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Book Review

Music Theory in Concept and Practice

Music Theory in Concept and Practice by Baker, Beach, Bernard
James Baker, David Beach, Jonathan Bernard, eds.
University of Rochester Press
ISBN-10: 1580462251
ISBN-13: 978-1580462259
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Music Theory in Concept and Practice is another in the "Eastman Studies in Music" series. It is not a "textbook", aiming to teach, for instance, time and key signatures. But a survey – a celebration, indeed – of the discipline of music theory as it stands at the start of the twenty-first century. Specialist editors James Baker, David Beach and Jonathan Bernard have assembled a dozen and a half essays by as many experts mostly from North America to explore the state of the discipline. They are evenly grouped into four areas; in Part One, Historical and Theoretical:

  • historical perspectives
  • theoretical perspectives,

and in the second part, Analytical Studies:

  • the tonal repertoire
  • twentieth century music.

The essays are each between 15 and 45 pages long, and liberally illustrated with musical examples, tables, quotes and (where necessary) diagrams; footnotes are at the bottom of each page. There is a good index, but no bibliography. The substance of the book is 500 pages long.

The rationale behind the publication is to acknowledge the resurgence of music theory as a discipline in its own right (as distinct from music history and other branches of musicology) over the past half century. The editors draw attention to increased interest as evidenced by an increasing number of publications (both books and journals); to the founding and work of the independent Society of Music Theory; and to the spread of this revival in North America to Europe. Although the authors do not use the term "maturity" as such, it can safely be argued that the diversity of strands of research and practice (influence on performance, for example) suggests that the discipline is in safe hands and now must be considered well-established. Music Theory in Concept and Practice reflects this state of affairs.

At the center of work since the middle of the last century have been three principle areas: historical research; tonality; and post-tonal music. They are connected. Historical research looks at music developmentally; it attempts to explore the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of one composer's works in the light of what came before and indeed of what else is happening at the same time, but perhaps outside their milieu. Such areas as neoclassicism, modernism and voice leading in atonal music are well covered in this book. Excellent essays by Pieter C. Van Den Toorn, Arnold Whittall and Joseph N. Straus respectively explore these areas.

Shenkerian theory is prominent in Music Theory in Concept and Practice's coverage of common-practice tonality, which stretches to chromatic and "transitional" compositions. Beach himself has a superb analysis of tonality in Bach's B Major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Typical of the book, it's dense (meaning substantial, packed), closely reasoned and necessarily relies on some musical familiarity and experience, and on the intricate and unflinching analysis of a score. Other essays extend through Schubert, Chopin and Liszt to Gershwin and Schoenberg.

No less stimulating (though, interestingly, receiving no greater highlighting or coverage) is the examination of post-tonal music. If there is a central figure here, it's Allen Forte, to whom the book is dedicated. His theories of the set complex is actually expounded in the first essay of Music Theory in Concept and Practice by another of the book's editors, Jonathan Bernard. But its paradigmatic status permeates those studies in the section dealing with tonality (and its development into music written in our time) in general. The inclusion of an empirical study of issues of aural cognition of tonal and atonal music by Elizabeth West Martin is indicative of the simultaneously eclectic and thoughtful selection of material for the book.

Although in no way polemical or advocative, the editors of Music Theory in Concept and Practice are fully aware of the irony that, when set alongside historical musicology, music theory (a much older discipline: writings go back to the Greek world, of course; and possibly beyond) has traditionally been seen as a secondary, a more recent, discipline – largely because of the prominence accorded the study of the history of music in the first half of the last century. By the meticulous approach to their material, its selection and the breadth of the issues covered in this book, the editors have succeeded in making the case that both disciplines are to be taken on equal footing. They have all but proved that music theory is no longer to be considered as the functional servant to better musicianship in performance.

While it could be argued that this case could have been made just as effectively, or perhaps more so, by a co-ordinated narrative by one author, by an explicit survey or history of the renaissance through which the varied, vibrant and eminently sustainable disciplines of music theory are now happily going, Music Theory in Concept and Practice still brings us much of what we need to see that for ourselves. It is likely to appeal to two readerships: those interested in following such a trend and understanding its components. And those interested in the works and composers, the topics and areas of study which are addressed by the individual contributors… Scriabin, Milhaud, Webern and Maxwell Davis as well as those already mentioned.

Such an approach – unselfconscious and authoritative – makes the book accessible both to specialists, and to the general reader who wants to be made more aware of what's new and exciting in the field. While there is a preponderance of attention to music written in the past 250 years, the underlying principles exemplified by the essays gathered in Music Theory in Concept and Practice are clearly shown as applicable to the music of any period or style. That the text would be hard going for anyone without something of a technical musical background cannot be denied. But to work at a selection or the entirety of the essays here will pay sufficient dividends to make careful study very worthwhile. Each essay has a short synopsis which will help too. A timely and well-produced title, then; and one which deserves to stand as a major contributor to the increasingly valuable literature on an area of interest central to the informed appreciation of music. Recommended.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Sealey.

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