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

Patrick van Deurzen


Although still limited in scope, this research gave me some fascinating insights on the role of music theory in early conservatoires. Some of these I already suspected, like the fact that a lot of practical books on writing techniques were meant for composers, not for instrumentalists or singers. These musicians would only be brought to this body of knowledge when necessary, for example in times where improvisation played a more important role in performance. Still, there is a lot to discover in music education of previous centuries. First of all, to know more precisely what  a musical practice looked like in a certain time period, and how theoretical knowledge provided needs within a conservatoire. But my overall idea at this point is that most professional music education was focused on skills that had direct relevance for a certain practice outside the conservatoire. The amounts of complaints throughout history, from Agricola to Riemann, about musicians that ‘just’ make music (i.e. mechanically without intellectual depth and understanding), show how ‘practical’ most conservatoires must have been. In this light, it is also interesting to see that in the 20th century the amount of ‘unpractical’ subjects doubled or tripled. I will not say that this is a good or a bad thing, it is an observation, and I would need more time and space to research and discuss this, and I certainly hope to do this in the future. 


One of the things that gave me a new insight is the role, or actually the meaning of singing. It might be naive, but I always related this emphasis on singing to sight-singing. From the very beginning of my teaching career -which was taking over a solfege-class at the Amsterdam Conservatoire in 1992- I was surprised that I had to teach students sight singing who couldn’t sing, or only very poorly. At this point, I think we can make a direct change, by learning students to sing properly. Sing wonderful repertoire from different periods, different settings (voice and piano, choir pieces, pieces of their instruments repertoire) should be the starting point, together with developing their reading skills, and eventually the sight-singing.


Another aspect that keeps me busy, is how to bring more contemporary repertoire into the school. This is a challenge for several reasons, to start with the most important fact that most staff and students within the conservatoire, and the community outside, favours music that is not contemporary. In my own lessons at the Royal Conservatoire I have changed my lesson plan drastically, in order to give more room for music outside the common practice. To show students from the very beginning that there are different musical systems within which music can be composed. Also, this path needs more exploration, and I hope that the near future will provide inspiring answers.