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?

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Brian 0:00
This is gonna be hard to stitch together, right?

Noa 0:02
Nah, I think it’s gonna go all very smoothly actually. Just have to cut out the parts where I confess things that nobody needs to know…

Brian 0:09
[laughing] No, I think it’s great!

Noa 0:23
This is Noa Kageyama and you’re listening to the Bulletproof Musician podcast. Every Sunday morning, we’ll take a look at a new research-based tip or technique to help you practice more effectively or perform better under pressure. And on the first Sunday of every month, I’ll have a guest from the music, sports or research world who will share their insights on how we can all be a little more awesome in the practice room and on stage. Today’s episode is going to be a little different than most of the previous ones you may have heard, in that I have a co-host, specifically violist Molly Gebrian. And why a cohost for this particular episode? Well, the reason may become a little clearer in a moment. But first, let’s meet Molly and our guest.

Molly 1:06
I’m Molly Gebrian. I’m the viola professor at the University of Arizona. I also have a background in neuroscience. And so I apply the science of learning and memory to practicing and performing.

Brian 1:15
I’m Brian Alegant, I teach music theory at the Oberlin College and Conservatory. I’m a pianist and professor.

Noa 1:23
I know the phrase music theory often makes people want to turn and run in the opposite direction as fast as possible. I was certainly one of these people myself, but I hope you’ll stick around for a bit and give it a chance. I think you’ll find this episode to be way more interesting and relevant than you might think, especially if you haven’t particularly enjoyed music theory in the past. So before we dive in, I thought maybe I could start off with a little background on what led me to this particular topic. The gist is that for the first 20 or so years of my life, I pretty much just focused on playing in tune, playing at time, playing with a good sound. And although I think I was considered a reasonably expressive or musical player, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I pretty much just followed my instincts did whatever felt or sounded right, relied on guidance from my teachers to know if I was on the right track or not. Eventually, of course, it became clear that instincts weren’t going to cut it. There was one particular summer I remember in college where I went to a chamber music workshop with this piano trio that I played in, and we got daily coachings from some really incredible musicians like Leon Fleisher, Isaac Stern, David Finkel, Steve Tenenbaum, Natalia Gutman, Henry Meyer, the list goes on. And the thing that really blew us away in the couple of weeks that we were there as we only got through maybe three pages of music, and we couldn’t believe how much detail and thought went into each phrase. And I remember feeling actually kind of deflated after at all, because it made it clear to me how little I actually knew about music at this point after 20-some years, even so it took like another four or five more years before I started to see this connection between music theory and music performance, and started to get to the place where I could look at a new piece of music, and make conscious, thoughtful decisions about how to play each phrase and why. So that completely, of course, changed my experience of practicing and changed my experience of performing, and for once I felt like I actually had something to say on stage and made me a lot less worried about whether this note or that note was in tune perfectly or not. And so there’s a part of me that wishes I could go back in time and get 14 or 16 year old me to appreciate how music theory and music practice and performance all intersect. But if I’m being honest with myself, I don’t know what I could say to myself at 15 or 16, that would have opened my eyes. So if this is not a question per se. But I wonder if that might be a good place to start, as in Brian is this something that you encounter in your teaching, where perhaps some young musicians don’t really see the point of music theory and don’t quite know how to apply it to the pieces that they’re working on. And then how one maybe could help to connect those dots?

Brian 3:57
That’s a fantastic question, you’re gonna have to maybe shut me up a little earlier. So Molly can come in. And I would say first of all, you’ll probably agree that the 18 to 22 age period is where all of the real stuff happens. I mean developmentally and cognitively, too, so give yourself a break for being a 14 to 18 year old and not not knowing. I’ve been thinking about this for I mean, my entire career, too. I guess the question would be what what do we mean by music theory because there are a lot of different definitions. And I think one of the biggest turn offs is to equate music theory with Roman numeral analysis or labeling chords or getting really stuck on the details of things without understanding how those particular facets create meaning. And so I’ll drop three things here and then we can maybe come back to this. The one thing is I think the aim is, the longer I do this, the more I treat a piece of music, like a monologue or a poem. And I got really into Devin Kelley, who’s a poet who does close reading during the pandemic for the last two years and the way that he attacks a poem, in terms of really diving into it, and not only thinking, what is this sort of fixed meaning, but what do I make of this poem? How can I understand it? And how does continuing to go back into this poem yield more and more. And I think part of the thing with music theory, as we describe it, broadly, is engage with this piece of music in as many different ways as you can to try and figure out how you want it to go, and how you want it to sound and ultimately, how you will interpret it. And I think the aim is to sort of front load the music part of this and to put the emphasis on MUSIC theory, as opposed to music THEORY, because I think theory just means using all of the tools that you have, and learning new ones, to understand how you hear and understand and perform this tune.

Molly 5:56
I think what you said about, you know, it should be MUSIC theory rather than music THEORY, right? And we’re often it’s so focused on labeling. I think that’s exactly right. I mean, I had a lot of the same experiences and undergrad, like, what does this have to do with performing? Right? And I think, you know, I taught music theory for about five years. And so I’ve really thought about this, from my perspective, as a performer, that it seems to me that a lot of times music theory is so focused on the basic literacy skills of labeling things, right, that students think that’s what music theory is, and that’s not at all what music theory is. And so, if you were to give your elevator pitch to a high school kid, about what’s the point of music theory, and why should I go to music theory class, what would you tell them?

Brian 6:45
Okay, in an elevator, short ride, sure, you can’t let the piece play you. I think that would be the first thing. And then the second thing is Greg Fulkerson, who was a very famous and noted violin pedagogue and I disagreed on almost everything possible under the sun, except for this thing. There was a smack talking sports broadcaster named Jim Rome who had a show called Jim Rome is Burning. And he had a two-part philosophy of his job. And his job as a sportscaster, there are two points where half a take and don’t suck, and Fulkerson and I thought that this is exactly the creed of a professional musician, you have to have a take, and you can’t suck. So Noa, the can’t sucking was you know all of your notes were in tune. So you need a take and the piece will not necessarily come to you. And I would also make a plea for the reason, music theory, I think is especially important in contemporary music, when you can’t tap your toe anymore, and you can’t necessarily hear things back. And the rhythms are crazy. And you can’t even imagine what the score might look like when you’re listening to it. And in that case, in particular, you’ve got to figure out a way through this piece. And I use sometimes the metaphor of a climbing wall, like your job as a player is get from the floor to the ceiling with this piece. So that would be the elevator pitch, don’t let the piece play you. And you have to understand how pitches and all of the other stuff create some sort of structure. And then the way that I try and encourage students to get into that which almost works in every repertoire is form as a process. Like how do you understand the way this this piece unfolds in time? And then things that I call cool spots or flash points? Where are the moments in the piece that you go uhh or some version thereof, because if we can start there, like that’s all you need in terms of a toehold in a foothold. And from there, it’s easy if you can just grab something to get deeper into the piece.

Noa 8:53
I wonder if you could say more about don’t let the piece play you and what that means or what that looks like.

Brian 9:00
So did you ever hear somebody like a beginner of a foreign language like trying to speak or trying to sort of converse? It’s not pretty. And so if the piece is playing you, all of the notes might be there and all of the rhythms might be there. But somehow we are unmoved, like no music is happening or no expression is happening. And you can imagine a MIDI performance or there are some performers I’m going to stay above board and not throw shade on anyone. But there are many schools where you know your job is to play an absolutely flat and even line and make each note exactly the same intensity and you know, vibrato speed is everything else so that you you’ve essentially paint an incredibly flat lake. And when we hear somebody speak a language that isn’t native to them, it just sounds not right. And so I would argue that this happens in music all the time, people override cadences or don’t understand or seem to understand harmony or they’re not engaging with tension and release, or you don’t have a sense that they know this. And it would be almost as though you were giving a monologue in a language that you didn’t speak, like everything would be there. But somehow, like the meaning would be lacking. Does that help?

Noa 10:15
Yeah, in the sense that when we’re constructing a sentence or in a language that we understand, and we understand the meaning, and the reason why certain words are placed in the order that they are, our inflection, or our intonation or our emphasis of certain things reflects that underlying meaning is that sort of what you’re saying.

Brian 10:32
And you’ve just conveyed perfectly grammar and syntax. And so if you don’t understand the way that the notes interact, or harmonic rhythm, and we would have to choose a repertoire or a piece to go. But if you don’t understand counterpoint, or if you can’t hear harmonic changes, or if you don’t recognize cadences, or if all of the interesting chromaticism just sounds like noise. Or if everything sounds like noise as opposed to signal, you’re not going to be able to compel your audience, you’re not going to be able to have a take, I would argue,

Noa 11:06
That makes me think of a couple of things. I tried to do a little bit of stalking about things you’ve written prior to this. And I feel like I read something in which you talked about doing analysis by what you hear, as opposed to doing analysis by what’s written in the score. And I wondered if that was maybe something relevant to ask?

Brian 11:25
Well, you both have deep experience with this, too. I think listening with and without score are totally different things. And I think that doing both is really healthy, especially as you’re learning a piece. I think, I don’t know if I said this earlier, ultimately, music theory for me is essentially musicianship. And the two aspects of the theory from a musical angle are, we try and teach people through our curriculum, that if you can see the notation, you can hear it inwardly. And then another important skill is to be able to hear notation, and to be able to notate it. And to go back and forth between those things are very important. So we do a lot of close reading, sort of like that three pages of your chamber music experience, right? And you really think about all of this stuff in both ways. So we do a lot of listening with and without score, we do a lot of sort of focusing and something that I call tracing the history of an event, or a sound or a note, or chord or anything that can help you kind of crawl into a narrative that you can create for yourself in this piece. And I guess I would add two things, I don’t think that there’s ever so much of what I think of music theory is really analytical and subjective. And so aside from all of the Roman numerals, and it’d be nice to know chords, but I think you can get really deep into the piece through character and metaphor, and things that I called soft discourse, also the emotional part, as opposed to also hard discourse of cadences and Roman numerals or set classes and contemporary music or all of the other kinds of forbidding elegance.

Molly 13:11
Can I go back for a moment, and connect this to your foreign language analogy, because I think about it in very much the same way, right? That I often have students in Bach, for instance, who will take time on notes that sounded beautiful to them, but like, are really not important when it comes to the structure. So it would be like somebody speaking a foreign language and emphasizing some word that really is not important to the meaning of the phrase. And I know that students have expressed to me before and my classmates expressed that like, that sort of intuitive way of music making that you’re just kind of responding to the surface level structure of the piece, what you’re hearing feels more musical to them and doing, you know, looking at it from an analytical point of view and understanding, oh, you know, this is a cadence, maybe you should take time there rather than two random notes before the cadence, that feels too calculated and cerebral to them. So how do you counter that narrative?

Brian 14:09
It’s hard. I refer to what you were just describing this putting the emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble. Exactly. I think, I mean, I’m really, really torn because on the one hand, I want you as a student to sort of own this piece and to figure out how you want it to go and then to present it and that means that you don’t necessarily have to adhere to what has come down through the ages as the appropriate style. But in the other hand, I guess I would say, does it work? Like often you don’t really know as a performer, whether it’s working or not until you listen back to it later. And what I often asked my students to do is go back and listen and weed out dead spots. And so Noa coming back to your earlier point, the place where like the rubber hits the road where you don’t understand the piece, like If you’re playing a violin sonata, and you don’t understand the harmonies of the piano underneath you, Lord help us when you get to the notes that are that you’re playing above you, right? They are not somehow going to sing or be in sync or like that’s going to be a dead spot like ae or where expression stops or where there’s just sort of an ungrammatical utterance. So what I encourage my students to do often is to perform for themselves and to go back and listen to what they’re doing. And then I beg them, please don’t listen to your sound. And please don’t necessarily listen to your intonation, not that that doesn’t matter. But here, what I’m after is, how’s your flow? What’s the energy level of the piece? Do you like what you’re doing? Is there a heart? Can you hear a narrative? And most important, are you compelled? Like, that’s the thing, because at the end of the day, if you play your Bach, a little bit, weirdly, to some, and it’s compelling, and you like it, and I like it, it’s a love story.

Noa 16:01
I was really curious about your phrase “tracing the history of a moment or a note,” if I said that correctly, because it reminds me a little bit of, I think the moment that for me, I started to start understanding what I was supposed to be doing when I was looking at a piece of music and came from this book that I’m sure you’re both familiar with, This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin. And there was a moment where he said something about how you know, all your brain is really trying to do when it hears music, is guess at what’s coming next. And that really started for me to change this idea of oh, what I’m doing is I’m setting up kind of like a joke, maybe even setting up an expectation of something. And then either fulfilling that expectation or violating that expectation or, or something happens with it over time. And I wonder if that’s maybe even a little bit related to what you were referring to by tracing history?

Brian 16:51
It certainly can be. And I think that’s a wonderful book, too. And I think that’s a great way to think about things. It sort of depends on the repertoire. But if we’re in tonal music, one of the best things to read, Edward T. Cone has a wonderful article called Schubert’s Promissory Note. And it’s about a Moment Musical that Schubert wrote in A-flat major. And the thrust of this analytically just in terms of like telling you the butler did it is that it’s an A-flat major, and a lot of the piece revolves around E natural and F flat. And the hermeneutics or the deep meaning of this piece, Cone argues, is really about the enharmonic shift between E natural and F flat, neither of which belong in A-flat major anyway. And so what he begins to do is he says, Wow, the first time you hear this E natural, it’s particularly bright, and then a little bit later Schubert kind of really seems to just become fascinated with or preoccupied with these F flats. And then over the course of this piece, F flat seems to get more and more and more love until this shattering and just fortissimo climax comes with an A flat major chord with an F flat and it and it just screams and it howls. And that’s sort of the the heart and the climax and the anguish. And cone says, oh, and for me, this means this is Shubert, trying to deal with his own impending syphilis and death and mortality. But what you can do is you can sort of just listen through the filter or the lens of this particular strange chromatic note and to begin to take heed of all of the ways that it is harmonized in the different contexts. And if you sort of listen through that way, then it becomes a day in the life of an F flat. And then if you can hear that and you realize, wow, the the shattering climax of this piece is really sort of the fulfillment of this F-flat as a tonal problem, then you’re into the narrative. And you can sort of just imagine like, this is a character and my story. And then in an analytical way, it’s pretty easy to write about your experience of hearing or feeling or playing these F flats over time.

Noa 19:05
It sounds like that understanding would shape the decisions you make along the way and the way in which you frame each of those moments, and how you deliver them and so forth, which, for me, at least started making the performing music more fun, because it’s almost like, it’s like, check out this cool moment, and now check out this one and listen to how I’ve decided to play it this way because I think this makes it stand out and this other way, and so it felt a little bit more like show-and-tell, as opposed to try not to screw up you know the next shift and the next string crossing and squeaking that E string and so forth?

Brian 19:42
Exactly. It’s enunciating the monologue, right. And so I treat or I like to think of these pieces both as sort of an unspoken poem and a monologue. Ian McKellen has an absolutely fabulous sort of 10 minute video on a monologue called Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow. And he starts by talking about him seeing Maurizio Pollini and how musical and how absorbing it was. And he makes a direct link into music and cadences and phrases, and he uses these terms in this monologue. And for him, the whole point of the monologue is close read, determine meaning, and then figure out how you’re going to highlight and enunciate those aspects of the thing through all of the things that musicians do. I just think it’s a wonderful way to do it. And I think as a student, most of the students appreciate the fact that this is liberating. Like I get to decide my own meaning through this piece, right, and what it means to me, and then how I wanted to go.

Molly 20:42
Yeah, one of my advisors when I was doing my doctorate, he’s a composer, he used to say to us all the time a performance is and analysis, when he said that I was like, oh, yeah, that makes sense. But I never really conceived of it that way. And that’s how I try to teach my students bringing this in. And the way we were just talking of the Schubert example. And when I use these sort of analogies and point out the point of using these theoretical concepts in lessons, students are like, oh, that’s really cool, right, when they see the significance of the F flat. Why does that often not happen in the context of theory class, do you think?

Brian 21:17
I can’t say because I, I only teach my theory classes and so that, I mean, I do what I want. Because I think we’re driven to think that the theory is about the labeling and the quasi scientific aspect of sort of naming things. And while I think that can be really important, I think it’s just not the point.

Noa 21:39
I’m just going to assume that your teaching has evolved over the years in one way or another. And I’m curious how your teaching has evolved, and if there was a time where you didn’t have this understanding of how everything intersects, that’s kind of a clumsy way of asking a question that I hope is coming across but yeah,

Brian 22:01
Wow, um, I think my teaching has changed ridiculously much over the time that I’ve been teaching. And I’m not even sure if I can totally get my head around it. But I think it would be fair to say that even when I started, I was interested in the expressive aspect and the theory as a tool to try and get into the tune and how to explain it better, as opposed to an end in and of itself. And I think it’d be fair to say that, over my time teaching, I become far less interested in what I know, and much more interested in just trying to get the students to engage with this. So I’m not lecturing anymore. I’m not to like the, in the old days, we would say, your final project will be the Waldstein and then a couple of years later, I’d say, Well, how about the Waldstein or, you know, the Razumovsky E minor, or how about and now it’s like, choose a piece that you love. And I help you get there, right. And so it’s all become project-oriented and student-oriented. And it’s less rigid, only in terms of what I want them to get. Because the whole point of this is, I can’t, with a good conscience ascribe what I think the right way or the right meaning to extract from the pieces. And so I’m just astonished at the individuality like how individual we are, we hear differently, we see differently, we play differently, we feel differently. Why should we all do the same piece and all come up with the same analysis and think that somehow we’re all getting truth? Sorry, that went a little heavy at the end. But so I guess my teaching has become almost entirely in the service of trying to get the students to engage with tunes they love and dive in. And so everything that I’ve done essentially has tried to facilitate that process as efficiently as possible.

Noa 23:54
Well, if I heard you correctly, and I don’t remember exactly what you said, but my impression was that you were suggesting that there’s not one single way to correctly analyze a piece and that there are multiple levels, and you can enter into it in various different ways. And you can add levels of complexity to it as you become more familiar with the different aspects of theory and language. This made me think of an article that I read of yours related to the idea of a roadmap. And I wonder if those are connected, and if that’s maybe what you mean by letting the individuality of a student’s response to a piece take precedence in the experience.

Brian 24:34
It’s part of it. So to back up a little bit, I guess I’m saying, the aim for me or the expectation is, as a student, you’re going to choose this piece, hopefully something you’re playing or learning for a concerto competition or a summer festival or lessons or recital so that you care about it, as opposed to you know, this 400 year old piece that you don’t play and you don’t necessarily like, so the first thing is find good tunes, or tunes that you love that students will engage with. And then, yeah, I think that’s right, I don’t think there’s a single way to go into a piece. So and it’s just like reading a poem, right? You can read it and be like, oh, that was pretty or it’s about a flower. Or you could spend a couple of weeks on this poem diving in and wondering about. And so the aim, I think, is to allow students to sort of get as deep into the piece as they can, through both hard and soft means. And I try and get the hard people to go soft, too. Because even if you can do a fantastic Schenkerian reduction, and your counterpoint is awesome, and you’ve got all of the harmony, and you’ve got the phrase structure in the hypermeter and all of that stuff, I’m still going to ask you, so what does it mean to you? How do you want it to go? And like, what’s your right tempo? And how edgy is this piece and your, your elbows out? Or your elbows in? Do you sort of forget your own personality in this piece? Or do you bring it and all of that. And so the idea is just go deep. And I tell them, like your job is to go to the bottom of this lake, you can bring me a rusted and dented beer can or you can bring me the Hope Diamond, but just get wet and go down there and come back. Because the thinking is, the work that you’re going to do as an 18, or 22 year old or 35 year old on a piece isn’t the work that you’re going to take away in 5, 10, 15 years. And so part of what soften me as an instructor is the realization that the pieces that I thought I knew many, many years ago, I didn’t really know. Or I know so much better now. To get to the roadmap for your readers, a roadmap was just a way to try and get students on the other side of their brain than writing essays and allowing, the idea of the roadmap is put down your understanding of this piece of music on two dimensions in any way that makes sense. So it’s kind of like Montessori music theory. Like it can be anything, some people sculpt them, some people woodcarve some people do this on an 11×17 paper, some people do this on staff paper. And the aim is what matters to you in this piece, what can you extract from this piece that you think is super meaningful? And then how can you share your observations with me. And so what I often do with a project is a roadmap is one part of it, writing formally or informally is another part of it. And then there’s usually an annotated score, and then sometimes a performance with a self-reflection and a self-assessment. And then between all of these things, that’s like a serious body of work that you do to go toe to toe with this piece.

Molly 27:41
I’d love to hear you talk more about how specifically you help students with this process when it comes to contemporary music because I know that’s like your thing, right? And I know, that’s the thing of all things covered in the standard theory curriculum that like students just shut off, right, a whole bunch of numbers like what is this? Just seems like math class all of a sudden? And yeah, that’s the part that I find is the hardest for students to connect to performance.

Brian 28:07
Absolutely. And we should also agree, and we know that there are 1000s of different kinds of contemporary musics Right, right and accessible, and some of them are just impenetrable. The short is, I forced the students to engage. Well, it depends because there’s so many different kinds of contemporary. So if we’re doing Debussy, or Ravel, or Stravinsky, or first half of the 20th century, I have an easier time. And they have an easier time because some of this stuff is already in their language, just tweaked. So I’m imagining you’re talking about like the 1950 to the contemporary stuff. Sure, yeah, exactly. We do a lot of listening without score, we do a ton of close reading. And I wait until we actually have something to talk about that I think is meaningful before I slap a label on it. So we don’t start with interval classes. And we don’t have three days of interval classes and trichordal set classes. And then I’ll say, well, let’s look at a piece. I mean, it always goes the other way. And here’s this piece, can you tell me something about it? Or can you get a toehold or a foothold? Or what do you make of this or and again, the form and the flash points are the cool spots. So, so many will be like, wow, something weird is happening and measure seven. Yeah, exactly. And then you just unpack it, you slowly begin to unpack it. And so I just taught two sections of Theory Four which is all exclusively the 20th century stuff. And we all get there. And I think part of it is just reminding them that this is going to sound like a foreign language. And it’s going to take some time and it isn’t going to come to you right away. And how frustrating it can be to have to listen to a piece five or six times before you begin to even have a sense of it. Whereas you know, I got the Mozart thing on one. And then you get the OH MY GOD IT’S MATH. And then you just make sure that any numbers or any modeling or any formalism that you do is tied to a musical experience or a musical observation and it gets a lot easier. And then over time, they begin to have sort of a pretty advanced toolkit. And then where it I think becomes most meaningful is in working with the students one on one on their pieces. So the student will bring me the Carter Figment and be like, AAAAAGH, and you say, well, okay, and you know, so you can talk about character, and you can talk about different kinds of musics. And so there are so many ways in you’re not going to start there with a tonic or roman numerals and there is no sonata form. Like all of these things are dead and gone. And especially in electronic music, and with absolute crazy stuff like noise music, it gets really fun.

Noa 30:55
I know Molly has talked a lot about memory and memorization and got these great YouTube videos, and we also did a podcast episode a couple years ago. Do these roadmaps relate not just to interpretation, but memory of contemporary music or even non contemporary music for that matter. I’m wondering how those two things are related.

Brian 31:14
It depends on the work that the student does to construct the roadmap, but most students who do this and the idea of the roadmap is you’re going back and forth between the score and your map. And you have to be selective, right? So and you’re doing a lot of listening, almost every student says that yes it enhances not only the sense of memorization and understanding, but it helps, especially in longer pieces, when you’re playing from memory. It just helps give you a sense of sort of the horizon, I find. And I think in the article, one of the percussionist specifically said, the roadmap is like my key to memorization, it just gives you a way to see everything in a glance.

Molly 31:55
It strikes me that you, I mean I already knew this, but that you’re a very unusual theory teacher, and that you go about things sort of backwards from the traditional way that theory is taught, right? You said you don’t start with set classes, and whatever you start with something weird is going on here, let’s figure it out. It makes me wonder if music theory as a discipline sometimes has a different set, like the way it’s traditionally taught has a different set of priorities than most performers have. Is that question makes sense?

Brian 32:28
I think so it’s just, I guess we have to still come back to you know, who’s doing the music theory? And what kind of music theory and what repertoire? And what’s the point? And I can understand if you were teaching AP music theory, you don’t want to just come in and say, so what do you think about this piece? But I don’t know, I think I think some performers are perfectly fine with the formalism and the math and the put the stuff first. And I’ve just always, I mean, I came to theory from a performance background. And so I just always wanted to tell me how the piece should go. Or what to make of the piece. Sorry, I don’t know that I answered the question particularly. I mean, I’m just at the point where I only know what I think. And so I just like teaching this way, it seems to work.

Molly 33:20
I guess the the point of my question is as a performer, to me, there’s no point to music theory, if it isn’t informing performance, if it isn’t explaining to me or helping me understand how does this piece work? Why is this cool? Like you were saying? It seems that the way the theory is often taught as much more prescriptive, telling you, you must label this this way. This is a whatever. And I mean, I don’t think it’s a surprise that most performers feel like theory is divorced from what they do is as performing that’s what made me wonder, maybe music theorists just have a different set of priorities for what they do, right than I do as a performer.

Brian 34:01
Well, in their speculative theory to and then there’s theory for composers. And so you know, they want to know how these things get pushed about. Hard to say, I think I would agree as a performer if it doesn’t really help you hear better, play better or interpret better than what are we doing? I agree.

Noa 34:21
I always like finding out about people’s origin stories, why they value the things that they do and why they end up where they do and looking back at your own history and performance, can you kind of trace where your interest in approaching things this way came from? I’m assuming maybe it wasn’t always like that. Or maybe you encountered something on the piano that puzzled you first, which led you to approach theory and maybe a different way than it’s sometimes is?

Brian 34:46
Probably. I was self taught, and so I didn’t ever have, so my first piano lesson was actually in college. It was the first time that I took piano and I kind of liked it and I spent all of my I’m skipping classes and practicing piano. And then I wanted to get into Juilliard. And that didn’t quite happen much to my surprise. And so I realized early on that I had pitch, like absolute pitch. And I also understood somehow, the way these notes were supposed to go together. I think it’s partially because my mother, when I was young, played from birth until I think I was eight, she would play a couple hours every night when I was going to sleep, almost always in the key of C major, and almost always by ear. And I think what happened just in a neural way was that my little brain was just inundated with 12 gazillion sort of C Major references. And so I just somehow understood all of this stuff. And I never took theory to know what anything was. So when I got into my first music theory course, which was in college, it was like, oh, that’s that. Oh, that’s that? Oh, that’s that. And so I guess I’m aberrant. And I don’t know that that would help anybody else. But that’s sort of how I came to. And so for me theory was just a way to explain all of the stuff that I thought I understood.

Molly 36:12
I feel like if I was a teenager listening to this, I would, I don’t know, I think it would make me very excited right about music theory, especially if I’ve never taken it before. Because I agree with you, most students don’t actually know what music theory is. But often music theory classes start from the beginning of this is a major scale. This is how you label intervals. How can you bring in these ideas of sort of discovery and understanding how your music works at a deep level to even that sort of fundamental beginning of this, like music literacy, basically, is how I think of it.

Brian 36:46
So we redesigned our curriculum, in all sorts of really fascinating and well, really antiracist ways. And so one of the things that we ended up with was reformatting the basic materials course, or the if you don’t pass your placement exam, and you need to take remedial theory, you take this course. And then once you’re there, you then take the semester, the sequence of theory, and so I taught two sections of this, and I was on the fence. It’s like, Okay, do we have a textbook, you know, how workbook-ee is this going to be and a lot of them are coming from AP Theory, and I just decided, partially because I’m tenured and partially because it’s too late to get rid of me, let’s see what happens if we did this holistically. So our very first day was not, this is the major scale or this is the Greek tetrachord system, but we did a Hildegarde piece, a one page Hildegarde piece, we listened to it and then we just started solfege-ing it, even though they can’t necessarily all of them read clefs. And then we just listened to it. And we use that as a way. And then after a while, we got from that piece into the Phrygian mode and modes and half steps and cool spots in that E flat and all sorts of other things. And then through the same work, we can begin to compare and contrast different performances of medieval music. And so it’s not quite the same analogy but it’s like learning a foreign language through whole language, or the declension of verbs and workbooks. And so I guess I would say, just get in the piece.

Noa 38:25
This might be a related question. But I was really struck by another article of yours that I read, which related to self-assessment and self grading, and really establishing goals for one’s own experience during the course of the semester, which is pretty unusual, even outside of music theory, of course. And so for me, with the sort of mental theory block that I’ve had for many years, I’m not sure what I would have answered if I was asked, what do I want to learn over the course of the semester? And I’m imagining that there are others maybe who come into the class and aren’t quite sure what they want. I’m just curious, like, what do students say they want to learn or get out of the semester of music theory? And I’m not sure at what point they’re asked this sort of question as well, that I’m sure that changes things.

Brian 39:12
I should contextualize this a little. Yeah, when you first come into any course you don’t really know, necessarily what you like, you know, what the learning outcomes are. I mean, you’re 18 if that, right? And so, I think the self-assessment and self-reflection is more about grading, and getting you to sort of do the metacognitive work of understanding how you learn and why you learn and what you learn. And the the thinking is, I still don’t know the difference between a B- and B+ and an A- paper. I mean, I’ve been doing this forever. But so the, the structure is based on three things. It’s moving away from ABCDEF grading scale into a three tier scheme, which is much easier to deal with. And so just imagine we have an A grade where you exhibit ownership or you get it like the A is fluency and ownership. And then there’s everything in the middle, let’s say B to D, like, okay, and then there’s nope. And so in these three large categories, I would argue that even a trained chimp, and certainly a professor could evaluate work and decide whether this is ownership, okay, or nope. So if you factor revision, so that you have a chance to revise, then I asked two questions, what have you learned in this project? And what grade would you give yourself and why? And I find that this is for some students incredibly valuable, and for other students a little bit less so and frustrating. But I think those questions are absolutely essential to your learning, and your growth as a learner. And so over the course of the semester, students become really comfortable with this. And they become much more attuned to how and why they’re learning. And there are all sorts of nuances in this. But basically, I’m trying to get out of the grading game. And to allow you to choose what you think your course grade should be or your project grade. It’s messy, but I think it’s really vital. And I’ve been doing it for, oh, at least 15 years now, I think longer. And almost every course that I teach either uses this for individual projects, or medium stakes or high stakes work, not low stakes, things that are just yes, no. And in my upper division classes, you articulate your own grade.

Molly 41:39
You mentioned the word fluency. And I think it’s on the Oberlin, your Oberlin web page, there’s a little video of you kind of explaining what you do, and you use that word in there, too. And I’m just curious, what does fluency mean to you, in the context of everything we’re talking about?

Brian 41:54
That you speak music as a language that’s native to you. You’re fluent, it’s a foreign language.

Noa 42:02
Would it be fair to say that my take on music theory, to the degree that I started to understand what it was, it was a way of understanding why certain things were effective, or why certain things made you feel a certain way. And it started to seem to me that the more effectively I could grasp the grammar or the nature of the language, I was able to make more of an impact, is that kind of what the purpose of music theory is, it’s sort of like understanding how and why we’re able to make people feel more the way that we’re hoping they’ll feel in response to what we’re playing.

Brian 42:43
I mean, again, it depends who’s doing the music theory and who’s defining but I think the work that we do studying the score should help you in some way. I construe that work as music theory. So analyzing, listening, playing thoughtfully, feeding back, this is music theory. And then there are just a million different parts of it. And the vocab is necessary at some point, but not driving. It’s not the driving force. And I don’t know if this will necessarily coming at a skew angle as opposed to sort of a parallel, but I think a month ago or so there was a spectacular digital article in The New York Times about still lifes. And it started off by saying, you know, these still lifes, they’re the ones you walk through as you go through the museum. And like people just blitz through this still lifes to get to the real stuff. And the whole point here was, if you know what to look for, the still lifes are absolutely spectacular. And he goes on to show I think it was Durer and this person who just did a spectacular job curating this goes, and here is the swagger move, like in a still life, as the lemon peel is curling around in all sorts of ways. And I think part of music theory is knowing what to look for, in this still life, and to be able to sort of appreciate the nuance and the meaning and the depth and the sort of intertextuality the way these particular gestures relate to a whole other body of experiences and pieces. And then I started to wonder, you know, I think composers have swagger moves, too. And if you don’t get that you’re missing out. And so part of music theory is understanding the cool stuff and why it’s cool. I think, as you said, absolutely.

Molly 44:39
I think that last point of the swagger moves on the part of the composer, I think that’s such a good point. Because composers obviously understood it in a very deep level what they were doing when they were composing, right, they’re not just composing however they feel like with no sort of craft behind it if they’re a great composer. And if you don’t appreciate that craft or even know that that craft is there to look for in the first place, how much do you have to say as a performer because you don’t really actually understand what’s going on. So if somebody’s listening to this is they’re out of school, they’re like, oh, man, I wish my music theory class had been this way, because my music theory class was really dry. And I did not understand any of this at all. How would you tell people to sort of start their own exploration of music theory now as maybe a professional or a teacher wanting to help their students more?

Brian 45:40
I’m not sure how to answer because it depends on what they remember what they’re working with. But I mean, I guess I would say, look at your pieces, like study your scores, or read like a really good analysis of a poem, or log on to Adam Neely or Jacob Collier and get a sense of like, how they deal with materials and musics and things. I mean, I think, just engage with your music. And if you get totally stuck, they can email Noa and Noa can forward my email and then I’ll just, you know, help them that way. But it really shouldn’t be, it’s not a hieratic discipline like, and by the way, just to talk smack, not every composer I would argue is writing with a maximum of craft.

Molly 46:31
Fair enough.

Brian 46:31
Some of them are absolutely spectacular but you’ve got composers who may not have any more idea about what they’re wanting other than this feels right. And you know, they get to do that. So I guess the short answer would be listen to and think about your pieces from the standpoint of how you want them to go, or what you think it means to you. And then how you would convey it as though you were delivering a monologue. And then if you’re not sure, record yourself and listen back to it, and do you love it? And if you love it, then you’re good. And if you don’t love it, then try and figure out what’s not working.

Molly 47:11
Your comment about talking smack that’s actually very interesting, because I play a lot of new music, but I also play a lot of music by people who are no longer living, but it’s a part of the standard rap, because that’s something that’s personally important to me. And sometimes I’ll hear a piece, ooh, that sounds cool, I want to learn it. Once I start learning it and I see how the piece is constructed. I’m like, actually, this isn’t that good of a piece because it’s not put together very well. And what I find is that musically, it’s actually very difficult to make it convincing, because it’s not put together in a way that really shows very fine craftsmanship. So I just I appreciate your smack talk.

Brian 47:50
This probably won’t make it but Noa, one of my former colleagues talks about these pieces and practicing them as the equivalent of polishing…turds.

Molly 48:00

Noa 48:00
[laughing] That’s probably as good a place to wrap up as any, as I want you to be able to get on with your day and your summer…

I hope you enjoyed today’s episode as much as I did, because I feel like this shift in my understanding of music theory was an important factor in my becoming more effective and consistent on stage, and enjoying my practice time a lot more too, which was unthinkable during the first 20-some years of my life.

Of course, the other thing that happened around this time which really changed my relationship with practicing and performing was learning that there was a science behind effective practice, and specific reasons why I always experienced a frustrating gap between what I could do in the practice room and what I could do on stage.

If that gap has frustrated you or your students as well, I’ll actually have some news to share with you next week that might be of interest. The gist is that I’m organizing a live online class for educators, where we’ll explore the three essential skills that I wish I had learned earlier in my musical life. Specifically, the ability to practice so that skills transfer from the practice room to the stage, the ability to experience nerves as more of a positive force than a negative one, and the ability to get into the zone more consistently.

More details to come next week, so keep an eye on your inbox, or an ear out right here. In the meantime, I hope you have a great week, and have fun sprinkling a little more MUSIC theory into your daily practice!

You can get the full transcript of this week’s chat plus links to various things that came up in conversation at


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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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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