treatises on composition as they were often called, seem to have more and more difficulty to synchronise with compositional practice. Anton Bruckner, a student of the famous Viennese theory pedagogue Simon Sechter, would say about the “seemingly endless stream of abstract counterpoint and harmony exercises” he wrote for Sechters lessons: “Look Gentlemen, this is the rule, but I don’t compose that way” (Wason 2002:62). One could argue that this has always been the case in music history, as Knud Jeppesen says in his famous counterpoint book: “first came the music itself; only later could the principles of its creation –its theory- be deduced” (Jeppesen 1992:ix). But as a footnote to this quote indicates, there are many contrary examples in the history of music. Apart from that, I would argue that the distance between a Sechter-exercise and Bruckner’s own composing is bigger than for example Zarlino’s counterpoint exercises and the music that was written at that time.

At the 19th century Leipziger conservatoire, two influential theoretical works show the above-mentioned crises at hand. The first is Ernest Friederich Richter’s Lehrbuch der Harmonie (1853), and the second, Harmonielehre (1883-84), by his successor Salomon Jadassohn. The latter was a part of Jadassohn’s Musikalische Kompositionslehre, and hardly distinguishable from Richter’s work (Wason 2002:64).

The front side and an exercise-page from the Lehrbuch der Harmonie of the German conductor and composer  Ernest Friederich Richter (1808-1879)

These books were used throughout the 19th century, not only in Leipzig but all over Europe, and are “symptomatic of the dearth of new ideas, and the irrelevance that pedagogical theory was falling into: (…) neither a theory nor a pedagogy of ‘Nineteenth -Century Harmony’ ever really seemed to get under way.” (Wason 2002:64) At the moment that theorists like Hugo Riemann in his Die Lehre vom den tonalen Funktionen der Akkorde (1893), or the Harmonielehre (1906) of Rudolf Louis and Ludwig Thuille tried to overcome this deadlock, the music of Claude Debussy and Arnold Schönberg was already discovering a new and unprecedented territory that outdated these theory-books before their ink was dry. Max Reger, a student of Riemann, was negative about his own teachers’ theories, and called them “limited and reactionary” (Kok 2010: 71).  In Italian conservatoires, there were discussions on their own failure in “meeting the needs of modernity (…)(Caprioli 2017:175). In France, it was Vincent D’Indy who found no inspiration in the “unimaginative theory instruction” of the Paris Conservatoire, remembering the organ-classes of Cesar Franck as “the veritable center of composition study” (Wason 2002:67). In 1900, he left the Conservatoire because he was unable to reform its curriculum, and started a new kind of educational institution: the Scola Cantorum. It is well-known (and documented) that his younger colleague Claude Debussy had ‘fights’ with his composition teacher Ernest Guiraud on theoretical topics, where the younger one questions the tradition and theory held in high esteem by the Conservatoire (see Weiss/Taruskin 2008:355-56).

In the twentieth century, we find pedagogical books that tried to do justice to the new styles that emerged, and go beyond 19thcentury music examples. To mention just three of them: Edwin von der Nulls Moderne Harmonik (1932), Paul Hindemiths Unterweisung im Tonsatz (1937-39), Vincent Persichetti’s Twentieth Century Harmony (1961). However, these books never made it to become standard conservatoire teaching materials, replacing textbooks on 18th and 19th century practice.

The front-side and a page from Moderne Harmonie of the German musicologist and music-critic Edwin von der Null (1905-1945). 

I bought this copy second hand in the library of the Rotterdam Conservatoire. Within the context of my research, it is ironic to read the added sticker on the front-side: 'afgeschreven' ('written off')

Von der Null's Moderne Harmonie is an analytical book, therefore different than a Harmonielehre. I will come back to this shift from harmony-exercises to -analysis, and the shift of composers to musicologists/music theorists as writers of these 'theory' books in chapter 2.


Until the mid-19thcentury, conservatoires had been using pedagogical textbooks that dealt with the musical vocabulary of its own time, or at least its recent history. But after that, the textbooks have become victim of the before-mentioned deadlock, which resulted in a standstill that continues until today, making the gap between contemporary music and music theory education bigger every year. Why did this happen? This question has no easy answer, but in the following three chapters I would like to discuss three aspects that relate to this problem: 

1. Music theory textbooks were in fact composition textbooks; 

2. The increasing complexity of the music and the development into individual compositional styles in the 20th century; 

3. The increasing gap between professional and amateur musicians in combination with the decrease of popularity of contemporary music since 1900. 

Of course, all three aspects are in close relation with each other, but are worth a separate investigation.

The final 4th chapter of my research is on non-compositional music-theoretical training, which is not finished yet.