39. Is Music Theory or Performance?

Musica speculativa vs Musica practica

How would you define love? We beg the reader’s indulgence to consider which of the two following definitions seems more to the point.

  1. Love is something one comes to understand and define on the basis of his personal experience with various kinds of love throughout the course of one’s life.
  2. Love is a concept you learn about from reading books.

Nearly everyone, we would guess, would pick the first and would conclude that love is experiential and not conceptual.

Common sense would suggest that a similar distinction in definitions of music would produce a similar answer.

  1. Music is something one comes to understand and define on the basis of his personal experience with hearing and/or playing music throughout the course of his life.
  2. Music is a concept you learn about from reading books.

But if you assume the first answer is self-evident you may be surprised to learn that the academic world has handed down from antiquity a contention that says, “No! Music is a science you learn from books.” This wrong-headed prejudice is at the heart of American music education today. How has the academic world come to such a conclusion, ignoring the fact that millions of persons all over the world love to listen to and perform music even though they “know nothing” about it? Who could contend that when we say, “Music is the International Language,” we are making reference to reading material?

This prejudice which makes music a conceptual discipline, rather than an experiential one, has its origin in the central premise of nearly all early philosophers, that man must be governed by Reason. This was closely supported by the argument that the eye is the most important of the five senses, the consequences of which for ear-dependent music are obvious. It then followed that “knowing about” something was a higher accomplishment than actually “doing” something. The usual example given was the architect, who deserves more credit than the mere stone mason or carpenter. The point here was that one thinks and the others merely craft with their hands. Aurelian, in his Musica Disciplina of 843 AD, points out that this is why instrumentalists are not even called “musicians,” but are rather named for their instruments (tools, as it were) as in ‘flute players,’ etc.

One of the earliest examples of this line of thought is found in Plato. He has Socrates discussing various musical performers with a student and Socrates asks, “But can a man who does not know a thing, know that the thing is right?”1 He meant, even though the musician sounds very pleasing, how can we judge if he is doing the right thing if he knows nothing of the theory and science of music? Some fifteen centuries later this same belief was stated by John Cotton in his treatise On Music written ca. 1100 AD. He seems perplexed that he hears nice music played by musicians who know nothing.

“Thus we sometimes see jongleurs and actors who are absolutely illiterate composing pleasant-sounding songs.”

Amazingly, to the uneducated listener he says, “You may enjoy what you hear but you can’t know if it is good unless you master the science and theory of music.”

“For whoever devotes unremitting labor to it, and perseveres without pausing or wearying, can gain from it this reward, that he will know how to judge the quality of song.”2

And again, performing well brings you no credit, only knowing about performance brings credit!

We said “having a knowledge of music” because even if one unversed in the subject does what he does correctly, still, because he does it unwittingly, he is little esteemed.3

And finally, he suggests that the musician who performs without “knowing” what he is doing is nothing but a beast!

From the musician to the singer how immense the distance is;
The latter’s voice, the former’s mind will show what music’s nature is;
But he who does, he knows not what, a beast by definition is.4

Some three hundred years later we find this definition was paraphrased by the great theorist, Tinctoris (1435–1511):

There is a big difference between musicians and singers.
These know, those talk about, what music is.
And he who doesn’t know what he talks about is considered an animal.5

But this logic was carried even further, for St. Augustine (fourth century, AD) declared that audience members who listen to music without understanding the “science” of music are also beasts!

And what’s more, aren’t those who like to listen to [performers] without this science to be compared to beasts?6

The argument here is that animals, lacking Reason, can hear sounds, but not “music.” Following this line, the fifteenth-century theorist, Tinctoris, reflecting on those listeners he has known who prefer even poor singers to simple theory [moderate rationalities], thinks God should turn them into animals!

I think these people worthy to have their human faces with their stupid ears changed by divine intervention into those of an ass.7

This kind of thinking can still be found at the end of the seventeenth century, as we see in William Wotton’s (1666–1727) Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning (1694). He distinguishes between those he calls the “skilled” listener and the “common” listener and tries to make his point by analogy with painting. The expert, he says, finds his enjoyment in the detail, the technique and, for all we can tell, never sees the entire painting! On the other hand, in music, says Wotton, the common man has his “passions raised,” without any contribution to his “understanding.”

The end of this kind of reasoning would presume that a man could just sit and enjoy contemplation of the “science” of music without ever bothering to actually go hear musicians perform. Is it possible anyone could ever advocate such an idea? Yes!, as we see in the following extraordinary contention by the famous Petrarch, the fourteenth-century poet and musician.

A deaf person can know the tones and numbers characterizing the intervals of fifth and octave, as well as the other proportions of the musical scale with which musicians work. Although one does not hear the sounds of the human voice, of strings or the organ, he nevertheless may understand in his mind their fundamental canon and, doubtless, will prefer the intellectual pleasure to a mere titillation of the ear.8

The emphasis on music as a “science,” rather than as an experiential practice, received a further boast from the early Church fathers who, in their paranoia about the emotions, through some smoke and mirrors allowed music to be taught in their schools only if it were transformed into a branch of mathematics. And so from approximately the sixth to the sixteenth centuries, one thousand years, virtually all music treatises were written by mathematicians. The result was descriptions of music such as this passage from Boethius (475–524 AD):

But since the nete synemmenon to the mese (3,456 to 4,608) holds a sesquitertian ratio—that is, a diatessaron—whereas the trite synemmenon to the nete synemmenon (4,374 to 3,456) holds the ratio of two tones.9

Is this music? We must pause to point out that there were a few rays of light to be found, a few writers who were able to understand and separate music from the dogma of science to some degree. Hucbald, in his De harmonica institutione (ca. 895 AD), seems to make a distinction between what one hears on the basis of “judgment” and by “ear.”10 And Guido of Arezzo, in his Epistola de ignoto cantu (1030– 1032 AD) points out that he has not followed the model of Boethius, “whose treatise is useful to philosophers, but not to singers.”11 Even Boethius, himself, for all his mathematical description of music had to admit, however reluctantly, that there was something in music which greatly moved ordinary, uneducated people. This characteristic of music is so strong, he writes, that we cannot free ourselves from it even if we try.

The old difficulty in defining music, with its twin rational and non-rational characteristics, received new attention at the time the first modern universities were founded in Europe. The Scholastic doctors who taught at Oxford and Paris, beginning in the thirteenth century, were accustomed by long precedent to discuss music as a conceptual subject. For one thousand years it had been a branch of mathematics and a member of the seven Liberal Arts. But these professors were also very much aware that the actual performance of music which they heard around them included elements, such as feeling, which were not easily represented or explained by numbers, or any other conceptual symbols. As the reader knows, even today, a thousand years later, we have no symbols in music notation which haves anything to do with feeling or emotions!

Hence they simply divided the discipline of Music at this time into two branches: “musica speculative” and “musica practica.” They said, in effect, We will teach the first, and leave to you, the performers on the street, to teach the second. Thus, the prejudice we have seen in the medieval music treatises concerning “science” versus “practice” now, with the appearance of the new, modern universities, becomes institutionalized and becomes dogma. Thus, for example, at the university in Oxford, one finds in the fourteenth century new treatises by Walter Odington and Simon Tunstede which are organized on the basis of “musica speculative” and “musica practica.”12 Of the six books which constitute Odington’s treatise, by the way, the first three are purely mathematical.

One can understand, therefore, how important an harbinger it was when the first treatises on “musica practica” began to appear. One of the first was the Practica musicae by Franchino Gaffurio (1451–1518). He begins by making reference to the use of music in moral education in ancient Greece.

It is readily apparent, illustrious Prince, how much influence the profession of the art of music had and with what veneration it was held among the ancients. We know this both from the example of the greatest philosophers, who, when they were very old, devoted themselves to this discipline as if in it they put the finishing touch to their studies, and from the practice of the strictest governments, which with the utmost diligence saw to it that whatever was harmful to public morals should be eliminated. Not only did these states not banish the art of music; they cultivated it with the utmost zeal as the mother and nurse of morals.13

He continues by pointing out that no other subject is so universally approved and suggests that it may also be the oldest of the liberal arts. It is here also that he begins to introduce the “musica practica” branch (performance) and makes the point that it is only the practical side, and not the theory side, that influences morals, a practice given much emphasis by the ancient Greeks.

Now music is not, like the other learned disciplines, merely a speculative pursuit: it reaches out into practice, and as was said previously, is connected with morality. I would not have fulfilled my duty if I had remained in the field of research only, serving a few without toiling diligently for the public good also. Thus this field of music theory is valuable not only because of the knowledge it gives music itself, but also because its roots extend very far; it aids other disciplines. This has been verified by the testimony of very influential men who have acknowledged that they learned literature from music above all else. Fabius Quintilian declares, on the authority of Timagenes, that this art ‘is the most ancient of all studies in liberal education.14

Apparently this is true. Plato pointed out that music education existed 10,000 before his time!

Gaffurio begins the main body of his text with the accurate observation that most previous theorists had concentrated on “musica speculativa,” rather than “musica practica.” Since it seems also to have been his observation that most practicing musicians had ignored the treatises on “musica speculativa,” he is astonished that musicians could nevertheless understand such things as harmony. We know today that it is perfectly reasonable that one can know music without knowing about music, as proven by modern clinical brain research and is most perfectly demonstrated in the child prodigy (Music is the only field of man’s endeavors in which it is possible to have a child prodigy, due to the amount of musical information which comes to all genetically) and many popular artists who “know nothing” about music and, in some extraordinary cases, can not even read music.

Even though the majority of scholars have pursued the science of harmony, while neglecting its practical application, far more extensively than those who have studied the practical application of the science—after all, the science of harmony is the domain of the theoretician—nevertheless, it is incredible that musicians could have attained the practical skill in harmony which they did attain without any study of theory.15

Gaffurio’s explanation for this “incredible” fact is the correct one: musicians learn the fundamentals of music experientially. It is this same explanation, we reiterate, that accounts for the fact that the world is filled with musicians who have never taken our music classes!

Now speaking of the practical musicians, Gaffurio represents it as their view that knowledge is useless unless it is put into practice. Further, he ironically seems to suggest that the speculative scholar cannot really understand the theoretical nature of music unless he actually hears these principles in use and even in performing them.

The mechanics of music are found in the movement of sounds producing consonances and melody. It is true that these sounds are assembled in vain by theory and science unless they are expressed in practice. Hence one must become thoroughly conversant with the highness, lowness, and the combinations of these sounds not only through one’s mind and reason but also through the habit of listening to and articulating them.16

Having suggested, above, that the practical musicians’ claim that it was their practice which contributed most to theory, he now makes the most interesting comment that in the middle Renaissance singers were singing things for which there was as yet no means of notation!

Further, sounds which cannot be written down are committed to memory by usage and practice so that they will not be lost, for their delivery flows imperceptibly into the past.17

Gaffurio concludes his treatise, Practica musicae, by once again observing that after having written two treatises on “musica speculativa,” the kind of books he knows the readers are weary of, he felt compelled to add a volume on “musica practica.”

Now, most gracious reader, I have presented my thoughts on musical practice with perhaps no less talent and industry than you wished for, though your wish was unspoken. For of course, since you must have grown weary reading my books on theory, you needed this just as some sharp foods are needed to revive and refresh the taste. Nor did I think I could escape blame if, when I taught the art of music and unveiled its innermost secrets (if I may use the phrase), I held back in silence from this part as well, which is called “practica” and consists of and is perfected by the actual practice of music itself.18

As the Renaissance progressed with growing sophistication among both composers and performers, there appears nevertheless to have been some return of the old debate relative to the respective importance of theory and performance. The greatest mind of the middle Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci, said, “Words are of less account than performances.”19 While he appears to put “science” in a lower category, he does not forget its importance.

Those who devote themselves to practice without science are like sailors who put to sea without rudder or compass and who can never be certain where they are going. Practice must always be founded on sound theory.20

Actually, Leonardo believed that experience was the real teacher. Therefore, for him, both performance and science were based on experience.

Good judgment is born of clear understanding, and a clear understanding comes of reasons derived from sound rules, and sound rules are the product of sound experience—the common mother of all the sciences and arts.21

During the sixteenth century the debate over the relative importance of theory and performance continued. The Italian theorist, Zarlino, almost seems to be pleading for more respect for theory, employing a nice analogy of going to the doctor.

But just as it is necessary that sense and reason concur in order to make judgment in things of music, so it is necessary that he who wants to judge anything pertaining to art have two capabilities: first, that he be expert in things of science, that is, of speculation; and second, that he be expert in things of art, which consists of practice … Accordingly, just as it would be insane to rely on a physician who does not have the knowledge of both practice and theory, so it would be really foolish and imprudent to rely on the judgment of [a musician] who was solely practical or had done work only in theory.22

In another place, Zarlino tries to show how both the theorist and the performer fail without a more complete knowledge of music.

Theory without practice is of small value, since music does not consist only of theory and is imperfect without practice. This is obvious enough. Yet some theorists, treating of certain musical matters without having a good command of the actual practice, have spoken much nonsense and committed a thousand errors. On the other hand, some who have relied only on practice without knowing the reasons behind it have unwittingly perpetrated thousands upon thousands of idiocies in their compositions.23

Bottrigari also takes the view that practice cannot be respected without theory, but his argument looks back to the medieval dogma that the person who “knows” is to be respected more than the person who “does,” or, the mind must be judged higher than the hand. After a discussion of the complexities of tuning based on the old tetrachord system, the character Desiderio asks,

I was thinking about asking you if it is necessary for all musicians, such as those of today who compose madrigals and motets, to know these things, and if they do know them, or if simple practice suffices.24

Benelli answers, yes, every musician should know these things, but it is also possible to succeed without knowing and understanding the theoretical explanations, although some honor must be withheld.

If, then, simple practice is sufficient to such composers to compose madrigals or motets or other kinds of cantilene, I will answer ‘yes’; since I see and feel that most of them succeed with great applause, and in a short time even youths nowadays do marvelous miracles. But I will add also that it does not seem to me to be a great honor to accomplish things and not to be able to give the reasons for them.25

Vincenzo Giustiniani, whose writings reflect the end of the sixteenth century, believed that no one had sufficient native talent to compose great music without a firm knowledge of theory.

In order that a musical composition succeed in gaining esteem it is necessary that it be composed according to the proper and true rules of this profession and, in addition, with new and difficult restrictions which may not be known to all musicians in general; and not only madrigals and compositions to be sung by several voices, but even in others in counterpoint, and canons, and that which seems more marvelous, the same arias to be sung easily by a single voice. And to succeed in this task the inclination given to many by nature will not be sufficient; there is required also study and application of mind and body. For possessing the rules and the just proportions of numbers, joined with those of the voice or of sound and the knowledge of the effects which are caused by these in the souls of men, not only in general but in particular corresponding to the individual inclinations of everyone and to the taste which prevails in different periods, one may be able to apply skill and experience to his own times, to human inclinations in general, and to the particular tastes of each person. And to attain this ability much application of the intellect is required, and much discussion is necessary to come to some conclusion about the work when the principles have been worked out beforehand.26

Due to the sense of intellectual freedom accompanying the significant religious and civic upheavals following Luther in sixteenth-century Germany, we are not surprised to find wide differences in opinion among the authors of music treatises regarding the relative importance of theory and performance. In the case of Andreas Ornithoparchus’ Musice active micrologus, of 1517, we find an almost hostile view of performers. Ornithoparchus first admits that speculative understanding of music judges not by the ears, but by “wit and reason,” but he is quick to point out that this is hard work “and should not be lightly esteemed.”27

Next he argues for three categories of musician: performers, poets and critics (those who judge music only by “speculation and reason.” It is the first category which he discusses at length, following the old Church prejudices against musicians who are “merely” performers, craftsmen who engage in performance while understanding nothing they do. One would like to think that this is the last time we shall confront this relic of the worst of medieval Scholastic values, but alas this attitude is still found in some universities today.

The first category deals with instruments, such as harpists, organists and all others who prove their skill by instruments. They are removed from the intellectual part of music, being as servants, and using no Reason, void of all speculation and following their sense only. Now though they may seem to do things with learning and skill, yet it is plain that they have no knowledge, because they do not comprehend what they profess. Therefore we deny that they have Music, which is the Science of making melody. One can have knowledge without practicing and this is a greater end than being an excellent practitioner. We do not associate nimbleness of fingers with Science, which resides in the soul, but rather to practice. If it were otherwise the more one knew about the Art, the more he would automatically become swift in his fingerings.28

Ornithoparchus includes singers among instrumentalists, which is to say performers, and again he says their performance means nothing if it is without “the rules of Reason.” Thus, as regards the speculative versus the practical musician (theoretical versus performer), Ornithoparchus accepts the old Church dogma that it is more honorable to know than to do. Supposing the reader may wonder about the performers in the Old Testament, Ornithoparchus quickly adds that, well, they were also prophets and wise men! Given this very limited definition of what a true musician is, one can understand Ornithoparchus’ concern that the old Church style was dying out.

Hence it is, that excepting those which are, or have been in the chapels of princes, there are none, or very few true musicians. Whereupon the Art itself doth grow into contempt, being hidden like a candle under a bushel, the praising of the almighty Creator of all things decreases and the number of those which seek the overthrow of this Art increases daily throughout Germany.

Ornithoparchus returns to the subject of the importance of musicianship based on theoretical learning in his discussion of polyphonic music. Now it is the composer who is the object of his attention and he lashes out at those who compose without “following the rules.” In mid-stream he suddenly recalls having heard some effective music by composers not trained in theoretical knowledge, which is something he cannot quite explain.

I cannot but scorn certain composers (for so they will be called, though indeed they are Monsters of Music), who, though they know not so much as the first elements of the art, yet proclaim themselves “the musicians’ musician,” being ignorant in all things, yet bragging of all things and do … disgrace, corrupt and debase this art, which was in many ages before honored and used by many most learned, most wise men. They use any signs at their pleasure, neither reckoning of value, nor measure, seeking rather to please the ears of the foolish with the sweetness of the melody … I know such a man, who has been hired to be the organist at the castle in Prague, who though he know not (and I conceal his greater faults) how to distinguish a perfect time from an imperfect, yet maintains publicly that he is writing from the very depth of music … Many more have violently inundated the art of music, as those which are not compounders of harmonies, but rather corruptors, children of the furies rather than the Muses, not worthy of the least grace I may do them. For their songs are ridiculous, not grounded on the principles of the art, though perhaps true enough. For the artist does not grace the art, but the art graces the artist. Therefore a composer does not grace music, but the contrary. There are some who make true songs not by art, but by custom, as having happily lived among singers all their life, yet do not understand what they have made, knowing that such a thing is, but not what it is.29

We have no doubt that he was aware of the attacks of the humanists on the old polyphonic Church style and, indeed, there were many later during the sixteenth century who greatly discounted this old scholastic style of composition. Perhaps for the same reason, he also sensed that his treatise would not receive universal praise.

I doubt not that there will be some who will snarl at it and backbite it, condemning it before they read it and disgracing it before the understand it. Some would rather seem, than be, musicians, not obeying authors, or precepts or reasons, but whatsoever comes into their hair-brain Cockscomb … To whom I beg you (gentle Readers) to lend no ear … for it is in vain to harp before an ass.30

Another German writer who would have certainly found no value in the views of Ornithoparchus was Adrian Coclico, who wrote a treatise, Compendium Musices in 1552 intended as an aid in the training of boy singers. He almost completely rejects the old speculative tradition and his book is filled with comments such as the following which begins his discussion of scales.

I have wished to train boys in music through but few words and precepts on that account, so that no youth running to the books of musician-mathematicians will waste his life in reading them and never arrive at the goal of singing well.31

This is really the first book which advocates the values of performance with almost no importance given to theory. We can understand this perspective because this author came to his conclusions on the basis of his own experience in having been a student under the great Josquin.

In Belgian cities, where prizes are given to singers and, because of the prizes to be gained, no procedure or labor is undertaken unless it pertains to the goal of singing well, no music is written down or prescribed by precept. My teacher, Josquin des Pres, never rehearsed or wrote out any musical procedures, yet in a short time made perfect musicians, since he did not hold his students back in long and frivolous precepts, but taught precepts in a few words at the same time as singing through exercise and practice.32

Rather than theoretical background, Coclico looked for enthusiasm, zeal and love of music in a prospective student.

First, adolescents or better, boys … should bring to their teacher a great zeal and desire for learning music, together with their natural enthusiasm, so that they may listen as eagerly and attentively as possible to whoever teaches and guides … He, however, who is possessed by a certain single-minded zeal for learning …, this person I hold myself committed that he will be an excellent musician. In a Greek proverb it is beautifully stated: Love teaches music.33

This natural enthusiasm he felt was particularly necessary in the case of the student who desired to compose.

The Student should be led to composing by a great desire, and by a certain natural impulse he will be driven to composition, so that he will not taste food nor drink until his piece is finished, for, since this natural impulse so drives him, he accomplishes more in one hour than others in a whole month. Composers to whom these unusual motivations are absent are useless.34

By way of contrast, Henry Peacham (1576–1643), of England, in his The Complete Gentleman, a publication intended as a guide for the education of a noble, finds remarkable enthusiasm for the speculative branch of music.

Infinite is the sweet variety that the theoric of music exerciseth the mind withal, as the contemplation of proportion, of concords and discords, diversity of moods and tones, infiniteness of invention, etc. But I dare affirm there is no one science in the world that so affecteth the free and generous spirit with a more delightful and inoffensive recreation, or better disposeth the mind to what is commendable and virtuous … Yea, in my opinion, no rhetoric more persuadeth or hath greater power over the mind.35

With the arrival of the Baroque with its concentration on the role of emotion in music we see the pendulum begin to swing toward the importance of performance over the theoretical. Johann Mattheson still writes that one should employ both the “speculative” and the practical in performance and like Leonardo he argues that theory should be employed at the service of performance, and not the other way around as earlier theorists suggested.

That type of contemplation or theory is however to be preferred to all others which does not delve so deeply into shallow, mental considerations that action is forgotten; but turns its main aim toward actual practice and usage … Whoever wants to make good use of both aspects must never separate them, but keep them fast together, like body and soul.

In another place Mattheson becomes rather critical of the theoretical aspect of music because of the impression it renders to the ordinary person. His argument is that emphasis of the theory side of music gives the impression to the layman that they know nothing about music if they have not had this training. Mattheson knew by observation what we have learned today through clinical brain research. The fact is all men are born with the knowledge to understand this language of music. Of the conceptual music teacher Mattheson concludes,

For they are persuaded that this beautiful and perfect creation, which a beneficent God has given us men for our pleasure, and likewise as a model of the eternal, harmonious Splendor, depends solely upon deep learning and laborious knowledge. To prove this, they dispense their philosophical rules and scholarly vagaries, not only with great authority, but likewise with such obscurity that one has a rightful aversion for the stuff, and would rather remain in permanent ignorance than to go through such horrenda.36

Mattheson, having been a performer, knew that rational concepts cannot well describe the experience of music. Thus he advises the pursuit of performance, after the necessary foundation, as a means of finding a “healthy idea of music, purified of all unnecessary school-dust.” We know we are in a new era with the regard to the recognition of performance when François Couperin contended,

Just as there is a difference between grammar and declamation, so there is an infinitely greater one between musical theory and the art of fine playing.37

Descartes observed that the performer, since his art is practiced live before an audience, automatically has a kind of check and balance in his decisions which the theorist escapes.

For the consequences of the [practical study] will soon punish the man if he judges wrongly, whereas the [speculative study] has no practical consequences and no importance for the scholar except that perhaps the further they are from common sense the more pride he will take in them, since he will have had to use so much more skill and ingenuity in trying to render them plausible.38

Voltaire ridicules the old scholastic emphasis on “conceptual music” in his fictional debate among the inmates of the hospital Quinze Vingt.

A deaf man reading this short history, acknowledged that these blind people were quite wrong in pretending to judge of colors; but he continued firmly of the opinion that deaf people were the only proper judges of music.39

After the Baroque it seems quite clear in retrospect that for most persons “music” meant performance, and not theory. The first modern school of music, the Paris Conservatoire, established in 1792, was a school of performance. The only study not related to one’s instrument was weekly solfeggio courses and apparently a harmony course taught by Catel.

In 1865 Wagner was asked by King Ludwig II of Bavaria for advice in the establishment of a “German Music School to be founded in Munich.” Wagner responded with an essay of some length and he concluded that it must be performance which is the “invisible bond” of the curriculum. He goes further and maintains that the only true way to teach aesthetics and music history is through performance.

The invisible bond, uniting the various branches of study, will always have to be [in] performance … In keeping with the whole plan of our Music school, this cannot be pursued upon an abstract scientific path, mayhap through academic lectures and the like; but here, too, we must strike the purely practical path of direct artistic exercise, under higher guidance for the performance … The true aesthetics and the sole intelligible history of music … we must teach in no other way but by beautiful and correct performances of works of classical music.40

It is also probably fair to suggest that all the great nineteenth-century composers believed that music only really existed in performance, not in the score. Perhaps the reason for this was best expressed in the often quoted observation by Mahler, “The best things in music are not found in the notes.” So much for any conceptual philosophy of music! Liszt once wrote,

Unfortunately it is not with music as it is with painting and poetry: body and soul alone are not enough to make it comprehensible; it has to be performed, and very well performed too, to be understood and felt.41

He expressed the same thought in a letter thirteen years later,

What is the good of anything that is written on paper, if it is not comprehended by the soul and imparted in a living manner?42

Wagner had once written to Liszt expressing this same thought:

Only the performer is the real, true artist. All that we create as poets and composers expresses a wish but not an ability: only the performance itself reveals that ability or art.43

After the testimony of two hundred years by some of the greatest composers and greatest minds who ever lived, in the mid-twentieth century American music educators in an urgent search for accountability took it upon themselves to turn the clock again back to a medieval emphasis on teaching the “science” of music, today called the conceptual aspects of music. Any objective observer would conclude that this approach has once again failed. Just compare the small numbers of students per capita in music classes, compare the relative level of spending by the school on music, compare the content of writing in educational journals—compare anything you want to compare.

The fundamental reason why conceptual teaching in music is doomed to failure, if the goal is music education, is because conceptual teaching is not the teaching of music. Aristotle reminds us that the written word, “cat,” is not the real thing, it is only a symbol of the spoken word. And the spoken word, “cat,” is not the real thing either. Thus, when we write, “cat,” we are two generations away from the real thing. It is the same in music and it is the flaw that makes nonsense of the entire concept of conceptual teaching. The notion of conceptual teaching in music is based on the mistaken belief that what is on paper is music. Any child can tell you it is not.


  1. Laws, 668c ↩︎
  2. In Hucbald, Guido, and John on Music, trans. Babb. 51 ↩︎
  3. John, Op. cit., 77 ↩︎
  4. John gives the source as the Micrologus, but it actually comes from the beginning of Guido’s Regulae rhythmicae. ↩︎
  5. Dictionary of Musical Terms, trans., Parrish, 45 ↩︎
  6. “On Music,” trans., Taliaferro, Writings of Saint Augustine, I, iv. ↩︎
  7. Concerning the Nature and Propriety of Tones, trans., Seay, 5 ↩︎
  8. Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul, trans., Rawski, II, xcvii, 241 ↩︎
  9. Fundamentals of Music, trans., Bower, IV, ix ↩︎
  10. Babb, Op. cit., 119b ↩︎
  11. Ibid., 125 ↩︎
  12. Carpenter, Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Universities, 86 ↩︎
  13. The Practica musicae of Franchinus Gafurius, trans. Young, 3 ↩︎
  14. Ibid., 17 ↩︎
  15. Ibid., 11 ↩︎
  16. Ibid., 12 ↩︎
  17. Ibid., 18 ↩︎
  18. Ibid., 266 ↩︎
  19. The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, ed. Jean Paul, I, 78 ↩︎
  20. Anthony Blunt, Artistic Theory in Italy, 1450–1600 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), 28 ↩︎
  21. Ibid., I, 119 ↩︎
  22. On the Modes, trans. Vered Cohen, 106 ↩︎
  23. The Art of Counterpoint, trans. Guy Marco and Claude Palisca, 226ff ↩︎
  24. Hercole Bottrigari, Il Desiderio, trans. Carol MacClintock (American Institute of Musicology, 1962), 35 ↩︎
  25. Ibid., 36 ↩︎
  26. Discorso sopra la Musica (ca. 1628), trans. MacClintock in Ibid., 67ff ↩︎
  27. Musicae active mirologus and Dowland, Introduction: Containing the Art of Singing (New York: Dover, 1973), 123 ↩︎
  28. Ibid., 123 ↩︎
  29. Ibid., 169 ↩︎
  30. Ibid., 211 ↩︎
  31. Musical Compendium, trans., Seay, 10 ↩︎
  32. Ibid., 16 ↩︎
  33. Ibid., 5ff ↩︎
  34. Ibid. ↩︎
  35. The Complete Gentleman, ed. Virgil Heltzel (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1962), 115ff ↩︎
  36. Johann Mattheson, Das Neu-Eroffnete Orchestre (Hamburg, 1713), 2ff. Mattheson also writes at length in opposition to the old dogma that mathematics is the basis of music in his book, Das Forschende Orchestre of 1721 ↩︎
  37. François Couperin, L’Art de toucher (Paris, 1717, reprinted Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel (1933), Preface ↩︎
  38. Discourse on the Method (1637), I, 9ff ↩︎
  39. “The Ignorant Philosopher,” in The Works of Voltaire (New York: St. Hubert Guild, 1901), XXXV, 293 ↩︎
  40. The Prose Works of Wagner, trans., William Ashton Ellis, IV, 197ff ↩︎
  41. Letter to Abbe de Lemennais, Marseille, April 28, 1845 ↩︎
  42. Letter to Rosa von Milde, Weimar, August 25, 1858 ↩︎
  43. Letter to Franz Liszt, Zurich, July 20, 1850 ↩︎