Snake Oil as a Pedagogical Tool

Brad Edmonds provides a fascinating analysis of serial composition. He argues that its sustained vogue can only be due to government subsidies. If the consuming public had anything to say about it, this music would have been crushed long ago.

And truly, there is something odd about the idea of consuming serialism as a musical form, except in the way one might consume a long and complicated math equation that provides only intellectual stimulation. I have a recording of Milton Babbitt’s "Transfigured Notes" that ends with a long round of applause. Applause? Silence and reflection, perhaps. A lecture, perhaps. But applause doesn’t seem quite right.

Listening to serialism, it would take a very strange heart and mind not to long for something approaching tonality in the entire course of a composition — and perhaps creating, but not meeting, that longing is precisely what serialism is supposed to do. It’s hard to say. But this much we can say: serialism does provide an intellectual and aesthetic challenge. This is why it is something for which those with pretensions toward the avant-garde always feign enthusiasm.

For the non-musicians reading, here is the deal. There are only twelve notes in the (Western) scale. All music is based on that and nothing else. There are higher versions and lower versions of the same notes but there are no more actual notes than that.

Now, let’s say that we do not grant privilege to any one of them. The only perfect way to do this is to create a strict ordering and repeat that ordering again and again. The order doesn’t matter, so long as they are played in that same order each time, such that no one note is played more than any other note.

There are other variations that avoid note privilege. You can play them backwards. You can line them up on an access and rotate it, and thereby play them upside down. You can play them upside down and backwards. Beyond that, there is nothing else you can do, else you risk giving primacy to one note more than any other note.

What this means is that you have completely avoided organizing your music as music is usually organized, that is, by keys or modes, by a system that provides a tonal center or a resting point. You might imagine that it is possible to do this, until you hear serialism. This liberty from privilege is very strange indeed.

Just as communism requires a total state to make everyone free from exploitation, so serialism requires a strict rule-based system, a sort of musical totalitarianism, to fully free our ears from domination by tonality.

But unlike communism, the sound of serialism is bloodless. It is not quite scary, happy, angst-ridden, sad, or anything else. It sounds, well, less than fully human. Actually it doesn’t sound mechanistic either. It sounds like an exercise in rationalism — or something. You decide. Here is a sample: Babbitt’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Here is a piece for voice and cello.

These are incredibly difficult to perform and to say they are less than satisfying for an audience is, well, true many times over. I had to laugh at the Amazon reviewers. One says this "music has an intense direct immediacy, powerfully wrought, hortatory, with veiled histrionics. One is required to think of timbre, parametrical density, weight, array and lyne shapes, rhythmic projections, penetrability of orchestral timbre…" while another says: "HOW CAN ANYONE LISTEN TO THIS STUFF FOR ANY LENGTH OF TIME? I COULDN’T BEAR IT. THIS MUSIC IS SICK!"

That about sums up the range of reaction.

Still, let’s say the idea is still good, in one context in particular: teaching kids music. I’ve been teaching a class in music to kids with ages ranging from 8 to 13. We went through rhythm, notes, clefs, and all the musical signs. We covered and mastered all intervals within and between clefs. We started on chromatics in anticipation of working through modes and keys as we headed toward scales. Then it suddenly dawned on me: we need a rationale for keys.

Why do we need tonality at all? What is the point of organizing music around particular tones? Why do we privilege some and not others? It is a hard question to answer using words. We only know that in order to make something beautiful, we must. Is this because of our culture, our genes, our soul’s transcendent connection to the music of the spheres? Whatever the explanation, tonality is as much a part of our auditory longings as ownership is part of our social fabric.

But why not let the kids discover this on their own? So we embarked on a composition journey. They must come to understand what music is without tonality before we find out what it means to have it. Let’s say we have the 12 notes in our hand and we are bouncing them up in the air, and then, suddenly we just let them all fall in a line on the table. We freeze that line in place, and write it out. We stick with it, play it backwards, upside down, and upside down and backwards.

Kids can indeed do this. It prevents them from having to generate tonal compositions on their own (VERY difficult indeed) and yet lets them sample the thrill that comes from self-creation. I was just amazed at how quickly they were drawn to the task, how it challenged their ears to think and listen at the same time, and how it has made them come to understand why keys exist and why we need to know them.

They do not hate serialism. They are mystified by it, riveted that it exists at all. They do not fear it. It seems like a game to them, a serious game but nothing more. And it seems to me that it has prepared them better for understanding tonality and the many methods of organizing sound better than any other method. The best way to demystify an enigma like serialism is to confront it head on, not as an advanced challenge that moves beyond the bounds of bourgeois normalcy but as a primitive beginning from which we depart in order to develop.

And here is a funny thought. Let’s say that some of these kids end up in music conservatories when they are older. The topic of serialism comes up. The students and teachers imagine this to be as on the far reaches of theoretical sophistication.

These students, in contrast, can say: "Oh sure, I wrote my first serial composition when I was 10 and enjoyed it, but then I moved on to more sophisticated approaches as I got older."


Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of

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