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

Patrick van Deurzen

4. Non-compositional music-theoretical training.



Before exploring this question, I first would like to make a remark about the term ‘music theory’, and the possible issues around this debatable term. If one looks at the content of treatises and textbooks that would be categorized as ‘music theory’, one sees that the nature of music theoretical writings is so diverse that it is difficult to see a common denominator. Several music theorists like Carl Dahlhaus and Thomas Christensen have noticed this problem. Dahlhaus mentions the fact that the subject matter of music theory has shifted so dramatically over time, that it is difficult to write a meaningful history about it (Christensen 2002:1). Christensen then gives an example to illustrate this diversity, not by taking books that are centuries apart, but that are written more or less at the same time. This makes a strong point. He names three books from the early 17th century, Thomas Campion’s Eminently practical guide for the young composer on harmonising a bass lineby a new way of making four parts in counterpoint by a most familiar, and infallible rule from 1618. From the same year, he takes a “learned” Musicae compendium by René Descartes with no direct “practical function”, and as a last example of diversity, an “unapologetic paean” on the Harmonic cosmos –Utriusque Cosmi, maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica of Plato’s Timeaus by Robert Fludd, written between 1617-1621 (Christensen 2002:1). Without discussing this any further, in this paper I will focus on what Christensen characterised as an “eminently practical guide”. What is a practical guide? I would say, it connects to a pedagogical purpose in which music making of any kind is the goal. This answer is far from unambiguous, because there are many treatises and textbooks that combine both practical and speculative music theory. Wason mentions an example from the 9th century treatise Musica enchiriadis, with descriptions of fixed pitch notation, polyphonic singing and modal theory alongside music theory based on ancient (Latin) authorities. (Wason 2002:48).

Having said this, let us return to the initial question: what could qualify as specific or typical non-compositional music-theoretical training? 

A way to tackle this question is to imagine a beginner, a pupil who starts his training in an instrumental or vocal musical practice that is based upon principles of our classical music history. A basic music-theoretical skill immediately pops-up: reading and knowing how to decipher musical notation. This implies having knowledge of the staff, the clef system, rhythmic notation and all the symbols added to a score. To learn this skill in an isolated, silent way would be inefficient and the equivalent of learning Chinese characters without any relation to their meaning or sound, to learn them as mere graphics. Historically, we see that learning notation was combined with learning to sing, since until the 17th century most of the music worth notating was being sung, and the professional music-market consisted pre-dominantly of singers. With the rise of instrumental music after 1600, the idea of singing as a way into music, as a basic musical skill, remained a fundamental idea in music education. First sing, then learn to play an instrument is a returning advice from 18th century Italian masters until 20th century pedagogical concepts, like Kodaly’s. The quite unknown 18th century Italian composer Saverio Valente (birth and dead dates unknown) wrote a canonic Madrigal to support this idea: se tu non canti no sonerai mai no no (if you can’t sing, no, you’ll never play, no), and a century later Francesco Flormino (1800 – 1888) stated that new students (figliuoli) were not allowed to touch an instrument. They lived by the oldest saying at the conservatoires that chi canta suona (If you can sing, you can play. Sanguinetti 2010:43). How strict this rule was followed, or to what level the singing was developed before pupils would choose an instrument is difficult to say, but if we examine a case from France at the end of the 19th century, we see Claude Debussy being introduced to music by taking piano-lessons. In 1870 at the age of eight, he received his first lessons in Cannes with the Italian violinist and piano-teacher Jean Cerutti, from whom Debussy remembered to have learned “the first rudiments of music”. These rudiments have not been described, but I imagine that he learned to read notes as well as the correspondent keys on the piano in order to learn a tune. Maybe the first rudiments of music also meant singing, but there is no proof of the chi canta suona principle as Debussy’s starting point into music. A year later he continues the lessons with Antoinette Mauté, whom he praised later in his life by saying that she taught him “the little I know about the piano” (Jensen 2014:7). The moment Debussy enters the Paris conservatoire in 1872 as a 10 year old, being the youngest of eight students admitted out of thirty-eight (Lockspeiser 1978:25), he started his solfège lessons with the illustrious Albert Lavignac, until 1876 next to piano-lessons with Antoine Marmontel (Clevenger 2001:303). It would be interesting to know what kind of entrance test Debussy did, considering his level of (sight-) singing, since 19th century students who applied for the Paris conservatoire were expected to have a certain level of sight-singing, and –reading, assured by teaching assistants (Holoman 2015:8). Lavignac’s lessons have been described by Jensen as one of the most important and most challenging in the curriculum, training the students in sight-singing, dictation, sight-reading in all clefs, and transposition skills (Jensen 2014:12). One should consider however that there was not much competition for Lavignac’s lessons, since Debussy followed only one other class for the first two years next to his piano lessons, and in the two years after, just one ensemble class was added (Clevenger 2001:303). One of Debussy's melodic dictations for the 1876 Solfege Competition, his final year of solfege, for which he received a medal, surprisingly does not show the feared level one would expect in the qualification of 'the most challenging' (Clevenger 2001:345). It’s in fact a rather simple diatonic dictation in G major. 

What I want to say with this Debussy-case, is that either the singing was so self-evident that there is no need for mentioning it, or it was more in the background than we would expect in the ‘instrumental’ 19th-century.

It would be interesting to have more insight in the history of singing at the earliest stage of music education, i.e. of singing as a way of learning ‘the rudiments of music’. Not only in the afore-mentioned case of Debussy in his pre-conservatoire training, but even more with students studying at a conservatoire. For now, some questions about the exact methods and level of singing remain. What were for example the solfeggi’s that students at the early Italian conservatories had to master, and to which degree, before he could choose an instrument? How strict was the school in keeping up the level? What was the role of singing in other musical cultures, like the Thomasschule in Leipzig, Germany, especially after 1600, when playing an instrument became more and more a competitor next to singing? Remarks about “if you can’t sing, no, you’ll never play” were made in times that singing was the most important musical performance, and made by singing teachers. Was it mentioned in books on learning an instrument as well? I find it quite telling that the earliest quote by the 15th c. composer Alexander Agricola on the difference between singers and instrumentalists was about the fact that “he regretted the gulf that seperated well-trained singer and mechanical instrumentalist” (Rainbow 1992:19). The ideal is in the words of Agricola ‘to master an instrument, first learn to sing’ but the practice was obviously not like that. Another interesting aspect of this, is that when in the literature ‘singing’ is mentioned, it means actual singing, and not sight-singing. One had to train the musical voice first before going into sight-singing. How different this is in conservatories nowadays, where non-singers without a proper voice spend years on just sight-singing, with too many times little musical result. Was this an acceptable practice in previous centuries?
There are remarks on the relation between singing and playing an instrument in Johann Matteson’s Der Volkommenen Capelmeister (1739) in a chapter on “Von der Kunst zierlich zu singen und zu spielen”, where he states that “Weil es eine ausgemachte sache ist, das niemand ein instrument zierlich handhaben konne, der nicht das meiste und beste seiner geschiklichkeit vom singen entlehnet…” (Mattheson 1999: 120), but this does not necessarily mean that the instrumentalist first needs to sing zierlichbefore being able to play an instrument, as long as he knows how to recognise and borrow the zierlichkeit from singing. That for Mattheson singing is an important reference point, and the relation between the way the musicality of a singer and an instrumentalist works is connected – “aller musicalische Hande Werck nur zu nachahmung der Menschenstimme…”(Matteson 1999: 120)- is evident, but in this chapter it also becomes clear that a singer is a singer and an instrumentalist is an instrumentalist. 


Let us now return to the music-theoretical knowledge in the form of reading, needed for our young student. We see that from the moment that notation comes into existence in a form that is close to our modern staff notation (i.e. with its five-line staff, and notes in different shapes to indicate length), the first sight-singing system is presented by Guido of Arezzo with his Guidonian Hand. Apart from the direct knowledge of the hand and its relation to notation, which basic knowledge of scales, intervals, and counterpoint -as described in Arezzo’s Micrologus- was expected from his singers? To what extent could they sum up or reproduce the different aspects on the division of the monochord, or the Pythagorean interval proportions, the ambitus and character of the modes, or even the modes themselves, the principles of melody construction etc.? Or, was this knowledge meant for scholars and composers, and were the singers skilled in what they did every day: sing? Was musical knowledge present in the form of actual skills, like sight-singing or maybe improvising 2 part counterpoint?
Similar questions could be asked for later periods in which instrumental music developed, and then especially in relation to monodic instruments: to which degree did they have to learn to read chords as well? Or did they read music that was not part of their own repertoire? Would a flute player study a string quartet, or even orchestral scores?

I find it striking that if we look once more at the timetable of Debussy at the Paris Conservatoire, we don’t see any analysis-classes. There is a novelty though in the form of music-history lessons. At the end of the 19th century, for the first time there seems to be a need for teaching music history, and this could be seen in the same light as Jeppesen's book on counterpoint, which shows an interest in historical music over the too complex modern music. Debussy, by the way, was not interested in these lessons, and never attended them.


The next step would be looking at other non-compositional music-theoretical training, like ear training or basso continuo playing, which will be worked out at a later stage.




The front side and a page from the Harmonic cosmos –Utriusque Cosmi, maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica of Plato’s Timeaus.

A musical dictation in Debussy's handwriting