Oberlin Blogs

The Fourth of Four

April 24, 2019

My least favorite part of being a double-degree student is having so many requirements. Of course this was my choice, and this is absolutely what I want to be doing, but sometimes it just feels like one thing after another with no breaks, all to get that piece of paper at the end of my five years.

As a music performance major, I am required to take four semesters of music theory and four semesters of aural skills. Music theory is undoubtedly a crucial part of any music education, and I wouldn’t have opted out of taking it even if I’d had the choice. Yet two years of theory and aural skills is not glamorous, and I have found that my college music theory experience feels more monotonous than when I took AP Music Theory in high school.

I had a really great time taking AP Music Theory; there’s a sort of bonding experience that comes from taking a class five days a week with eleven other people who become your best friends that I didn’t quite get from my time in college theory. I don’t want to speak ill of theory and aural skills, because I know it was important, but I won’t look back on all those classes as my glory days of college.

My first three semesters, even though I was learning new things, I was always looking most forward to the last semester of theory I through IV I had to take. Music theory and aural skills IV are completely different from everything that I learned in I through III. Instead of learning about form, analysis, and how music works in the black and white way of ink on paper, we spend time talking about how it makes us feel, and why. Theory and aural skills IV focus on post-tonal music and how, as musicians, we rehearse, internalize, and perform it.

In all respects, all of the rules go out the window in this final semester. I think it's easier to give musical examples of what post-tonal music is rather than try to explain it in words, so I’ve included a list of some of the repertoire we’ve looked at in aural skills IV:

  • Samuel Barber, “The Desire for Hermitage”
  • Béla Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta
  • Alban Berg, “Schlafend trägt man mich …”
  • Charles Ives, “The Cage”
  • Olivier Messiaen, “Louange…” from Quartet for the End of Time
  • Shulamit Ran, Violin Concerto, iii
  • Samuel Barber, “The Secrets of the Old”
  • Robert Morris, “von 24,” from Nine Easy Pieces
  • Elliott Carter, “Canaries”
  • Miles Okazaki, “Mirror,” from Generations
  • Igor Stravinsky, “Danse sacrale” from The Rite of Spring
  • Béla Bartók, String Quartet No. 6
  • Elliott Carter, “Riconoscenza per Petrassi”
  • Philippe Hurel, “Pour Luigi”
  • György Ligeti, Viola sonata, ii

It’s a pretty long list for a class that’s only two days a week, but all of the repertoire is very different, and it feels wonderful to be exposed to things I wouldn’t ordinarily do on my own. This final semester, it really feels like I’m learning new things, instead of just different versions or extra steps of the old things.

This semester, we talk a lot about “engaging” with music. In theory I through III, most of the works we studied were not as unpredictable or anywhere near the level of difficulty as what we work on in theory IV. A lot of theory I through III involves learning specific concepts or skills, and then applying them to pre-existing music. For example, we could talk about the Neapolitan chord, practice writing examples, and listen to a Mozart piano sonata to hear a “real-life” example. As much as I love piano sonatas, they can get repetitive. In theory IV, we talk about modes, octatonic scales, and five against three rhythms, which I find much more exciting. We look at a diverse range of pieces that employ these techniques in different ways, and work on rehearsing and performing them in class.

One day, just a week or two ago, I went into my aural skills professor’s office hours to talk about my road map project. The road map project is something we do outside of class about halfway through the semester, and we do it to think about music in a different way. We have to create a "road map" of a work of music, which could be any kind of visual artwork or informal essay that embodies what we choose to focus on within the piece. By trying to represent or explain a piece visually, instead of looking at a score, it helps you think of the music in a different medium, of sorts.

This semester (I also had this professor last semester for theory III), he gave us the option of looking at a shorter piece with a score, or working on our listening skills with a longer piece without a score. I decided to go with the latter to challenge myself, and the piece I’m doing is Caroline Shaw’s ‘‘Partita for Eight Voices,’’ which I could not recommend more highly!

In that same meeting, I asked him, somewhat ineloquently, how one should go about listening to contemporary music. It’s always something I’ve enjoyed, but, as you can tell from the list of pieces I included, contemporary music isn’t a unified genre with many similar characteristics. I’ve found that it’s not as easy to predict and internalize a piece of new music as it is to understand a Bach fugue, for example. In short, I didn’t know where to start in my analysis for the road map project.

My professor said that it’s sort of like every modern composer writes in a different language, and it’s up to the listener to understand it and take in what they seek out. It sounds kind of dumb to say, but there really are no wrong answers; this semester, theory and aural skills are all about epiphanies and bright ideas, and I’m glad I can do that with a cool piece on this project.

This fourth semester is like learning a new language, and I’m happy I get to spend time doing something I want to do, even though it’s something I have to do. It turns out that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Having so many requirements to get my piece of paper can be tiring, but I’m glad that I was required to take so many semesters of theory. Theory and aural skills IV really changed my outlook on how I practice being a musician, and it made taking the three semesters before it all worth it. But even though I’m enjoying this, I’m glad that it’s going to be over. These first two years, theory and aural skills have eaten six credits out of my schedule every semester, and I’m looking forward to finally start exploring more—next semester I’m taking my first art history class. I also still need to take two upper-level music theory courses, so this is most certainly not the end of my music theory endeavors.

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