Does this music teacher's argument about music theory needing a 'constructive' approach make sense to you?

Chords, scales, harmony, melody, etc.
2316 posts since 2 Jun, 2016

Post Tue Dec 22, 2020 2:13 am

Hello everyone,

I was just watching a video by a professional guitarist and music teacher, and YT musician, called Tommaso Zillio (whose YT videos I often enjoy):

In the video, Tommaso states that he prefers to teach music theory as a 'constructive' approach (whereby learners choose from a set of "tools", such as negative harmony or inversions, to develop a musical 'recipe' for themselves), rather than a 'prescriptive' approach (stating what musicians should do and making value judgements) or a 'descriptive' approach (which Tomasso believes focuses upon the usage by certain musicians of musical ideas).

I can certainly see some merit in Tomasso's argument for a 'constructive' approach (notwithstanding that it is outlined only briefly in this 12min video, and I would need more time and familiarity with it to evaluate further).

But tbh, I also veer very subjectively (and perhaps wrongly?) towards believing (as per the 'prescriptive' approach) that songs which stay in the same key, and particularly C Major, throughout are just dull and unimaginative.
Similarly, I do like to understand the 'descriptive' historical context of musical choices (eg, the development of bass guitar as leading instrument for dub remix 'versions' of late 1960s - early 1970s Jamaican reggae, which combined with drums and textural effects the DJs could then toast over).

So I'm not wholly convinced that this professional music teacher's "constructive" approach is adequate by itself for learning / teaching music theory. However, I do appreciate that my biases might not be shared by other people.

In fairness, this is only a short video so it surely does not encompass all of Tomasso's outlook on music theory.
And as far as I can tell, he never states in the video whether he believes - if only a little bit - in the usefulness of the two different approaches that he has named 'prescriptive' and 'descriptive'. So it is not entirely clear from this short video whether the teacher is strongly opposed to any (as he terms them) 'prescriptive' or 'descriptive' approach merits.

Ultimately, how would you describe your own approach to learning music theory and employing this usefully?
Do you think there is some merit in following the language used by this music teacher to separate music theory into 'prescriptive', 'descriptive' and 'constructive' approaches? Or perhaps this video tutorial is mostly nonsense?


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917 posts since 31 May, 2017

Post Wed Dec 23, 2020 12:12 am

I see it as similar to the way we learn oral language. We learn to speak by emulating others without a strong understanding of what we are actually doing. Then when we are ready we refine our communication skills by studying grammar and vocabulary and other relevant skills. Then we further our abilities by communicating with others and advancing new ideas. Eventually the new ways of communicating and the new words we use to better express ourselves make it into the new editions of those same books we studied in the first place.

Music theory is both a catalog and a catapult. But it certainly is not a means to and end by itself.
The processes of emulation and communication (musically speaking) are just as important as studying the existing theory and all three practices reinforce one another.
A little bit of theory in the beginning is good but too much can be stifling and unproductive. A young musical mind needs to explore and prime itself for what theory has to offer. And ultimately no matter how much theory you know, it is never going to be sufficient for giving you the tools to fully express yourself. If you are to reach a certain degree of mastery you will need to bend things to your will and ultimately break and rebuild them. Then whatever can be gleaned from that mess you made can be added to the record and the boundaries forever expand.

So to the question of what’s best, predictive, descriptive, constructive, I say all of them. They all have their place and value at different points in the process.
The novice that is ready for formal instruction can benefit from the prescriptive. Then once those lessons have been absorbed and well practiced, they can graduate to the constructive approach and really flourish in the relative freedom it permits. And then if true artistry is achieved they will contribute to the collective body of knowledge and that is where the descriptive comes into play.

Those are just my idealistic thoughts about the way things should work or in my estimation the way they work best. Just like anything else, there are many different interpretations.


Topic Starter

2316 posts since 2 Jun, 2016

Post Wed Dec 23, 2020 4:12 pm

Thank you for that thoughtful and well-reasoned response, Local Man. Very fair comments :tu:

21979 posts since 20 Oct, 2007 from not here

Post Tue May 04, 2021 4:02 pm

"I also veer very subjectively (and perhaps wrongly?) towards believing (as per the 'prescriptive' approach) that..."
I have never actually known anyone to teach music theory as prescriptive per se; there are use cases where you cannot get the desired result outside of what is "prescribed" to do, are conventional and should be exemplary, but this is really just for student exercises for composition students (and the prestige really is not where this is located at all).

I only took theory, or what was called Honors Music Theory which was 95% or more part-writing in four parts in the Common Practice Paradigm to be judged on its quality, how good does it sound (honors meaning done in one year rather than the normal two and probably a harder course x2).
It was trade school, it's learning a craft. It's not about coming away from it with recipes and rules and a vat filled with prefab dough to pour into your cookie cutter molds.

As to your own remark on a certain prejudice on music that's too vanilla, I think that's a mistake, an understandable disposition but it's probably a 'youngun's' assessment which will evolve in time.

21979 posts since 20 Oct, 2007 from not here

Post Tue May 04, 2021 4:32 pm

I dabbled in music creation from time to time when I was trying to get my stuff together in my teens, but I didn't consider myself a composer or ready to be until I was 24. I'd been a musician for the sort of requisite decade before you call yourself that, and I'd had the two years of "Music Theory" in one twice, at community college and at conservatory, and a semester in electronic music lab in SF, and had led bands and been their arranger and was a pretty worthy improviser at least in the rock realm.

So, when I first really got to where I wanted the old school material, I had some things on my mind. I decided to start composing like it's my job as the kids say because I had tastes, opinions and attitudes, and ideas that were maturing.
- I did certainly feel that I should be a capable musician before the expectation of writing it.

Reason number 1 was JS Bach. I had figured out how a number of things in music worked, but I really had no entry into the how of that. There are procedures. This is an area that is known, I mean the 4-part writing curriculae is right out of Bach, it's as convenient as can be for that.
But, I was a 20th century person playing music of my time, so what I was dabbling with was not like that at all, and the goal of studying conventional technique is to have more technique to draw from, and by that be more expansive. The opposite of it being restrictive.

And, by the time I got the French Sixth and resolution of the Tristan chord in "2nd year: Chromatic", I had figured out the flat-five substitute principle from chords in a little Mickey Baker guitar book. I grew up in jazz, no classical music in the house, and not really any piano. The chances of me becoming a classical musician were not high and we'd have to say the probability of me gearing myself to that whole style is a vanishing one. Let alone becoming conformative.
So I was a classical musician for a few years against type. But I befriended this sax player at CPCC who was taking the jazz reharmonization course. He had 'them TV chords' and I had the late romantic thing pointing towards Schoenberg.

I would love to see interdisplinary courses.
This is the upshot of this old person story, your theory finally has to be interdisciplinary; certain aspects exclude particular other aspects but that's just creating definition. Overall, a music theory course cannot say of itself it's sufficient, or that this approach is or this philosophy.
At this stage don't worry about it, it's trade school. Take what you need from it; if the goal is a supposed transcendental technique you gear to that; if the goal is decent songwriter with a good sort of Paul Simon vocabulary harmonically, you may never write 12-tone rows or study Stockhausen but you want that reharmonization course.

In a serious kind of a music school, composers are taught modern music. One is expected to be original and have something to say or go the f**k back home. I didn't intend to study composition in school, less so once I'd started really doing it, because I recognized people like to teach their own baggage by then. This is true of some heavyweights, too. If you're going to study with John Adams you're going to hear some opinions and shoulds and even some nevers. I got to hear about it from my musical partner then. I don't regret not, though, for me it was get into the lab and fire up the tape recorders and make 'em feedback and do the Eno thing with two Revoxes by then. Some school! My entire training is literally one sentence: "Lot of energy here. Subtract from it." Alden Jenks. Kind of a mic drop isn't it.

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3536 posts since 25 Jan, 2014 from The End of The World as We Knowit

Post Tue May 04, 2021 5:59 pm

Prescription (place your hands here), description (this is how you play it), construction (now try it yourself) are different teaching strategies.
They all have their place.
There are many others such as behaviorism (practicing to build muscle memory), information processing (analysing using music theory), humanism (exploring your own idea), etc.
A good teacher has them all in her toolbox.
She chooses which ones are appropriate for that student at that time.
We humans are multifaceted and unpredictable creatures.
Of course, that personal interaction is not possible on YouTube :D
MuLab Feels Simply Inspiring

21979 posts since 20 Oct, 2007 from not here

Post Wed May 05, 2021 5:38 am

Well, the questions in the OP regard a compartmentalization in those terms of how to approach "Music Theory".
I don't feel like putting time into sorting out the points in the video, it strikes me as, well, compartmentalization where it would seem a holistic synthesis would beat taking one approach over another.

excised long story

As to theory, a course designed by someone in the education bidness is probably going to be better than an ad hoc I'ma research on the internet/Youtube approach. Not sure how much personal interaction that requires but my experiences in my first 'theory course' has to have been more fun. We wrote our parts during class and the teacher played them on the piano, and you got to KNOW how you're doing; theory instantly into practice.
You aren't going to get a lot of feedback from your Youtube feed.
It firmed up my sense I would one day be a composer because the feedback was so positive, I really could write well on the spot.

As far as what to to with a student who is a child, this is beyond my ken frankly. Not everyone needs to be taught how to learn I guess (I'd put this in the talent category).

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