Tuesday, September 25, 2007

From Prout to Grout

Scott Spiegelberg recently posted an obituary for a music theorist whose name I'd never encountered. The item caught my interest because Scott described the deceased as "the most wealthy music theorist in the United States", a description I'd never before seen attached to a music theorist. It turns out that this gent, Benward by name, was the co-author (with Marilyn Saker) of the best selling university level music textbook in the US, Music in Theory and Practice, the first volume of which, packaged with its companion CD, lists for $66.56 (which is still a goodly sum when exchanged for a hard currency) and is currently ranked #15,841 on the Amazon charts. Although volume 2 suffers a considerable drop in the Amazon rankings (down to #191,142), there was definitely some compensation for Benward in that another add-on product, a workbook for the first volume, for which he claims sole author credits, ranks #31,271, and lists at $34.38.

I am completely unfamiliar with the contents of these books, but the idea of expensive and widely used textbooks does invite some reflection. Textbooks in the states, even for a subject area as marginalized as music, can be big business, and I can't begrudge that. But I can begrudge the pricing system and can question the over-presence of best-sellers in the field. For introductory courses of mathematics and the natural sciences, there are usually a number of competing titles with subtle and not-so-subtle differences of approach. In music theory there is probably the greatest diversity of approach, although that diversity is probably connected more to the intended student audience (students in schools oriented towards more vernacular repertoire probably won't encounter Aldwell & Schachter's #34,944, $129.95 Schenkerian Harmony and Voice Leading) and within the directly competitive markets, books often adapt to trends (even Walter Piston's Boulangerie-style Harmony -- an academic standard in the past, but now reduced to #244,860 -- aquired some obligatory Shenkeriana of its own under the re-editing of Mark DeVoto) . In orchestration, there is probably the hottest competition, with titles by Adler (#23,566), Berlioz/Strauss (#94,929), Piston (#111,280), Rimsky-Kosakoff (#117,041), Blatter (#131,788), Kennan (#167,286) among those in contention, but, with perhaps the exception of the Piston, it's hard to detect any real diversity of approach. And in music appreciation (Machlis, in various editions) and western music history (Grout et al, #33,472) there are apparently unbeatable first placers. With the exception of the inexpensive reprints of the classic Berlioz and Rimsky texts, all of these are expensive textbooks.

(Let me put this in one bit of perspective: the most widely used harmony and counterpoint textbooks in German higher education are those of Diether de la Motte. They are sold in pocketbook-sized paperback editions, and cost about $20 each. (If you can read German, I highly recommend de la Motte's Kontrapunkt, a very practical book with a conversational tone, which never gets far away from what really happens in really great music.))

More critical than pricing and market position is, of course, the contents of these textbooks. There is a pronounced tendency of textbooks to become committee or even corporate efforts, and over time to bend to general and specific pressures and demands of the forces that decide to "adopt" one text over another. These corporate efforts tend to shy away from strong creative statements about their subject matters by individual artists or scholars. It's a real shame, methinks, because I do find myself turning back, time and again, to precisely those books which were written from the individual experience and voice of the author rather than a consensus opinion. The reluctance of institutions and teachers to let their students work with source materials in favor of such textbooks is a sad thing.

One last thing -- and this will date me, but who cares? -- I would really like to read a thorough deconstruction of Aldwell & Schachter or Grout et al -- to reveal the underlying music-theoretical/historical-ideological program underlying the text. What repertoire or techniques are being convertly pushed or denigrated by these texts?

Here's an old post listing some of my favorite books on composition & such.

I should have said something here about the advantages of having local traditions in music theory to go along with local traditions of music making; it is indeed a really cool thing that theories of harmony in Budapest, Bratislava, and Vienna are so different from one another, with alternative terminologies and classifications and concerns. While individual traditions do often rigidify when they gain official status, I do think it's on the large healthy that at least there is this implicit competition between traditions. But that'd be another item, another day.


Adam Baratz said...

The real problem is not the high prices of textbooks, but the frequency of new editions being introduced. They basically close out the possibility of a used market for older editions, simply by messing with the page numbers for problem sets, etc. Everyone's forced to buy a new edition, with very little value being added.

Also, if you think the price tags on music texts are stinkers, wander over into one of the sciences...

Anonymous said...

As a musician who both taught from and was taught from the Benward text, I'd like to suggest that he'd have made significantly more money if he had proofread the text in question.

Daniel Wolf said...

Adam --

I agree that the sciences are worse; they have simply got the cartel pricing down to a science. However, I am surprised that no one has realized the market opportunity here of offering a text in a stable edition at a reasonable price -- as an ebook, for example, or as a pocketbook, as in common in Germany.

Anonymous said...

With a bit of forethought about adopting the right packages of materials we can minimize the expense for our students. For example, the package that I use contains just ONE textbook, ONE workbook, ONE anthology, etc. and will be used for an entire four semester sequence. The initial cost may be greater, but I believe that the students save money over the packages that require them to purchase a "Part I" and "Part II."

The Benward was one of the latter.

As a corollary, a recent perusal of a music bookstore very near the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest revealed that the individual solfege books used there are actually quite inexpensive. However, they are a graded and part of a series of 8-10, which quickly adds up to more than a few Forints!

Scott said...

My composition/theory colleague and I have been discussing doing away with textbooks altogether for theory, creating our own curriculum using an anthology, a self-created course packet, and lots of readings from journal articles and monographs. This would allow an exposure to the great diversity of theories out there, and would treat the students as actual university students capable of critical reading rather than hand-holding on basic harmonic vocabulary. Much thought is needed to go down this route, but it is definitely appealing (and considerably cheaper for the students).