Music theory classes teach much more than most syllabi suggest. While classes at the undergraduate level do not usually present themselves as overtly political, behind the technical terminology and generalized syntaxes we teach lie highly socialized convictions about what musicality should sound like—that is, what counts as a "coherent," "well-formed," or "expressive" musical utterance. Although these analytical convictions in the immediate sense are pertinent to sound structures, they intertwine with a panoply of social commitments that quickly blur into assessments of worth ascribed to individual composers, musical traditions, and ethnic and national identities. Judith Becker (2004) names these socialized value frameworks that invisibly temper one's experience of sound one's 'habitus of listening' (see also 'habitus' (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992)). Because music theory, as an activity circumscribed within a habitus of listening, is also beholden to socialized value paradigms, to teach music theory is to advocate for one or more of these value paradigms.
Under the hegemonic forces that have shaped the North American academic climate, it is typical for only select kinds of musicality and their accompanying value backgrounds to enjoy such advocacy. In particular, the canonized musical and philosophical frameworks of Western origin are habitually presented as if they were representative of human thought at large (more on this in the next paragraph, but also see Wynter (2003) on the "overrepresentation of [Western] Man as if it were the human"). Meanwhile, the musical and intellectual traditions of other cultures are often thought to be ethnically enclosed and of little concern to the mainstream scholar. As a consequence, materials from beyond the West rarely make the cut into classes for a general audience and are instead siloed under "area"-specific studies (Rao 2019).
This is problematic for several reasons, one issue being misleading advertising. As others have emphasized, music requires scrutiny under historically and culturally appropriate frameworks if analysts hope to uncover its relevant meanings (Judd 1998; Middleton 1993). However, the frameworks taught in most courses are nowhere near diverse enough to do justice to all or even a handful of musics, so why are such courses labeled as if they would? It is common practice in North American institutions to use culturally unqualified, catch-all course titles such as Music Theory IV, Topics in Tonal Music, and History of Music Theory, when more honest names would be Western Music Theory IV, Topics in Western Tonal Music, and History of Western Music Theory. Names have a powerful effect on how students perceive the scope of what they learn. A universalizing name hides the cultural limits of a Western-centric course, giving students reason to believe that what they will learn pertains to all music, even though this is not true.
A second issue is the disparagement and erasure of diverse narratives. The lack of diversity in music theory curricula insidiously shapes how students perceive cultural capital and prestige to be distributed across communities (Molk 2019; Palfy and Gilson 2018). It is not politically neutral, in our reality of cultural multiplicities, to constantly uphold the logic of one period-, class-, or culturally-inscribed notion of musicality and not duly acknowledge that of others. Doing so signals to students that the frameworks of one people group are normal or even universally applicable. Moreover, it suggests that other musicalities and their inscribed ways of being are not fundamental to human experiences of music, do not stand up to intellectual rigor, or worse, do not exist at all. It is therefore of consequence that teachers reflect upon how our discernment of what is central and peripheral has been warped by hegemonic narratives. Beyond our own accuracy and integrity as scholars that are on the line, at stake is the inclusiveness with which our students come to construe musical merit, and by extension, the assumptions about cultural groups that they take out into the world.
In this paper I advocate for a pedagogical approach that allows the inscribed socialized frameworks—the learned social codes that temper one's interaction with the world—of diverse musical structures to shine through. If our efforts to diversify the curriculum are to transcend tokenism, then diversity and inclusion must take place not only in the breadth of the musics we present, but the paradigms of logic we choose to teach (Ahmed 2012; Robinson 2020). Diverse musical examples should be upheld so that their own salient frameworks become palpable, particularly if they illuminate expressive realities that decenter those captured by Western frameworks. I will model this approach in a lesson plan on pentatonicism as used in 黄梅戏 huangmei opera.
Up to here, I have called for increased pedagogical attention to diverse "socialized frameworks" and "ways of being," matters that may strike some as falling beyond the scope of a nuts-and-bolts music theory class. I contend that we consistently rely upon and contribute to such abstractions when we teach technical concepts in Western music theory. As demonstrated in works such as Clark 1999, Clark and Rehding 2001, Gjerdingen 2007, and Tan 2020, social phenomena including political environments, performance practices, and scientific and philosophical discourses bear directly upon the imagining and theorizing of music. It will benefit our discussion of the pentatonic scale to further clarify the role that cultural commitments play in a typical music theory class. For this, let us turn to a brief case study on the pedagogy of the diatonic scale.
In the Western music theory fundamentals classes that I have taught, significant time was devoted to the diatonic scale. We spent several weeks scrutinizing the diatonic major and minor scales, their intervals, scale degree functions, tendency tones, and derivative chords. A goal of this scaffolding was to let students appreciate how the interlocking structures of the diatonic scale become folded into the expressive palette of Western tonal music. For example, students learn that semitonal relationships possess a charged, directional tendency as a premise that later helps them see why triads containing the leading tone are meaningfully distinct from triads containing , or why and of the minor scale sound "other" to their major scale counterparts (Clendinning and Marvin 2016, 549). These explanations in turn rely upon commitments to well-formedness and meaning making that pervade the Western worldview (but which, for example, are of less relevance to the worldview inscribed in huangmei opera): e.g. that stability is a requisite for the formal conclusion of a narrative arc (Almén 2003), or that significant explanatory power is to be found in binary oppositions between normalcy and abnormalcy (Straus 2021). Thus, our classroom study of the diatonic scale led students to engage with 1) sound structures, 2) their musical affordances, and 3) the socialized frameworks that substantiate those musical affordances.
By contrast, if maqamat, ragas, the slendro scale, or other racialized scales are discussed in an undergraduate context, the discussion rarely moves beyond the first of those three areas of engagement. For example, in Clendinning and Marvin (2016) and Kostka, Payne, and Almén (2018)—two music theory textbooks that according to Ewell (2020) together account for over half of the American market share—the only scales mentioned of musics beyond the West are diatonic modes and the pentatonic scale. While both textbooks offer remarks on musical affordances, it is worth reflecting on whose frameworks are being valued in doing so. For example, Kostka, Payne, and Almén (2018) acknowledge that "Five-note scales have played a significant role in music, particularly non-Western music, for centuries," but shortly thereafter write that, "The effect of the major pentatonic scale is likely to be harmonically static, particularly if its use is prolonged. For this reason, a composer will seldom use the scale as the basis for a composition of any length" (467). Presumably, this statement is grounded in the aesthetic and structural norms of Western composition and does not reflect the perspective of musicians whose primary tonal material is pentatonic.
Music theory's comparatively shallow engagement with diverse scales owes partly to a lack of experiential access. The ability to narrate the inner lives of musical tones and their cultural commitments rests on whether one possesses the experiences that are being musically expressed. The reality is that most North American music theory faculty do not have substantial lived experiences from contexts outside of the West. My response to this, echoing that of many others, is that we must diversify the ethnic and cultural representation of our faculty (Brown 2020; Ewell 2020). In the interim, we need to uplift the narratives of people whose lives are entwined with the musics we seek to teach. I contend that only when we allow the oral, written, and embodied utterances of diverse musicians to become our teachers—both during lesson preparation and when we stand before our students—can the intellectual and ethical rewards of a diversified classroom blossom.
The following lesson plan foregrounds musical and social frameworks that are meaningful to musicians and fans of huangmei opera, a regional theatrical tradition based in Anhui, China—my ancestral home. Huangmei opera was not a part of my life until I learned of its importance to my paternal grandmother, who still remembers the sounds of the itinerant opera troupes that visited the rural village of her youth. In the summer of 2018, I heard my grandmother sing for the first time in about twenty years when, on a whim, I thought to play her a huangmei opera recording. The lesson outline I share here is a result of the research I began on this tradition because, for all the music theory classes I had taken, none suggested that the kind of musicality most adored by my grandmother existed.
The lesson begins with the structure of the pentatonic scale—a construct appearing in Sinitic writing as early as over two millennia ago in the Rites of Zhou—and considers the scale's musical affordances before panning out to discuss the inscribed socialized frameworks of those musical affordances. The lesson uses several strategies to assist students in developing a sensitivity to a new mode of musicality over a short time span. First, it invites students to partake in "a more personal and physical involvement with the music" through singing and reflecting on their embodied experience of musical examples (Schubert 2014). Second, it invites students to work with local musical terminology and notation, the latter which Schuiling (2019) describes is vested with "musicality" and "an object of social and creative interaction in its own right." Third, the lesson grounds assertions about the expressive affordances of musical structures in descriptions by cultural insiders. Fourth, surrounding artforms are woven into the lesson to represent the nexus of aesthetic sensibilities in which the music resides. Finally, the lesson draws attention to the ideological frameworks in which musical structures are situated.
To begin, the instructor can have students sing the pentatonic scale ascending and descending (Fig. 1) to warm them up to 简谱 jianpu notation. A guide to reading jianpu is provided in this handout. To encourage a more holistic engagement with the material from the start, the instructor can ask students to introspect on their embodied experience of singing the scale. Students may notice that amid an otherwise smooth succession of major seconds, the minor thirds stand out as larger distances that require a greater expenditure of breath. In Sinitic music, the minor thirds of the pentatonic scale are sometimes filled in by interceding notes bearing special names (Thrasher 2008, 85), but they are more characteristically presented as open thirds. Like a cresting wave that remains poised above its trough, the open third can be thought to convey a sense of buoyancy and space (Fig. 2). While all five pentatonic tones can act as ending notes, resulting in five possible modes, the pentatonic mode ending on 5 is the most typical of huangmei opera melodies (Shi 1993, 476).
The class can then move on to sing short passages from huangmei opera. At this point, the instructor can introduce the rhythmic dimension of jianpu notation. As students sing through examples such as the beginnings of "山伯描药 shanbo miaoyao" or "手提羊毫喜洋洋 shouti yanghao xiyangyang," they can again be invited to reflect on their embodied impressions. A feature that students may find notable is the 绕 rao circuitous character of the melodic lines. We see this, for example, in "手提羊毫喜洋洋" where the melody weaves around 6 over the word 喜xi (in red in Fig. 3) and in the swift boosts from 3 to 5 that propel the melody upwards just before settling back down in closing (e.g. in blue in Fig. 3).
At this juncture, the instructor can turn the class to theorist 高厚勇 Gao Houyong's discussion of Chinese melody. He highlights their "twists and turns," noting that "Chinese traditional melodies do not often proceed in a linear fashion" (Gao 1981, 224). Circuitousness is also present in the aesthetic vocabulary huangmei opera performers use to describe the melodies they sing, such as 婉转 wanzhuan indirect, 委婉 weiwan roundabout, 灵活 linghuo flexible, and 回味无穷，绕梁三日 huiwei wuqiong, raoliang sanri, "possessing an infinitely lingering aftertaste, such that the sound spirals around one's roof beams for three days and nights." Even the Chinese term for melody 旋律 xuanlü literally means the "revolving of pitches." This descriptive language suggests that musical form in huangmei opera is experienced as a curved construct.
One can sense a synergy between the elastic roundaboutness of huangmei opera melodies and the buoyancy of the pentatonic minor third: both exhibit a "lifted" quality. The distinctiveness of this sensibility can be fleshed out in students' imaginations by listening to professional realizations of the melodies they had just sight-sung. For example, 周源源 Zhou Yuanyuan adorns "手提羊毫喜洋洋" with mercurial vocal flourishes in her rendition, a rough transcription of which is provided for comparison with the score (Fig. 3). Contrary to the Western contrapuntal intuition to "fill in" intervallic gaps when embellishing a melody (e.g. Aldwell and Schachter 2011, 376), Zhou's ornamented performance not only preserves the open spaces of the pentatonic thirds but weaves even larger, ear-catching leaps into the melodic profile (in yellow in Fig. 3). Embellished huangmei opera melodies thus tend to accentuate rather than curb the buoyancy latent in the pentatonic scale, affording a lifted aesthetic that is also immanent in the brightness and plasticity of Zhou's voice. This sensibility is embodied in celebrated huangmei opera teacher 时应远 Shi Yingyuan's habit of threading an arched finger through the air as if lifting the sound up and over an obstruction to help singers achieve this elevated vocal quality.
The remainder of the lesson offers students three examples to further substantiate this framework of "liftedness" through which pentatonic huangmei opera melodies can be contemplated. To this end, it can be highly effective to present students related aesthetic experiences as they appear in neighboring artforms. For instance, the theatrics of bodily gesture in huangmei opera performance resonates deeply with the lifted quality we have observed in its melodies: the default manner by which huangmei opera performers traverse space on stage is by rounded rather than linear paths, much like the contours of huangmei opera melody. This technique is called 圆场 yuanchang rounding the stage. In addition to the shape of the performer's path, yuanchang requires an extremely finessed footwork whereby ideally only one segment of the foot touches the ground at any moment. In this video filmed during a huangmei opera rehearsal, students can observe how at least one foot is always curved off of the floor. The instructor can also show students 兰花指 lanhuazhi orchid fingers, hand postures used in Sinitic opera and dance in which each finger is poised outwards and upwards like an unfurled petal. These examples uphold liftedness as a meaningful "systematic metaphor" through which huangmei opera performers experience and articulate form (Feld 1981).
Another adjacent artform that is evocative of a lifted aesthetic is traditional Sinitic painting, a practice that makes poetic use of unfilled space. Residual space might spill into subjects within the painting, such as water or clouds and mists, or it may serve as the backdrop of a foregrounded subject. This affordance of space is known as 留白 liubai leaving blank, which "when used appropriately can lend a painting a rich sense of vitality, imbuing its forms with liveliness" (Zhang 2017). By feeling out the relationship between space and vitality when viewing these paintings, students can be led to an awareness of the vitality implied within the "unfilled" spaces of huangmei opera melodies.
Students who are acquainted with Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism will likely have caught onto several resonances between these intertwined thought traditions and the frameworks explored in this lesson, e.g. finding significance in "empty" space, pursuing enduring vitality, and choosing tactful moderation and balance (i.e. roundedness) over disruptive extremes. While there may not be class time to explore these philosophies in depth, the instructor can acknowledge how the sensibilities that surround and enliven pentatonic huangmei opera melodies can be traced to an expansive intellectual culture that has trickled into Sinitic structures of living and art. As such, the musicality of huangmei opera can be understood as an answer to the unique ideological commitments of its cultural ethos. In closing, the instructor can encourage students to look beyond this single glimpse of Chinese musicality, pointing out that any musical structure born out of human imagination will most certainly also index rich troves of cultural knowledge and diverse modes of valuing.
On the several occasions I presented this lesson within a one-hour period, I was gratified to observe that students were not only engaged and inquisitive, but in some cases had begun to wonder reflexively about how the musics they were more familiar with were also shaped by cultural commitments. I can imagine this lesson being taught over multiple classes to spotlight this reflexive mode of inquiry and to encourage more nuanced discussions of notation, pentatonicism, and Sinitic philosophy. Two potential lesson plans with supplemental resources are accessible here.
There are, I acknowledge, limitations to this lesson and the version of diversified music theory I have advocated for in this paper. It is true that any individual's knowledge of the social frameworks relevant to a musical structure will be finite, as social frameworks are bigger than an individual's experience of them. It is also true that the lesson does not even begin to account for all the musics that were, are, and are yet to be. However, providing comprehensive coverage of any particular music or all musics is not the primary ambition of the pedagogy I believe our field most urgently needs. Instead, I envision a teaching practice that illuminates how musical structures come to life because of their cultural commitments. Music theory, beyond its insights into the intricacies of musical sound, is itself a potent cultural artifact. If this principle is taught with due transparency, I believe our students will not only begin to research and advocate for diverse musics of their own accord, but they will also refine our methods of inquiry so that they shine with a sensitivity and self-awareness far exceeding what our field is now capable of.
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