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I think we can all agree that cleaning up one’s workspace has great merit. Today I was organizing the books in my professional library and decided to address my sizable collection of music theory texts. In doing so I came across Tchaikovsky’s Guide to the Practical Study of Harmony and was struck by the thinness of the book relative to the other volumes on the same shelf. It gave me pause to reflect on the very nature of music theory instruction and I wondered whether anyone ever really learned music theory from a textbook. These days our esteemed college textbook publishers are offering us weighty tomes that very often range between 600 to more than 900 pages. They are certainly impressively complete but I wonder whether they make better reference sources than practical manuals. I know if I were a student I wouldn’t want to have to carry around a hard cover book that weighs several pounds and seems to contain more information than I really need. I wonder why it was that Tchaikovsky felt that 137 pages of instruction was sufficient for his conservatory students when today’s authors burden the musical neophyte with five times that many pages.

Back in the 1970s three of the members of our theory faculty (David Bushler, Joel Lester, and Stan Persky) cobbled together a 50-page guide they called The Materials of Harmonic Analysis that was published in-house. Its humble goal was to merely introduce the materials and concepts of music theory and it served us well for many years. Each of the instructors in the department added their own supplements at each level of instruction. Joel went on to expand that book into his own 660-page two-volume set. Years later I did the same thing but limited my attempt to 235 pages. I have always felt that our trio of professors, Tchaikovsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov (Practical Manual of Harmony, 128 pages) were on the right track. Beginning music theory students need a kind of Michelin Guide that is compendious rather than encyclopedic because they need something they can comfortably carry with them as they go through their day. Hopefully it won’t cost an arm and a leg. In contrast, I believe the important, monumental reference works serve best sitting on a shelf at home not far from my desk.

A great deal of the weight and expense in the average book is caused by the inclusion of hundreds of examples that are merely fragments from larger works. Looking at a 4, 8, or 12-measure snippet taken from the middle of some famous piece may not be the best way to get students to really understand anything significant about the construction of music. Taken out of context these examples always remind me of a leopard in a cage at the zoo, and, like the boy in the Ives song, I wonder whether real music is anything like that.

I would love to know what you think and have experienced in your career as music student and teacher. Personally, I find that reading theory textbooks is a narcoleptic experience. I suspect that the most effective instruction comes from the analysis of complete scores and from the challenges of a properly sequenced workbook. Lastly, I also suspect that the textbook only makes sense after you have finished the course and read it a second time.