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How critical is music theory?

Christine Lucia

In this article I address the problem of locating music theory within contemporary critical
theories in the social sciences and humanities. I show how two kinds of music theory can be
distinguished: music theory as an interpretative and critical set of theories used mainly in
music analysis, and theory of music as an uncritical set of practical tools for both composition and analysis. I trace the origins of such theories and the separation between the two,
and argue that theory of music as a prerequisite for practice comes from a notion of theory
inculcated by music pedagogy in the nineteenth century, entrenched through the external
examinations of London-based conservatoires. I show how the ethos of such examinations
became lodged in the musical consciousness of South Africans as one of many colonial
traces, but I argue that, unlike other aspects of colonialism, theory of music did not become
adapted in the process of colonization, but has remained something of an anomaly in music
teaching and practice. Especially, it has remained a different kind of theory in critical discourse in the social sciences and humanities. Music theory in South Africa, too, has not undergone the kind of transforming process as other critical theories have although it has far
more possibilities for critique, but has remained a somewhat limited tool for music analysis
in South African scholarship.
Keywords: Music theory, theory of music, music analysis, critical theory, interpretation, composition, conservatoire, university, music pedagogy, grade exam, Associated Board of the
Royal Schools of Music.

Introduction and definitions

Contemporary theory in the social sciences and humanities a vast body of ideas,
inherently unmasterable, as Jonathan Culler puts it (1994, 13) has at base the
notion that theory (from the Aristotelian notion theoria) is different from practice
Christine Lucia is Professor and Chair of Music at the University of the Witwatersrand, editor of SAMUS: Journal of
the Musicological Society of South Africa, and editor of The World of South African Music: A Reader (2005).

21 (1) 2007
DOI: 10.1080/02560040701398871


ISSN 0256-004/Online 1992-6049

pp. 166189
Unisa Press

How critical is music theory?

(praktike),1 and that the two operate in parallel spheres, relating to and supporting
each other but developing distinct modes of discourse and application. It offers critical
tools for the interpretation of empirical data and ideas, and in this essay I attempt to
show what music theory offers, using the South African context to propose an idea
of what it is and how it operates in comparison to other social or cultural theory. I
relate music theory to practice, and reveal some of the difculties in maintaining
a distinction between the two. I argue that there are two different understandings of
what music theory is, in current usage. The one, broadly speaking, is an activity
of analysis and commentary, often equated to music analysis. The other I dene
as a more pedagogically driven body of hegemonic knowledge covering musics
sounds, concepts and terminology, and I call it theory of music. The sense of
dening component parts inherent in the latter is used both in relation to the sphere
of composition (music as creative practice) and and this is where confusion around
terminology enters in the sphere of music analysis. In countries where a large
intellectual project around music theory exists, such as the United Kingdom and the
United States the terms music theory and music analysis imply slightly different
things: in the UK they are almost synonymous, while in the US music theory
includes both music analysis and also what I am here calling theory of music.
I consider in this essay the historical development of these two kinds of theory as
I have articulated them, and show how each has developed norms and assumptions,
some of which, I suggest, are more critical than others, and some more critical to a
certain way of seeing music than of it.2 My aim is also to show how critical theories
in the broad sense of a collection of theories in the social sciences and humanities
can critique theory in relation to music. The fundamental questions I ask are, how
actively critical to the interpretation of music and ideas, or how subject to critical
examination, is theory in the discipline of music; and what are its ideological origins
in relation to a South African context?

Music as a discipline, and two definitions

The discipline of music has several branches of practical and speculative study. The
largely practical ones are performance (music making), composition (music writing),
music education, music psychology, and music therapy. The speculative ones and the
disciplines they have traditionally related to are musicology (history and literary
criticism), ethnomusicology (anthropology and linguistics), popular music studies
(sociology and cultural criticism), and music aesthetics (philosophy).
I locate what I call theory of music in the practical sphere, as something concerned
with music writing, with music as grammar, syntax, and vocabulary; in short, as precompositional activity or set of tools, as I explain in more detail below. But precisely
because it is seen as foundational, as something that Western musicians are trained
into whether they later pursue the more practical or speculative branch of music, as
something necessary to the act of being a musician in the Western sense, this kind of


Christine Lucia

theory of music (and I now drop the scare quotes) has acquired a huge belief in its
necessity, a belief that, I suggest here, is underpinned by a set of assumptions whose
ideological basis, I further suggest, rewards some critical examination.
Music theory I locate in the speculative sphere, where it concerns the analysis
and interpretation of music already composed rather than the activity of its creation.
But it too has a practical aspect, because the very thing theory is applied to is not a
body of literature or historical evidence, or a set of ideas, but something performed,
something performative and elusive: music. The issue of where and how music
exists is not the subject of this essay, but it is important to mention the way it can be
seen and problematised both as text (a notated score) and as performance of that
text. Analysis itself, as Nicholas Cook has argued (1999) can be performed. The
assumption of music as work, as a universalised and autonomous concept, has also
been deeply questioned (see for example Goehr 1992 and Strohm 2000).
One can argue, then, that music not only has theory (compositional tools or theory
of music) and uses theory (analysis or music theory), but that it also exists only
in theory. This in turn seems to contradict the notion that music exists when it is
performed, i.e. in practice. To clarify again then, since there are not only different
ways of regarding theory in relation to music but also of regarding music itself: for
the purposes of this essay, when I talk about theory of music I use it to mean a body
of knowledge that is seen as a prerequisite for both practice and speculation; and
when I use the term music theory it is synonymous with the critical activity of music

Theory in music and other disciplines

However, before I trace the history of some of the differences between music theory
and theory of music in order to examine their critical qualities, I consider what both
are being compared to in this essay, critical theory/theories. One could dene critical
theory as a uid, culturally determined and historically contingent set of theories,
common to human and social science disciplines worldwide. It has a philosophical
orientation and from the late nineteenth century onwards also a social, political, or
psychological one. The pull towards philosophy was also once true of both theory
of music and music theory in their early mediaeval history, as Thomas Christensen
(2002) has shown. But they drifted apart, and when the 11th century monk Guido
DArezzo ascribed the term music theorist to those who knew music philosophically
and speculated about it as musicus rather than those who learnt it and sang it as
cantors (ibid., 3; Christensens emphasis), this was symptomatic of the beginning
of a distinction between practical and critical theory. Because the main sphere of
Western composed musics operation at that time was the Church, and the Churchs
main concern was making practice in worship hegemonic, the prestige of music
theory as philosophy declined during the Renaissance (ibid., 5). Theory of music
then began to occupy centre stage,3 its principles [gradually] recongured so as to


How critical is music theory?

accommodate the domain of musica instrumentalis (ibid.) as well as vocal music,

drawing on notions derived from acoustics, physics, and mathematical ratio in order
to accommodate debate about the exigencies of instrument building, and, partly as
a result of this, embracing new theories of tone combination: intervallic consonance
and dissonance. As this kind of theory drew away from aesthetics closer to praxis,
it also began to accommodate the need to pass on the increasingly complex body of
musical knowledge it was becoming, from generation to generation.
Johann Georg Sulzer (1720-79)4 appropriated music theory as a portmanteau
term denoting part of the abstracted foundation of a mathematical science from which
axioms were deduced as a general process of reasoning by which the empirical and
metaphysical components of a science were systematically itemized and coordinated
(ibid., 9).5 Thus music theory became theory of music almost by a sleight of hand, not
only embracing practice but also increasingly subordinate to it. From the late 18th
century it was concerned primarily with how musical sounds were made, and it also
took on from this time a more prescriptive approach to how composers should make
them more theory of music than music theory, in terms of my opening distinction.
The issues around what music is and what it means continued as a cluster of critical
approaches variously called music criticism, aesthetics, philosophy, or hermeneutics,
which could not collectively be called music theory because the latters use had
now become co-opted and designated as a term describing the theory of practical
Johann Forkel (1749-1818) consolidated the split between practical and speculative
theory and the apparent subsuming of the former under the latter, by proposing a
systematic program of study called Theorie der Musik, dening theory here as a
broad pedagogical discipline of musical study in ve parts (physics, mathematics,
grammar, rhetoric, criticism) where parts 3 and 4 covered the traditional functions of
musica practica and poetics: systems of scales, keys, harmony, and meter, as well as
their application by composers in terms of phrasing, genre, and rhetoric [and] critical
analysis (ibid.). As Christensen observes
Forkels program constitutes an extraordinary change in the meaning of music theory
by radically expanding its domain in relation to practical pedagogy and criticism. No
longer was music theory a preliminary or metaphysical foundation to practice. On
the contrary, it was practical pedagogy that was now a subset of theory (ibid.).

What Forkels project also did was afrm the umbrella use of the term theory,
but what it allowed for, I suggest, was an expansion of the prescriptive notion of
theory of music as I am trying to distinguish it. By the time of Beethoven the
critical speculative theory had not disappeared, but the Romantic historicising of
composers and composition created the possibility for a prescription for practice, a
body of knowledge necessarily acquired by music composers and performers in their
training, to become signicantly foregrounded. The prescriptive quality underlying
practical theory of music was able to gain enormous ground in nineteenth century


Christine Lucia

Europe because of the rapid development of music conservatoires (to which I refer
in more detail later), and also because of musical languages strong attachment
to a closed system of key relationships called tonality, a compositional Western
European language shared by all composers in the eld of Western art music at that
time (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin), and considered
international. Once this shared tonal language broke down in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth century into a number of much more disparate post-tonal
languages (Debussy, Scriabin, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartk, Ives) and further
dissolved in the latter half of the twentieth century into a plethora of idiosyncratic and
sometimes technology-driven styles, it could theoretically no longer be upheld
as a universalising system. As I shall argue later, however, in terms of pedagogical
practice, it has been, to the present day; the hegemony of its system entrenched in the
South African context, I suggest, by an aspect of colonialism.
Early twentieth century critical theory, meanwhile, pursued a path that was
analytical and empiricist, and as Craig Calhoun (1995, 5) has shown, its application
was local rather than universal: local to specic objects or situations, its role largely
that of conceiving and applying abstract methods to the study of something concrete
(for example literature, or society). Note the difference: critical theory was a set of
ideas applied as analytical tools to specic empirical data in order to interpret it,
whereas theory of music as theory continued for the most part to mean either a set
of principles underlying music composition applied in order to describe or prescribe
its sounds, or it continued as a more speculative activity (music theory) concerned
with analysing and understanding musics work although also drawing on some of
the tools used in theory-of-music in order to describe its workings, such as scales,
harmonic structures, melodic phrasings, cadences.
Theory as applied to music has difculty in being applied in the same way or
to the same extent as an interpretive tool, as theory in other disciplines. That said
the case of Adorno present what seems to be a contradiction. Musics essence (its
material composition) has, in Adornian and post-Adornian writing, been interpreted
theoretically and critically as an expression of the social order at any given
moment in history. Chris Ballantine has argued that in various ways and with
varying degrees of critical awareness, the musical microcosm replicates the social
macrocosm (1984, 5), and there is a growing body of evidence to support the
notion that music not only reects or parallels social and individual praxis, but also
articulates, embodies, and affords it (Born and Hesmondhalgh 2000, and DeNora
2000), or articulates critique of itself and its meanings (Chua 1995 & 1999). In terms
of the distinction I am making here, however, such critique of sound and structure is
extrinsic rather than intrinsic; it could not do its work without critical theories drawn
from history, sociology, linguistics, or psychology, for example, theories that are not
themselves endemic to, or reliant on, music as a eld of study.
Calhoun (1995) characterised two uses of theory in the early part of the twentieth
century: the rst, as orderly system of tested propositions that provides repositories


How critical is music theory?

and syntheses of empirical knowledge; the second, as logically integrated causal

explanation [that] provides orienting perspectives (5). The rst seems to apply to
theory of music as a system of tonal and metrical propositions, observable and
empirical in the sense Calhoun suggests, and also tested through their use in
composition. Regarding the second use: causes in music can (as I have just shown) be
ascribed both to internal musical workings sonatas sound this way because of their
use of key centres and external social workings sonatas sound this way because
they exemplify a class struggle. Theory as causal explanation, I suggest, has more in
common with the speculative activity of music theory as music analysis than with the
creative activity of music composition.6 In terms of Calhouns claim that it provides
methods for thinking up new explanations, provides orienting perspectives, it can
explain musics internal relationships (tonal or melodic, for example); but it can
also explain musics causal relationships to society, and the paradigms these involve
(Ldemann 1993).
The third and most recent use of theory, Calhoun suggests (after Robert Merton) is
theory that not only questions underlying assumptions but also proposes rhetorical
orientations or perspectives approaches to solving problems and developing
explanations rather than the solutions and explanations themselves (ibid., 6; my
emphasis). Approaches to the explanation of musical works and analysis of the
notion of the musical work itself (rather than analysis of the work), characterise
an increasing number of activities within the discipline of musicology as I indicated
above (Goehr 1992 and Talbot 2000). The reach of this more recent kind of critical
theory for Calhoun, is far bolder than previous applications of theory; far higher,
and in the latter twentieth century applied also in an interdisciplinary way, creating
what Jonathan Culler has called an open-ended corpus of writings which have an
impact on domains other than those to which they ostensibly belong (1994, 16).
Moreover, from the mid-twentieth century, Calhoun continues, the empiricalanalytical view of the role of [critical] theory changed. It was was replaced
by a less comfortable one: that the point of theoretical enquiry was to bring out
methodological assumptions which otherwise would escape scrutiny (1995, 15),
including assumptions of ideology.
Most disciplines have thus at the present time (2006) developed their own sets
of critical-theoretical sets of interpretations and assumptions and histories hence
art-historical theory, theory of history, sociological theory. These in turn are used to
challenge critical thinking across disciplines (Culler 1994, 13). What such critical
theories seem to have in common, despite such very different usages and underlying
imperatives such as class, race, or gender, for example, is that they are all applied
very broadly, to any kind of text, object, or set of ideas. Despite the work of music
criticism and especially musicology in uncovering the social and political work
music does and perhaps because of it (for such criticism is offset by claims for
musics formal and autonomous status) in the realm of music studies theory


Christine Lucia

hovers between notions of description and prescription, practice and speculation,

composition and analysis.
From within the uncomfortable space I have imperfectly sketched, we now
have to consider the possibility for music theory to be a critical discourse like
that of literary theory or sociological theory. I argue in this essay that the work of
criticism in music theory per se (I am not speaking here of musicology in general) is
especially strong in the area of music analysis, but I also argue that this has yet to be
felt in the South African context. The domain of theory of music on the other hand,
occupied through centuries of change around the constitution of music, as a practical
language for composers, performers, instrument builders, for instance, is not this
kind of domain of criticism. It concerns theory as a body of knowable facts, a set of
tools for application in a range of practical music spheres, and a lore for passing on
from generation to generation; but except where its components are used in formal
analysis not a critique as such.

Music analysis as critique

The contemporary branch of music called music analysis is articulated principally
(though not exclusively) through studies of the Western historical art-music canon
and the contemporary music repertoire, through a wide-ranging literature produced
mainly in the United States and Europe where new approaches are formulated all the
time. This activity, corresponding to what Calhoun describes as the most recent phase
of critical theory, has often exposed methodological or ideological assumptions. As
music analysis and musicology journals have shown since the 1980s, music theory as
analysis has been one of the sites of conict in musicology debates: Kerman (1980)
and Agawu (2004) in a sense frame one of the major debates, the latter providing
both a sense of closure and a continuation. The conict extended far beyond music
analysis, of course, but insofar as it challenged claims of musics autonomy as an
aesthetic object and its claims to be analysed in and for itself rather than for its political
or social meanings, analysis was a critical component in this conversation.
In South Africa there is only one accredited music research journal (SAMUS:
South African Journal of Musicology) and within its pages analysis has been largely
descriptive. As former Editor Beverly Parker notes, [s]ubmissions to SAMUS during
recent years [1980s and 90s] show that at least some holders of postgraduate degrees
regard descriptive stylistic or structural analysis as a taken-for-granted methodology
that is an end in itself not merely a means to the exploration of some other, wider,
topic (2001, 43). In terms of lack of critique this end-in-itself methodology to a
large extent parallels literary New Criticism of the 1960s. Only 13% of music theses
and dissertations produced in South Africa between 1900 and 1999, Parker goes
on, even concern music analysis, and some do not suggest particular methods of
analysis or say what features of the music will be analysed, as if analysis were a
self-evident activity requiring neither justication nor explanation ibid). In 1998


How critical is music theory?

what was an early attempt to question analytical norms in relation to South African
composer Kevin Volans was taken by a group of students from Rhodes University,
who under the guidance of lecturer Michael Blake began to explore reexively the
tools required to analyse one of the most iconic pieces of South African art music:
White Man Sleeps. In his introduction to parts of their work republished in 2005,
Blake writes that post-structural analysis was in 1998 South Africa still largely
shunned in favour of structural (motivic or harmonic) analysis (quoted in Lucia
2005, 258).
The situation has begun to change: see for example South African music analysed
for its cultural or political meaning by Carol Muller, Stephanus Muller, Christine
Lucia, and Grant Olwage (reproduced in Lucia 2005, 286-88, 291-97; 299-302;
311-19); but it does not compete with the body of analysis offered in journals
overseas, with its wide range of approaches and contexts, themselves sometimes
interrogated. These approaches employ sociological or cultural theory, psychology,
and ethnographic theory, for example, to explain musical structure and meaning. Such
analyses are expounded in journals that cut across the musicology / ethnomusicology /
popular music studies /music education divides, and include Music Analysis, Journal
of Music Theory, Perspectives of New Music, Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy,
Popular Music, Ethnomusicology, Journal of the Royal Musical Association (and
many more).
Some South African university music departments do teach set-theory, motivic, or
Schenkerian analysis at an advanced level in BMus, Hons or MMus degrees, but from
Parkers analysis it is clear that what is mostly not taught, even at tertiary level, is an
approach that would give such analysis a more critical dimension. Within the rather
restricted space allowed, moreover, Western parameters such as harmony (triads and
4-part chords) and melody (pitch relations) are invariably privileged, bringing this
kind of music theory analysis very close to that envisaged by Forkel in the early
18th century.7 It is important, indeed often necessary, for musical parameters to be
used within a critical analysis (engagement with material, with the music itself is a
major part of the work of analysis overseas); but it is lack of engagement with such
parameters, using them as an end in themselves Parkers self-evident activity
requiring neither justication nor explanation that I question here. Engagement
with the merits of one approach to form or one set of parameters over another, or
the epistemology and relevance of such parameters in the South African context,
aspects of a critical musicology overseas and owing a great deal to a broader concept
of critical theory is very limited. Music theory in this sense in South Africa is not
critical, nor therefore can it be seen as critically important in the way critical
theories are seen in the social sciences and humanities.
What does formalist analysis do, then? For one thing, it exposes component parts,
and in this sense is as valuable as the purpose of such close reading will allow as is
the process of practical criticism in literature. For another, it validates works under
consideration; it deems them worthy of explanation and in so doing creates a canon;


Christine Lucia

in turn, works commonly analysed are those that are canonic. In early twentieth
century Europe the analytical canon included Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms.
In late twentieth and early 21st century South African writing it is mostly Arnold
van Wyk, Hubert du Plessis, Stefans Grov. Analysis as canon-formation is in some
measure the work of Austrian music theorist Heinrich Schenker, who in the early
twentieth century (while musics languages were changing all around him) revealed
organic unity in masterworks of Western classical music.8 In so doing, he prolonged
a Romantic notion of musical autonomy and tonal integrity that was already in his
own time dissipating amid experimentation by composers with the atonal, modal
and jazz idioms of Modernity. This was the period, then (1920s and 30s), when both
music analytical studies and theory of music textbooks began to go seriously out of
sync with contemporary compositional method and aesthetics.
The Schenkerian metaphysical universe was one of validation as critique,
concerned with transcendental certainty and meaning as Susan McClary and others
have shown (McClary 1985, 151);9 and it has itself been interrogated, partly for
an essentialism that eradicates the idiosyncrasies of individual pieces, and partly
for championing old masters at the expense of new ones even though Schenker
himself was also a composer. Schoenberg particularly suffered from this traditionalist
view, writing back in 1922 to some of the critique of his work by Schenker, that
the source of Schenkers errors was that tacit but fundamental assumption of
school historians that the golden age of music is past which led Schenker into
unbecoming vigorous polemics against modern artists (1983, 318). A year later in
his essay Those Who Complain About the Decline (1923) Schoenbergs vitriol
points to some of the ideological basis of some of this critique against new music by
Schenker and others:
[T]heir self-preservation instinct triumphs, everyone else can decline, so long as it
helps them get to the top and stay there [T]hese are the only ones still to have
ideas, to possess creative gifts, even the only geniuses, then! The Fatherland
extends to these false prophets an incomprehensible amount of credit Fiasco
follows asco, on the largest scale, yet the words written by these men, who can
do less than anybody, stay in business, in the same old way, alongside works whose
value they have contested (1975, 203; my emphasis).

The idea that a certain kind of music theory nurtures careers while it nurtures a
certain heritage, originates in the 18th century, as I shall show later. What is also
implied in the quote is the way new music threatens and analysis counters that threat,
takes away the musics power. Schenker made astonishing yet well supported claims
about musics psychological inner connections, and thus the possible inner workings
of composers minds, but he did so at the expense of making all seem inevitable.
The equally interesting lapses that make a musical work unique, make texture and
gesture meaningful, are largely absent in Schenkers worldview. Yet slippages
are often the most decisive creative moments, where the workings of theory of


How critical is music theory?

musical structure suddenly show through, as Freudian slips show the working of
the unconscious. Working in the sphere of music as performance rather than music
as score, Ko Agawu, for example, relates how this study of slippage can be very
useful in studying African music. Errors made during rehearsal or performance,
he says, and the ways in which they are immediately corrected constitute rich sites
for the study of aesthetic norms, [and] conventions of grammar and syntax (Agawu
2003, 108).

Theory of music as toolbox

Theory of music, as distinct from music theory-as-analysis, is understood in South
Africa (and probably elsewhere) as a set of sonic principles or a body of knowledge
underlying musical material. It is sometimes referred to as the nuts and bolts or
building blocks of music. Author Stephen King uses the metaphor of the toolbox
(On Writing, 2001) to promote understanding of creative writing in literature. King
describes the three-level expanding toolbox his uncle used when he was a child
(21-55), on the top level of which is vocabulary and grammar in musics terms this
would be pitches, durations, notes, rests, keys, scales, metres, groupings of notes,
various symbols and signs a collection of rudiments (as they are often called)
associated with Western staff notation and the history of art music. The top level is
ideally absorbed very young so that by high school the tools are simply there in an
individuals background, ready to grab and use. The second tier in Kings toolbox
is writing style and structure in music this would be melody writing, phrasing,
harmonic and contrapuntal exercises, analysis of form. At the lowest, deepest level
only to be used by those who have mastered the rst two is the act of writing
itself, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraphs, chapters, writing drafts,
rewriting. The latter is not something learned but something practised. The parallel
with music composition here is obvious; indeed at this level, literary writing is often
also called composition.
Yet there is something equally obvious missing in this metaphor, for music.
Stephen King uses it to remind us of what the tools of writing and language are and
how they can be used. He does not imply that learning how to use the tools makes
you into a writer. Far from it. King only comes to the toolbox after stressing the
necessity of knowing literature, from having read it extensively, over many years.
If there is no repertoire of such imagined sounds for musicians to draw on, the box
of tools will remain just that: a box, a collection of objects. It is the boundedness of
this box, insufciently related to buildings, let alone contemporary or African ones,
that limits the usefulness of the music tools within it; and this is where, I suggest,
theory of music most fails at the critical level. The tools are not in themselves critical
but are only theoretical components of a larger system of writing composition or
analysis. Moreover, these tools, that I am collectively calling theory of music, cannot
theorise in the sense of being aware or reexive, themselves. In terms of Calhouns


Christine Lucia

three kinds of theory referred to earlier system of tested propositions, integrated

causal explanation, or approach to solving problems and developing explanations
(1995, 5; 6), theory of music as toolbox is none of these. It thus fails, I suggest, to
allow suitable parallels with what the work of critical theory does. It is an inert group
of objects in much the same way as letters, words and sentences are useful: tools to
those who know how to combine them in a language and literature imbibed from
childhood, but in themselves not inherently critical.
Why do composers or analysts use them, then? Because, perhaps, in the most
obvious sense, they are there. But as my earlier historical sketch shows, they have
not always been universally there or always there in the same way. They have cultural
origins applicable to a particular cultural history: the history of Western Europe. As
Beverly Parker shows, analysts in South Africa often treat them as found objects, self
evident, self-explanatory; yet this is not the case (for the most part) overseas. How did
this situation come about and remain so hegemonic, in the South African intellectual
curriculum? I suggest that the sphere of pedagogy that has held sway (as we have seen)
over the development of this notion of theory of music as prescription for practice,
since the eighteenth century, should now be called to account. I further suggest a
source for embedding such a prescription in the (post)colonial consciousness: the
external grade examinations system of London conservatoires, which have held
South African music teachers, composers, and performers in thrall since the 1890s.
The curriculum these exams inculcate(d) have ensured, I argue, that it terms of the
discourse of music in South Africa, theory usually signies the uncritical but not
unimportant toolbox; its lexicon of rules, terminologies and concepts imbibed not
for critique, not necessarily for composition or analysis even. These grade exams are
there so that music learners can be assessed for examination in the curriculum they
cover: in short, they can exist purely as ends in themselves.

An ideology behind theory of music

The grade exams offer a path into Western academic music (as opposed to paths
found in other cultural spaces), from elementary to advanced level in eleven steps.10
These steps provide a worldwide curriculum, taken by distance learning, through
conservatoires such Trinity College, the Associated Board of the Royal School of
Music, and the Guildhall College of Music and Drama. They are centrally organised
from London and a fee is charged to write exams, held locally all over the world,
including South Africa.11 The University of South Africa, based in Pretoria, has
indigenised them in South Africa since 1948.
The notion of steps is not new. Theorist and composer Johann Joseph Fuxs
Steps to Parnassus (1725) is probably the earliest example. Ian Bent has shown how
this book, subtitled Guide to Musical Composition by the Rules, using a New and
Sure Method, never before published in so Methodical and Arrangement, became
a tabula by-no-means rasa on which [generations of] theorists and pedagogues


How critical is music theory?

have written (2002, 554). Bent identies three principles on which the book it
based. First, it is occupied largely with practical music, and only very slightly with
speculative. Second, it does not rely on model compositions [but on abstractions].
Third, designed for easy mastery by beginners, it is based on the elementary reading
pedagogy of the day (ibid., 556). The steps in Fuxs model speed up progress
towards a certain concept of musical maturity; but by not using models or examples
from actual compositions Fux can present idealised solutions to problems irrelevant
to contemporary composition of 1725. These solutions included the writing of notes
against a cantus rmus in an outmoded a capella (unaccompanied) church vocal style.
His progressive steps carefully laid down rules about part-writing and the treatment
of consonance and dissonance, becoming the ground plan for species counterpoint
as it is called and as it is still taught today, as well as for harmony teaching, and
hence, more generally for the teaching of theory of music (ibid., 557).
The gap between old theory and new music present in Fuxs model has irrevocably
widened (as mentioned earlier). The tradition of Western art music on which such
a notion of theory rests and from which it derives, is also very unevenly known,
in South Africa. One particular gap exposes the ideology of Western theory of
music, and this is the gap between Western theory and theories derived from other
musical practices of indigenous South African musicians including (and primarily)
African choral composers, whose theoretical premises are partly based on traditional
modes (scales) and chords (see Mngoma 1981) or indigenous notions of melody
and harmony (see Mthethwa 1988). African choral music is, indeed, composed by
musicians largely untutored in the higher steps of theory of music. Yet they compose
prolically, successfully breaking abstract rules inherited from the late eighteenth
century, of which in many cases they are not even aware.12
The hegemony of theory of musics inuence in South Africa relies on the power
of the (colonial) system behind it and on that systems wide dissemination through
hundreds of textbooks and workbooks. The latter are overwhelmingly important (as
important as, and similar to, bibles and catechisms), presenting a body of knowable
facts in various ways and testing that knowledge through exercises.13 Such texts are
almost all from north America and Britain (there are few indigenous examples) and
for decades they have found their way to South Africa, the most pervasive early
examples emanating from the English publisher Novello whose Music Primers and
Educational Series had 56 titles by 1878 (see Pauer 1878, back cover). An example
of the modernised post-War format of these kinds of books, tailor-made to steps of
examination, is William Coles (1953) series of books produced for the Associated
Board of the Royal Schools of Music, This series answers information about
clefs, key signatures, time signatures, groupings, terms, signs, intervals, triads; this
is voice-leading and chord spacing; these are the four cadences; this is four-part
harmony; this is how counterpoint works to questions that are raised as what to
know. Coles books are subtitled questions and exercises (1953), but the questions
are rhetorical.14 That such a system has remained critically unchallenged within an


Christine Lucia

educational culture imposed by decades of colonialism and apartheid is perhaps not

surprising (although other hegemonic systems, such as Christianity and the English
language, have). What is more surprising, and evidence of the success of the system,
is that in post-apartheid South Africa the ideological basis of theory of music in
the school and university curriculum remains unquestioned, when Outcomes Based
Education has challenged most other spheres of educational philosophy.15
The curriculum of scales, key signatures, times signatures, intervals, and other
fragmented abstractions of music (the toolbox) is the prevailing model for music
education in South Africa along with, and supporting, performance practice.
More advanced theory of music as it developed from the practices of performers
and composers during the eighteenth century, especially as concerned with vertical
structure (harmony), and horizontal movement (counterpoint) is what is taught
in universities. This curriculum uses the same complex set of signs and symbols
called staff notation that compositions do (just as authors use the same alphabet and
words that literary critics do), but it employs them differently inculcating correct
choices of syntax all along the line, without developing critical awareness of where
such choices come from, or awareness of the larger musical language of past and
contemporary South Africa.
Such theory of music is not a sub-discipline of musicology, but a body of
knowledge usable within any of musics sub-disciplines. It functions mainly in
relation to music history, composition, performance, or indeed analysis, thus cannot
be critical in the dialogic sense meant by Calhoun; it can only be used critically. If
the methodological and ideological assumptions underlying it are not taught at the
same time, moreover, it remains not so much a body of knowledge as a set of rules. It
fails to keep pace with living traditions of composition, especially in Africa, among
composers not necessarily familiar with all its rules yet familiar with their own
cultural sonic norms. Aspects of it can be used productively within music analysis,
within what I have been calling music theory, but theory of music is not a body of
ideas, not even an inherently unmasterable one (as Culler called contemporary theory
in the social sciences and humanities). Indeed, far from it: it is eminently masterable,
as the history of the grade exams has shown. For this reason it is also eminently
transportable through textbooks and external examinations, and eminently suited to
processes of colonisation; moreover, it does not any more rely on understanding of
any one cultures language, despite the fact that its origins lie in a certain period of
Western art music history. It is seen as universal (far more so, indeed, I suggest, than
the English language or Christianity). Critical discourses in music theory, on the
other hand, although they can be large and far ranging, ask questions through precise
examples, engage with limited issues of structure and meaning, and are thus capable
of asking fundamental questions about the role of theory itself (see for example
Ballantine 1984, McClary 1991, and Leppert & McClary 1987).
There has been a perception that a Western mode of analysis is problematic in
ethnomusicology, but Martin Scherzinger (2001) and Agawu (2003) have contested


How critical is music theory?

this. In his analysis of the Zimbabwean mbira tune Nyamaropa Scherzinger shows
the critical applicability of some of the tools to African music, arguing for the
interrelatedness of formalist and cultural analysis and showing how the contextsensitive analysis of ethnomusicology has its own formalist tendencies (11).
Agawu puts forward compelling claims (173-97) for the purely musical analysis
of African music on the grounds of correcting the inequality of perception between
African and Western musics, and enhancing African musics visibility, especially as
a body of works.
How has theory of music maintained its ideological grip then, in South Africa?
In tracing its origins I return to the colonial centre and examine the genesis of the
grade exams.

Theory of music and the conservatoires

Two of the most famous conservatoires in the world are in London. The Royal
Academy of Music, founded in 1822 (Rainbow 1989, 170), leant heavily on the
privilege and power accorded it by royal patronage. Similar conservatoires sprang
up all over Europe at this time, and for some their conserve-atism was innate. Liszt
dubbed the Paris Conservatoire reactionary (Rainbow 1989, 227), and Wagner
declared in 1865 that the Leipzig Konservatorium was nothing more than a musical
Temperance Society (Wagner, cited in Rainbow, ibid.).
The Royal College of Music began life in 1873 as the National Training School for
Music (Rainbow and Kemp 2000, 160). The Royal Academy (RAM) barely survived
the establishment of this and other rival schools, but nonetheless refused to merge with
the National Training School when the chance came in 1878, so the latter became the
new Royal College of Music (RCM), also under royal patronage, in 1882 (Rainbow
1989, 232-33). By this time a number of conservatories were offering diplomas,
which led to an almost pointless race to collect their sometimes valueless awards as
Bernarr Rainbow puts it (ibid., 234). He also suggests that the rivalry between RAM
and RCM was part of their failure to achieve a common musical diploma (ibid.),
but it was surely also attributable to the climate of a capitalist, free-market economy
in late Victorian Britain. Whatever the case, both institutions normalised a view of
music and music training that privileged the socially privileged, and the high culture
of Western classical music.
Meanwhile Sir Frederick Gore Ouseley, Professor of Music at Oxford, had
instituted major curriculum reform in 1855 that set the tone for the next 150 years,
introducing exams in Harmony and Counterpoint, Fugue, Canon, Formal Analysis,
and Musical History, in addition to the submission of written composition of
prescribed nature (ibid., 239), a pattern generally adopted by other universities
(ibid., 241). There was another quite different parallel development, however. The
(London) Sacred Philharmonic Society had been formed in 1832 to promote choral
practice, and was soon transformed into a symbol of religious dissent as a [huge]


Christine Lucia

coalition of nonconformist choirs (Ehrlich et al 2000, 139). This choral music used a
resurrected form of medieval tonic solfa notation, rather than staff notation. In 1835
the British Committee of Council on Education recommended tonic solfa notation
and class singing as a method of instruction for state schools (Rainbow 1986, 28-31),
a move further consolidated by the founding of the (London) Tonic Sol-fa College
as early as 1869, which issued external certicates ahead of the other London-based
conservatoires and soon included South African candidates, black and white, in its
sway. The non-conformist solfa-ists certainly had numbers on their side. By 1890, for
example, more than 39,000 copies of the Tonic Sol-fa edition of Handels Messiah
had been sold (Rainbow 2000, 606). Rivalry between the publishing houses of
Curwen and Novello ensured that thousands of items were disseminated throughout
Britain and its colonies, including not only sheet music, histories of music, primers
on singing and other modes of performance, but also, and especially, textbooks on
what were called rudiments and theory of music.
The scene was set in late Victorian London for an ideological war between the
non-conformist working-class choral solfa-ists and the Establishment middle-class
conservatory- or university-trained musicians, including eminent Victorians and
Oxbridge men such as Charles Stanford, Hubert Parry, John Stainer, George Grove,
Alexander Mackenzie, and Arthur Sullivan. Most of these were composers and all of
them proponents of Britains expanding role in European classical music, anxious to
eradicate the notion that Britain was Das Land ohne Musik (a land without music),
colonised by Germans. The war came to a head in a bizarre notation march down
Whitehall in 1897, where, as Grant Olwage has shown, Parry and others delivered
a memorandum to the Education department deploring the widespread use of tonic
solfa and choral music in schools (2002, 35). This was not so much an anti-German
as an anti-working class move, pro-Establishment, concerned with the perpetuation
of high standards of taste in British musical life.

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music

Shortly before this, the Royal Academy and Royal College had decided, perhaps not
surprisingly, to bury their differences and work together on a new project that would
ensure not only their own raison dtre but also the future of an instrumental (rather
than vocal) high art tradition in staff notation, to which rudiments and theory of
music were crucial. A conversation between Dr. Alexander Mackenzie, Principal of
the Royal Academy of Music, and Sir George Grove, Director of the Royal College
of Music in 1888 ([Associated Board n.d.], 8), led to the formation of a small joint
subcommittee of the two institutions, which met on the 17th of June 1889, and
on 18th July a draft agreement was reached to conduct joint Local Examinations
in Music throughout the United Kingdom ([Associated Board] Agreement, 24
October 1889).


How critical is music theory?

The rst examinations of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in
1890 were not the rst of their kind (similar external exams had been held by Trinity
College of Music since 1876 (see Paxinos 1984, 10), but they quickly outgrew their
rivals. The rst practical exams in piano, organ, and violin were held in March
and April 1890, in forty-six local centres throughout the UK (mostly municipal
buildings such as city halls). An integral part of the move to control standards
throughout the country was the prescription that no candidates could take the joint
Boards exams until they had passed a Preliminary Examination a month prior to this,
in Rudiments of Music. This qualifying exam tested knowledge of scales, intervals,
note values, grouping of notes, time signatures, and triads theory of music. An even
stiffer Preparatory Examination followed, in March, alongside the practical exams,
and this comprised Counterpoint, Harmony, Analysis and Form, offered at two
levels, Junior and Senior.
The high a priori standard of theory of music demanded here was a major
obstacle for many candidates, as the Associated Boards rst annual Report of 189091 shows. Although most people managed the rudiments paper, the Report says,
of the 904 Candidates who presented themselves [for the Preparatory Exam], 431
were successful and 473 failed, the percentage of passes in the Junior Grade being
54 as against nearly 45 in the Senior Associated Board 1890-91, 3). The two levels
Junior and Senior were therefore soon expanded downwards to cater for low
standard of theory of music knowledge (the failures), and then all levels expanded
in both directions in both theory of music and practical music, until within a very
few years they had stretched across eight Grades: the origin, then, of the Associated
Boards grade exams.
Another result of the shockingly high percentage of failures in theory of music
was that the Board perceived this as a lapse in school music education, and decided
to begin examinations in schools as well as local centres from 1891 (ibid., 4-5). Their
annual Report makes the agenda clear. The Board intended
not only to encourage younger and less advanced students to persevere towards the
attainment of a higher knowledge of Music by affording them the opportunity of
testing by means of an Examination the degree of prociency at which they have
arrived, but also to exercise a benecial inuence on the elementary teaching of
the Arts, which at present is too often of a kind but little calculated to further the
development of sound musical culture (ibid., 5).

The Associated Board a coloniser of South African theory of

Thus, the Associated Board effectively became a school as well as communitybased music examining body driven by an ideology of a higher kind of music
(i.e. Western art music), and guardian of that musics performance standards and
critical norms. It recognised that an enormous demand had been created that then


Christine Lucia

had to be satised (ibid., 2), reected in the telegraphic address it had from 1889 to
1898: Augmentation a play on the word associated with a rhythmic prolongation
in counterpoint but also one of the facets of an expansionist policy. And indeed
augmentation was soon to be far greater, perhaps, than Mackenzie and Grove ever
imagined. In 1891 in what was only the second year of running Associated Board
external exams a Memorandum from music teachers in the Western Cape was
presented to the University of the Cape of Good Hope (UCGH), requesting the
University to establish the Boards examinations in South Africa (Le Roux 1982,
216).16 The Board entered into an agreement with the University, and the rst
Associated Board of the Royals Schools of Music exams in theory, piano, harmony,
violin, singing, and organ were held in Cape Town, Graaff Reinet, Grahamstown,
and Kimberley in 1894.17 After requests from several other colonial outposts in the
late 1890s that nally turned a conversation between two Victorian gentleman into
an imperial enterprise, the Board changed its name in 1902 to The Associated Board
of the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music of London, England,
for Local Examinations in Music in the British Empire 18 The expansion of the
Associated Boards exams continued throughout the twentieth century, not only to
countries of the former Commonwealth but also the far East and the United States.
Its position now is that of the largest and most inuential external examining body
in the world and its whole history an example of the progression from mercantile
through monopoly to transnational capitalism second to none.
The Associated Board is run as a Charity while the very protable Music Publishing
Department, opened in1920 ([Associated Board, n.d.], 15) is run as a business. In the
nancial year February 1997 to January 1998 the Charity accrued an annual surplus
of almost 3 million.19 Exam entry fees, although low in terms of British currency,
are high when translated into South African Rands and measured against the very low
average earnings of candidates or in the case of most schoolchildren or university
students, absence of earnings. South African entries to Board exams are fairly small,
however, compared to entries for Unisa grade exams. They constitute a fraction of
the Boards income. As Associate Board CEO Richard Morris told me in a meeting
in March 2002, the Boards 6 000 entries a year from South Africa doesnt cover our
[administration] costs: its a charitable activity (personal communication 12/03/02).
I have not yet been able to establish the economics of pass and fail rates, especially
as they affect black candidates, because the Associated Board does not keep racial
breakdowns of candidates and they are wary of giving statistics because this might
be benecial to their competitors (ibid.). They stopped making gures public some
years ago because, as I was told by an AB employee, there might be some countries
where out of 500 entries, 400 fail, and it would be very disheartening for these
countries to see the statistics (Rob Pitkethly, personal communication 21/03/02).
The Associated Board exams have provided a model based on unquestioned
assumptions about the ideology of certain kinds of music and musical knowledge.
Their hegemonic power draws on other aspects, such as the volunteer system by


How critical is music theory?

which exams are administered world-wide. The rst Local Representatives who ram
exams in the 1890s had their names approved by HRH the President (the Prince of
Wales) ([First Annual] Report, 2), which was their payment and probably regarded
as sufcient reward, along with the knowledge that they were doing what the
Board called important national work (ibid., 6). Local Representatives are still the
mainstay of the organisation, and still unpaid, placing them in a very unequal power
relations with the metropolitan centre of control. A gender analysis reveals another
kind of power discourse. Lists of candidates names given until the Second World
War show the overwhelming number was female (2000 in 1891 versus 29 male); the
majority of examiners and local representatives however (representing the power of
a centralised form of control) were male. Only in 1914 did the number of women
suddenly increase, presumably because of conscription in the First World War. The
Board itself was entirely male from 1890 until well into the twentieth century. Even
the examiners sent out from the UK to assess candidates all over the world, receive
fairly low fees; their services are seen as a subvention from the full-time teaching
posts they mostly occupy (see the complaint about this in Long 1980, 8-9). These
and other statistics obviously repay much more critical attention.

The case of the Associated Board and similar external examining bodies in South
Africa is an extreme example, I suggest, of what the Comaroffs have shown as the
colonisation of consciousness in South Africa, a continuing manifestation of the
signs and practices, the axioms and aesthetics, of an alien culture as it once operated
in the colonial, and later post-colonial state (Comaroff and Comaroff 1989, 267,
268). It was from the rst a collaboration, however, rather than an imposition, arising
out of a desire to promulgate the values of Western culture through in this case the
vehicle of theory of music in an alien world, and thus complicating the colonising
process, in much the same way that the imposition of Christian precepts and the
English language were negotiations as much as impositions. The grade exam system
has become so successful that its approach has become a yardstick for measuring
university entrance requirements in music, just as English is a yardstick. I would argue,
however, that while English has become an effective medium for the expression of
an indigenous literature, the same couldnt necessarily be said of theory of music and
indigenous composition. There is a strong tradition of choral music as I have pointed
out, and also of orally transmitted music, that has little afnity with the axioms of
Western harmony and counterpoint.
Indeed, the conditioning effect of the attitude towards musical mastery that some
aspects of theory of music impose has done some disservice to a reading of the long
indigenous choral tradition, which is not yet recognised as serious composition either
by the academy or by the music education establishment, because its syntax does not
conform to expectations.20 But increasingly, music students whose consciousness


Christine Lucia

universities are also trying to colonise dont come to study music at university
with this conditioning, because of the so-called disadvantaged schooling they
have received; in this case, perhaps, advantaged. Many have not already absorbed
certain assumptions of value or systems of control through theory of music. Thus,
employing its hegemonic norms uncritically is not only problematic but increasingly
What are the constraints on our thinking to remove before we can affect further
critique of theory of music? First, because the corpus of rudiments, harmony, and
counterpoint has been in existence longer than critical theory it seems epistemologically
a priori and therefore foundational. Second, its epistemology has emerged from a
very different space from that of critique (from an eighteenth century practice of
composition rather than late nineteenth and early twentieth century practices of
social science and philosophy), and its basic premise an assumption of value in the
rules of Western music composition of 200 years ago is no longer relevant. Third,
the mastery of hierarchies and rules no longer determine successful performance
or composition. The process of deconstructing its system-bound modes of musical
thinking thus holds many possibilities. In addition, we cannot do without some of
its useful components; we cannot throw the baby out with the bath water. Harmonic
thinking, for example, is a strong element in much of South Africas traditional and
popular music, as is rhythmic polyphony.
Casting off some components of theory of music and retaining, maybe adapting
others is threatening, however. For it is nothing less than abandoning, after 300 years,
the traditional carrier of Western classical music conventions, dismantling an even
older system in which apprentices are perpetually initiated into the basics, or nuts
and bolts, so that masters higher up the hierarchy can continually control them as
they move up until they become masters themselves. It is abandoning the Romantic
paradigm (also revealed by the Comaroffs) of student recipients waiting for the
word, and abandoning a body of knowledge comfortably residing in ready-to-wear
textbooks. How critical music theory as theory-of-music is, then, is not a matter of its
intellectual importance so much as its ideological necessity. To debate it, to explore
the truly critical role (music) theory could play in South Africa, to deconstruct the
ideology behind it and reassign the uses of its component parts, would be a brave
and extraordinary move. It would however mean that last major outpost of the
nineteenth century conservatoire system inherent in university music departments
in South Africa would also be dismantled. Not the least of the benets of this, in
turn, are that composition might become, in Jacques Attalis liberating words, the
de-mystifying process of making a piece removed from the rigid institutions of
specialised musical training, (McClary 1985, 156). On the down side, some of us
(myself included) might be out of a job.


How critical is music theory?

1 According to Aristotle, who regarded theory as a higher form of practice, the point of
practice is change in some object, whereas the end of theoria is knowledge of the object itself
(Christensen 2002, 2), making a fundamental epistemological distinction drawn between the
two as principles of action theoria is the discipline of nal causes (that of why a thing is
made) and praktike that of formal causes (that into which a thing is made) (ibid., 3).
2 The denition of music I use for this essay is one necessarily bounded to Western
art music. To make it apply more widely would defeat most of the purpose of the essay, but I
am nevertheless aware that this may be seen as a limitation.
3 It is theory of music as I have dened it above, although Christensen continues to
call it music theory.
4 The Cambridge History of Music Theory gives several dates. Christensens
Introduction has 1720-79 (9); in a later chapter they are 1720-89 (668); in another chapter
1771-79 (872); and in the books Index 1720-90 (991).
5 Christensen does not give the original German term but the title of Sulzers whole
intellectual project was Allgemeine Theorie der schnen Knste (1771-4) (ibid.).
6 And how such analysis explains causes in terms of an idealistic or materialistic
paradigm is of as great an interest to musicians as it is to scholars in other disciplines in the
South African context see for example Ldemann 1993.
7 My knowledge of the South African situation comes from insider experience: from
teaching at four South African universities over thirty years, acting as external examiner for
others, hearing students and colleagues present papers at conferences, serving on various
national music education forums, and studying the development of syllabuses and curricula
countrywide, and engaging my colleagues in various institutions in debate over the role of
music theory in the curriculum.
8 Das Meisterwerk in der Musik (1925-30).
9 He expressed his ideas most fully in his treatise Der freie Satz [Free Composition]
of 1935.
10 The steps are Grade 1 to Grade 8, with a pre-Grade 1 level (Preparatory) leading
to Grade 1 and a post-Grade 8 level (Advanced Certicate) providing a stepping stone to
Licentiate Diplomas in Teaching or Performing (the latter are on a par with university BMus
nal year).
11 The Associated Board of the Royal School of Musics mouthpiece, Libretto, often
pays service to the globalising effect of the ABRSMs work in a range of overseas countries
from Europe to Africa to Asia (Chief Executive Richard Morris in Libretto 2006: 3, 2), and,
one can add, Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.
12 The repertoire most people in South Africa listen to regularly hymns, gospel,
kwaito, hip-hop, other forms of popular music which abounds in conventions celebrated
in the rules of theory of music, paradoxically remains an untapped source for the mastery
of such rules. It is, however, important to point out that tools from theory of music can
quite successfully be used (and have) to interpret meanings in popular music. See inter alia
the work of Richard Middleton, Simon frith, and John Shepherd. On the other hand, there
are also scholars who have revealed conceptual systems in southern Africas indigenous
musics: see for example Olivier 1997, and Dargie 1982, 1991, & 1996.


Christine Lucia
13 An example from the 1920s or 30s [n.d.] that reveals a possible relationship between
religious and musical evangelism is Minnie Cuthberts First Steps in Theory: A Catechism
of the Elements of Music for the use of Junior Pupils. Divided into thirty-eight lessons,
this catechism presents the information in question-and-answer form with Examination
Questions supplied throughout [which] are designed as tests of comprehension to be answered
by the pupils (without reference to the Catechism) (Cuthbert [n.d.], Preface). Rather in the
same way that the Christian Catechism was to be learned of every person before he be
brought to be conrmed by the Bishop (Book of Common Prayer [n.d., 170), theory of music
was throughout the 20th century seen as preparation for musical conrmation.
14 Behind these books lies an area of research that it is beyond the scope of this article
to explore: the political economy of the grade exams. The ABRSM sold 124 000 copies of
Coles Questions and Exercises between 1953 and 1963 (handwritten note of 22.10.63 by the
Boards Chairman, Stanley Marchant, AB Archive, orange le M.P.D. [Music Publishing
Department]), thus making the Board a prot (after printing costs and his 450 fee) of 8
060 (ibid.) in ten years. His Rudiments and Theory of Music published in 1958, to partner
the exercise books, had made the Board 32 324 by 1968 (ibid., agenda item). The Music
Publishing Department had separated from the Examinations Department in 1920 (see
15 Not only is it unquestioned but also the critical outcomes of music in the higher
school curricula have themselves recently become linked to the outcomes of grade theory
examinations of the Royal Schools of Music and Unisa. Perhaps this in turn is to be expected,
since the AB exam system was always intimately linked with school education, from its
inception in the 1890s (see the early Minute Books in the AB archive, and issues of the
London-based The Music Times in the same period).
16 An unsurprising move, in light of the constant musical trafc between Britain and
its southern African colony.
17 These initial exams were not Unisa exams, as Unisa would have it see Musicus
22(2), 1994, although several decade later and under the impact of various ideological
imperatives not least of which was the rise of Afrikaaner nationalism, there was a split
between the Associated Board and the University of South Africa which was administering
their exams (Unisa grew out of UCGH), and in 1948 Unisa established its own Grade exam
18 Associated Board. 1902-1906. The Associated Board of the Royal Academy of Music
and the Royal College of Music of London, England, for Local Examinations in Music in the
British Empire: Patron: His Majesty The King; President: H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, K.G:
Thirteenth [to Seventeenth] Annual Report of the Board to the General Meeting at St. Jamess
Palace. London: [AB] 14 Hanover Square. [5 paper booklets bound into one volume, called
Centre Reports 1902 to 1906.]
19 The gure given was the latest I could nd while conducting research into the ABRSM
in 2002 and were found on the website of the Charity Commission of England and Wales
18/03/02). I have not ascertained gures for the prot of the Publications Department over
the same period, but I assume they would be much higher.
20 A widely inuential textbook for music education in South African schools, The
Musical Arts in Africa (Herbst, Nzewi and Agawu, eds, 2003) does not include indigenous


How critical is music theory?

choral composition in its repertoire of music for classroom use, despite the fact that the vast
majority of South African music teachers in South Africas hundreds of thousands of schools
are in many cases also composers, and choir trainers. One of the main people attempting to
counter the trend, to promote choral music as art music, is Mzilikazi Khumalo.

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