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

Patrick van Deurzen

1. Music theory textbooks were in fact composition textbooks.

In the introduction to this article, this first aspect became apparent: if we look closely, we see that well into the 19th century, music-theoretical textbooks were in fact compositional textbooks and meant for a compositional practice. Sometimes it is the question for who or what certain books were meant. Writers of Kompositionslehre like A.B. Marx or G. Weber, were amateur composers with a small output, and didn’t work at a conservatoire or musicological department of a university. If we look at the protagonists mentioned in the introduction, we see that they are without exception composers. Nowadays, music theorists at conservatories like to quote composers to stress the importance of music theory for instrumental students, but it is questionable if the composer had instrumentalists in mind when sharing his ‘theoretical’ thoughts. Are there any testimonies from 18th and 19th-century instrumentalists about their relation to music-theoretical subjects in their conservatoire education? [1]

Most students in the 19th century, for example in Paris and Prague, were trained to become orchestra musicians or music teachers, not composers. And some of the most famous soloists, like Paganini and Liszt, never had a conservatoire education. What did their solfege training look like,what kind of music-theoretical training did they get and on which level? [2] Judging by the prospectus of the Leipziger conservatoire (founded in 1843 by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy), this school did something special when advocating for more intellectual depth and understanding next to ‘just’ music making. Mendelssohn did not ‘just’ want to train young musicians, which was obviously the norm at that time, but wanted the conservatoire to be a place for ‘higher education in music’. Intellectual depth and understanding seems to be an issue, in the sense of educating ‘all-round musicians’, or ‘human beings and not just musicians’, because it is heard all over the 19th century. In France by Choron in the 1820s to D’Indy in the 1890s, and in Germany at the end of the 19th century by Riemann in his article Unsere Konservatorien [3], criticising ‘exclusive training for practical performance in most conservatories and the lack of discipline and intellectual depth (Oxford Music Online; conservatories: 9). Also in Italy at the end of the century, it was a common opinion that “not a single feature of education was carried out satisfactory by the conservatoires, not even the practical aspect….”(Caprioli 2017:175). The Italian composer Giacomo Orefice proposed a radical change in music education of his time in which “instrumental education was separated from composition and disconnected from singing schools” (Caprioli 2017:175). Orefici envisioned a transformation of the conservatoire into university education “that favored the development of a historical and aesthetic consciousness addressed to the widest number of possible users” (Caprioli 2017:176).[4]


The ‘compositional dominance’ in the history of music theory also becomes clear if we scan through Robert Wasons chapter Musica practica: music theory as pedagogy. The ‘practica’ described here, refers to a compositional practice, starting as early as with Guido of Arezzo’s Micrologus (approx. 1026). If it is about monophonic melody and diaphony (organum) in the Micrologus, or the counterpoint rules of the Renaissance, written down by composers like Johannes Tinctoris or Gioseffo Zarlino, or the textbooks of the Baroque, such as Traité de L’harmonie (1722) by Jean Philipe Rameau, the Classical, Heinrich Christoph Koch’s Versuch einer Anleitung zur Composition (1782-1793), or the books mentioned before from the Romantic era, it is all about composition. Or maybe one should say: about composition and improvisation, since at least until the end of the 18th century, improvisation seems to play an important role.[5]

One can conclude that this kind of music theory was actually not music theory but Kompositionslehre, as contained in a lot of the actual titles of ‘music theory books’, and was in the first place beneficial for composers. There we see a possible reason why pedagogical textbooks until halfway the 19th century were dealing with the musical vocabulary of their time or their recent history, and after this became the victim of a deadlock that continues until today: since the mid-19th century, it has become problematic to translate the vocabulary of contemporary composers into pedagogical textbooks, also those used within the conservatoire. Several reasons could be identified to explain this impasse. We will discuss some of them in the next paragraph.

[1] Further research is necessary here.

[2] From this perspective I would be curious to hear about the music-theoretical education of the Dutch piano-brothers Arthur and Lucas Jussen, or others like David Kuyken, who didn’t have a conservatoire training. In the near future I hope to make an appointment with them to speak about this. 

[3] English translation: The Bulletin of Historical Research in Music Education, Vol. 15, No. 3 (May 1994, pp. 220-235)

[4] Here the question pops up: what is the relation to Caprioli’s ideas and music education at universities in the United States? Further research is necessary here.

[5] Further research needs to be done into renaissance treatises, like Thomas Morley’s A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practical Musicke (1597), in which the second book is on improvisation; or the upcoming study of Nicholas Baragwanath on Solfeggio.