Grad School and the Deconstruction of Music

I have a friend who graduated with her master’s degree in English who complained about the emphasis on deconstruction in her graduate level English classes. I’d only ever heard of deconstruction in a postmodern sense of the word, so I looked it up. Merriam-Webster said this: “a theory used in the study of literature or philosophy which says that a piece of writing does not have just one meaning and that the meaning depends on the reader.” ( While this is pretty much the definition I was expecting, I now believe this definition can be expanded. If grad school has taught me anything, it’s that music can be and is constantly deconstructed as well. (Don’t let this be confused with the terrible joke about Mozart decomposing…. Decomposing and deconstructing are two very different things!)

Multiple times throughout my college career, in various theory classes or even theory-heavy history classes, we have picked apart entire pieces to the point that programmatic titles no longer mean anything and we have forgotten what the theme even sounds like. Sometimes to get to these points we do absurd things. This starts in freshman theory with Roman numeral analysis and just gets worse from there. At least in undergrad we were frequently reminded to go back and listen to the original piece to keep a good grasp on the big picture. But sometimes in grad school, the entire point of the course is to pick music apart, and the reminders to listen to the music as music become far more needed but even more rare.

A perfect example of advanced analysis came early in my piano performance master’s degree. We took an entire class about variation form and technique in which (among other things) we learned how some of the variations actualize tiny hidden aspects of the theme – an odd interval here, an accidental there. It was suggested that without those revealing variations, the piece would be far less meaningful if not practically incomplete. Never mind the beauty in themes or the poignancy in minore variations. This was just one example of minute details that became very important. And I jumped into this with both feet. I’ll be the first to admit, it can be very interesting and fun. But it’s all very objective and seems to be brought into being more by the interpreter than the composer.

But then things got really wild. The Schenkerian analysis class came along. The main conclusion of Schenkerian analysis (masqueraded as a joke) is that the melody line of an entire piece can be reduced to scale degrees ^3-2-1, and that the bass part can be reduced to I-V-I chords, or sometimes even just the I chord. Also, when the Schenkerian analyst picks the notes they perceive as important and designate those in his or her graph, it is extremely subjective. You could have as many arguments for stem length of one note as you have people in a class. We are taught that usually no one is more right than anyone else. If we hear the music or see the notes in another way and back it up with evidence, no one can tell us we are wrong. So many different possible interpretations make us doubt who is composing the piece – the original composer or the analyst.

Now, I am a huge nerd, and I enjoyed most of the process of getting to these deeply analytical points. However, in so many cases, these tiny details in many theory classes have prompted either I or others to ask the question, “But how do we know if the composer meant for us to interpret it this way, or did he just write that because it sounded good?”

And of course, the answer is always, “I don’t know.”

So I have two exhortations. For those of us who are teaching or will be teaching someday, always remember to remind your students to listen to the music and hear it AS music and not as homework or an Urlinie. The second encouragement is this:  listen to music that way yourself! The root of the joy of music is not in seeing pages full of analytical scribbles, but in hearing and reveling in the sounds and emotions that caused us to love music in the first place.


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