In his wrap-up to the 2018 Society for Music Theory (SMT) national convention, program committee chair Roman Ivanovitch reported a sobering statistic: of the 371 submitted paper proposals, only one was from an individual who identified as Black (2019, 13). Statistics for other minority groups were not much more encouraging. Only seven proposers were Hispanic, for example (and none had their proposal accepted). If the reader was not already aware, the field of music theory has a significant lack of diversity, with its membership skewing heavily White and male.

There are undoubtedly many factors that contribute to the lack of diversity in music theory departments, such as social biases and economic inequality. But one underlying reason, as adumbrated in the recent College Music Society (CMS) "Manifesto," may be that the music studied in a typical college theory classroom skews (like its faculty) heavily White and male, such that "large numbers of music majors graduate with little or no hands-on engagement with music beyond European classical repertory" (Campbell et al. 2014, 5). In other words, the demographics of those teaching music theory simply reflect the demographics of the musicians under study (and vice versa). Real change in representation within the field, therefore, would require real change in representation within the curriculum. Consequently, the Manifesto's authors propose an "integrated" music theory core, in which "jazz, popular, global, and classical European practices" stand shoulder-to-shoulder (14); similar proposals for a stylistically integrated (or neutral) music degree program have been offered by others (e.g., John Covach, Daniel Harrison, Timothy Chenette).

Some readers may feel that music theory pedagogy, at least in their own teaching, already reflects this integrated model (e.g., Hoag 2016, Sayrs 2016). Indeed, many newer music theory textbooks (e.g., Clendinning and Marvin 2016, Snodgrass 2016a, Holm-Hudson 2016) present popular and jazz examples alongside Western classical masterworks. "We are making strides in exposing students to literature beyond European classical rep[ertoire]," asserts Jennifer Snodgrass in a webinar response to the Manifesto (2016b, 13:30). She supports her comment with survey results from CMS and SMT members (2016c), showing that a significant portion of students have extensive exposure to musical styles beyond the classical canon. Nonetheless, these same survey results reveal that Western classical music remains the focus of most music theory curriculums, with many students receiving minimal exposure to other styles. "Of course," Snodgrass concedes, "we can do more." But how much more? What proportion of jazz, classical, popular, and other musical styles might be appropriate to meaningfully change the demographics of music theory?

In this essay, I argue that the integrated (or stylistically neutral) approach will never be a sufficient or adequate solution to the diversity issues facing our field. I propose instead that the entire first year of music theory coursework should be situated completely within popular music, including Hip-Hop/Rap, Pop, Rock, R&B, Latin, Country, EDM, and Reggae. This is the only way, I contend, to genuinely address diversity in the music theory curriculum—and hopefully one day, its students and faculty. The primary factor in this recommendation is that, despite its majority share in the music theory classroom, Western classical music now accounts for no more than 1% of listenership in the United States (Nielsen 2017, BuzzAngle 2018). Admittedly, this small percentage probably does not reflect the listening habits of current music majors. But if the goal is to broaden the reach of the music theory curriculum beyond the traditional student, then the demographics of the music studied should mirror the demographics of a diverse student body. American popular music accomplishes this by nature, with a much more representative proportion of non-White, non-male composers and performers. In short, if music departments hope to seriously engage new students (and foster new faculty), that means seriously engaging with the other 99% of music, critically at an early stage in a student's exposure to academic music study.

To be clear, I am not advocating that classical music should not be studied in a comprehensive way at the college level. I envision after the first year of theory coursework that students would go on to take upper-division theory classes in particular musical styles according to their interests or academic track. A course in Baroque figured bass realization, for example, would presumably be a requirement for organ and harpsichord majors. In this regard, my proposal is somewhat similar to the "modular" design suggested by Megan Lavengood (2020), in which she proposes that students cycle through style-based courses immediately after a one-semester introduction to music theory (essentially music fundamentals). The de-sequenced structure of Lavengood's proposed curriculum seems problematic to me, though, since core concepts (such as secondary dominants) would need to be introduced in each style course and thus create a great deal of pedagogical redundancy. In contrast, my approach values a common core curriculum and as a result retains the increasing complexity of concepts inherent in a course sequence, similar to the way music theory is usually taught today (whether integrated or not).

That said, what Lavengood's modular design accepts—and critically, what the integrated (or style-neutral) approach ignores—is that music theory cannot be easily divorced from musical style. To a certain extent, many theory concepts are relatively style agnostic. A triad is a triad, whether we identify it in a Haydn string quartet or an Alicia Keys song. But many of the topics in an undergraduate music theory class are inexorably intertwined with a particular style. The first-inversion diminished chord built on scale-degree 7 (viio6)—a common feature of classical music and thus a standard feature in a traditional first-year course—is extremely rare in popular music. Conversely, mode mixture is usually reserved for second-year students in a traditional curriculum, yet ♭VII is so endemic to popular music that it demands to be grappled with early in a student's academic training (Burgoyne 2011). An anonymous respondent to the style survey mentioned above remarked, "My philosophy is to use whatever music exhibits the principles I'm trying to demonstrate to my students" (13:45). At first glance, this stance may seem ecumenical. But if your principles are sonata form, contrapuntal expansions of tonic, ascending 5-6 sequences, and different flavors of augmented sixth chords, you will be inherently encouraged to use illustrative examples from the classical repertoire, since examples of these principles are much harder to find outside the classical repertoire (and are not central concepts to those other styles). This is the unstated if unintended effect of the "hidden curriculum" (Palfy and Gilson 2018). Simply put, classical music has driven the music theory syllabus for so many decades now that an integrated curriculum carries too much potential to simply fall into the same patterns of teaching that led to the current state of affairs (albeit embellished with a few Beatles examples or what have you).

With regard to content, this first year of theory coursework would serve as the introduction to foundational concepts of harmony, melody, rhythm, and form. In terms of harmony, for example, the first semester would focus on diatonic chord structures, including seventh chords, extended chords, and chord functions. (I see music fundamentals as folded into this first semester, although fundamentals work could be separated out as a stand-alone preparatory course.) The second semester would focus on chromatic harmony, such as borrowed chords, applied chords, and modulation/tonicization. (See Biamonte 2011 for essays on teaching music theory and analysis through popular music. See also de Clercq 2019.) If this pacing sounds aggressive for a one-year theory core, note that because the courses would be taught exclusively through popular music, some traditional first-year topics would be avoided. The admonition against parallel fifths, for example, would not exist in the first year, nor would a host of other classically-derived voice-leading rules, such as leading tones resolving up or sevenths down. These are important ideas for certain styles, to be sure, but lots of amazing and beautiful music can be understood and created without worrying about these things.

Some readers may feel that a first-year theory curriculum based entirely on popular music would not be a good fit for their particular department or their particular students. If our goal is to diversify the student population, though (which it may not be for some readers), we need to meet potential students where they are, to explain foreign concepts first in familiar environments rather than in foreign lands. In the first year of the theory core, in which there is (or perhaps there should be) a healthy mix of various types of students—including music minors, jazz majors, aspiring recording engineers, music business folks, performance majors, future music educators, sound designers, laptop composers, and non-majors who just want to explore the subject—popular music is by definition the music with which potentially the most students will have the greatest familiarity and thus the highest levels of engagement. Given that most music theory sequences today span four if not five semesters, my proposal would still leave two or three required semesters of coursework to potentially apply, refine, and elaborate these foundational concepts within the context of other styles. Cello performance majors, for example, would still have time to take a semester of theory in Baroque/early-Classical style, a semester on late-Classical/Romantic style, and a semester on late-1800s/post-tonal style. Other students might go on to more advanced coursework in popular music, jazz, or some combination thereof. And of course, the music history curriculum and upper-division theory electives offer further opportunities for music analysis and repertoire development.

There are some hurdles to implementing a first-year curriculum in popular music, perhaps the greatest of which is finding a qualified instructor, since the vast majority of those with an advanced degree in music theory have never taken a single course in the grammar or syntax of popular music. Notably, no Ph.D. program in music theory currently requires students to take coursework outside the Western classical canon. Moreover, only a few theory programs offer an elective in popular music on a regular basis, if simply because even large departments of music theory have few if any faculty members with a significant research profile in this area. It is thus still feasible, if not typical, for a professional music theorist to go through their entire Bachelor's, Master's, and Ph.D. coursework without taking any class dedicated to any subset of the 99% of music listened to in this country that is not Western classical music. This is essentially a catch-22 situation: as long as core theory coursework in America remains taught primarily via classical music, doctoral programs will not see the need to train their students in anything else nor will students see it professionally worthwhile to study anything else. Change thus needs to come from the top as much as the bottom.

I realize, of course, that what I am calling for is a radical restructuring of the music theory curriculum (if not music departments more broadly). The stakes are high, though. If undergraduate music theory coursework continues to be strongly tied to Western classical music, music theory runs the risk of becoming less and less relevant to the modern music major. Consider the example of Harvard University, which in a drive to broaden the reach of their music concentration, recently made all music theory coursework optional. In contrast, a first-year music theory core tied to popular music would arguably be relevant to all students. The potential upside is more music theory jobs, expanding our realm rather than letting it become an appendage. I also realize that the current extremes of disparity and inequity in this country are much larger and more overwhelming than any shakeup, however profound, in the college music theory curriculum can ever compensate for. But in our little slice of the world, maybe we as music theorists can recognize just how drastically out of balance our curriculums are with present-day society and just how drastically our curriculums would have to change to reflect it. Until then, SMT's statement of values will be a reminder to me of just how much more we have to do as an academic society to truly champion justice, diversity, and inclusivity.


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  • Clendinning, Jane and Elizabeth Marvin. 2016. The Musician's Guide to Theory and Analysis, 3rd ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
  • de Clercq, Trevor. 2019. "The Nashville Number System: A Framework for Teaching Harmony in Popular Music." Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy 33: 3–28
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