Brian Alegant: On Putting Music Back Into MUSIC Theory

Whether it was the circle of fifths, chord inversions, reading non-treble clefs, or the day my mom tried to explain time signatures to me with fractional apple slices, music theory is something I always struggled to grasp.

Something about it just never quite clicked. And it always felt like something to be endured, whether as a pre-college student, or eventually, as a music major in college. Because no matter where I went, theory class was always a required part of the curriculum. Which always made me wonder…WHY???? 🤬

And then…

Eventually, I did start to develop an appreciation for some aspects of music theory. And practicing became more fun, because this made it easier to find an interpretation that felt convincing and compelling. Which in turn changed how it felt to perform. In that for once, I felt like I had something to share that was truly mine.

So looking back, I wish could have gotten to this point much earlier in life. But I’m not sure how I would have overcome my mental block about theory, because a) I thought I sucked at it, and b) for decades, I couldn’t see how music theory had anything to do with what I did in the practice room or on stage. There was always this giant chasm in my head between doing music theory and using music theory.

It wasn’t just me, was it?

I suspect that I’m not the only one with this experience, so I thought it might be fun to chat with a music theory professor. Not so much to explore the theory stuff like Neapolitan chords and chord progressions and Schenkerian analysis, but to get into more of the music stuff.

Like, what is it actually good for? And how can we (or why should we) start sprinkling a little music theory into our daily practice? And what if we don’t think we’re very good at it? Or never much liked it?

Meet Brian Alegant

Brian Alegant is a professor of music theory at the Oberlin Conservatory. Also an accomplished pianist, he is the first music professor of any kind to be named U.S. Professor of the Year, in the 35-year history of the award.

Whether you’re currently studying music theory in school, or are decades beyond your theory studies, I hope this chat with Brian – and special co-host, violist Molly Gebrian (who has taught college music theory classes herself) – will spark a little interest in exploring how music theory could enhance your experience in the practice room and on stage.

In today’s episode, we’ll explore…

  • 6:45 – Why should you go to music theory class?
  • 11:28 – Why it’s important to listen to a piece both with and without the score.
  • 13:34 – What does one say to the argument that doing a lot of analysis leads to a performance that’s too calculating and cerebral? Is there anything to this?
  • 22:01 – Why Brian doesn’t lecture anymore. And what he does instead.
  • 25:03 – The benefits of a musical “roadmap.” And what that might look like.
  • 31:55 – Why he does music theory “backwards.”
  • 34:45 – Brian’s “origin story” and his relationship with the key of C major.
  • 36:46 – How Oberlin’s theory department redesigned the curriculum, and Brian’s unconventional “fluency/ok/nope” approach to grading.
  • 42:43 – Composers and their “swagger moves.”
  • 45:16 – If you’re out of school, playing or teaching professionally, and want to initiate your own exploration of music theory in this new way, where do you begin?

Notes

More Brian

You can connect with Brian at his faculty page here:

More Molly

You can connect with Molly at her faculty page, website, or YouTube channel:

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Comments

8 Responses

  1. Because I’m self-taught, I didn’t develop strong sight-reading skills, so theory was my starting point. I can’t imagine how a professionally trained sight-reader sees a score. For me, theory turns grotesquely complex passages — thickets of thorns and madness — into literal child’s play. I’ve had that experience both with piano music and as a bassist. There’s general theory and theory specific to the instrument. I knew modes generally, but the thought of memorizing finger patterns for each mode was sickening. I would have never done it. Anthony Wellington teaches a master class on modes on the bass fretboard; he promises that at the end of the 1-hour class, we’ll know our modes inside and out! He was right! Wellington reduces all that sickening fingering yuck to one simple unifying idea which is the path to fluency and freedom.

    I don’t think there is an analogue to music theory in other art forms — nothing as concrete. Theory opens a window into the mind of Beethoven, a way of triangulating his genius, that I don’t see in novels or paintings. This makes music the most useful art to study for applications outside of music. I learn more concretely about writing, both fiction and non-fiction, from studying music than from studying writers. To me, it would be a missed opportunity not to digest as much as I could from studying these radical, structural geniuses, not just to listen or to play (poorly and pitifully) but to educate myself in everything I do.

  2. Thank you, Brian Alegant, for teaching a brand of music theory that appeals more to performing musicians. I wish I’d had this type of theory when I was an undergrad years ago. I never understood why I had to take music theory. It seemed like just a mental exercise, like some math courses also seemed to me as a non-mathematician. I took the courses, did well in them, but there was no connection to what I was doing as a performer. Luckily, I’ve studied with a couple of mentors who incorporated the music part of music theory into their private teaching, so I learned quite a few things over the years.

  3. Thanks for this excellent interview. I love the analogy of music to spoken language, with fluency being an important ingredient. I’m an adult amateur violinist. At one time I thought I would push to learn some intermediate “music theory,” but it doesn’t seem that is going to happen. However, the idea of music as a language, which is flat without understanding to some extent the structure, and without including phrasing, knowing which notes are important, and flowing dynamics really helps me. This is all basic stuff for professionals, but this was just what I need to hear at this point. It gives me ideas on how to better study the score with and without listening to a piece. Thanks again!

    Noa, is it better for you if we listen on a podcast app, so we count in listener metrics–or does it matter?

    1. Hi Randal, good question – thanks for asking. =) I’m not really sure to be honest, but I’d go with whatever you personally find most convenient. Listening via the web player on the page still registers with my podcast hosting company, so it still counts in the analytics that I get, at least.

  4. “Outstanding” in every sense of the word! MUSIC theory is a game changer…I personally appreciate the emphasis on deriving something meaningful from the piece through music theory, not the other way around where we only capture intellectual aspects of a piece. As Brian says, the “language” is lost when we don’t fully understand what makes the culture unique to each one of us. Please correct the timeline to show 36:46 beginning the discussion of “How Oberlin’s theory department redesigned the curriculum, and Brian’s unconventional “fluency/ok/nope” approach to grading.” Thank you again this approach to our craft.

  5. The idea of the craft aspects of music reminds me of something I’d encountered in an interview with a group of very, very decorated pop composers whose names I won’t mention because it will trigger undeserved smirks, but these people use Grammys for bookends, and for a long time the only thing that could knock them out of the Billboard #1 spot was another song they had penned.

    They said exactly the same thing: you’ll get a scrap of an idea, often a melody or a chorus, or the lyrics, and that will come to you unbidden and whole, but it’s not enough. Then you have to turn it into a full piece (a complete song), and that’s when the craft comes in. That’s where you have to make it convincing and become not an inspired songwriter but a dedicated craftsman.

    And if you’re going to perform, it just helps to understand that craft process.

    Very interesting interview!

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