History in Reverse

Embed from Getty Images

First, if you don’t subscribe to the excellent MusicREDEF newsletter, do it now.

Each day you get a carefully curated email with links to some of the best pieces on music, tech, or culture. Recently, I came across this article, “Why We Should Teach Music History Backwards,” by Geoffrey Hines. It was written three years ago for the Smithsonian (who knew?), but some of the ideas Hines presented really connected with me. Here’s Hines’ thesis:

Think about it: how does one discover and fall in love with the music by the likes of the Black Keys? Is it through first investigating Charley Patton and then working the way through Son House, the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd till finally reaching the Ohio-based blues-rock band? Not if you’re under 35, because by the time you began listening to music, the Black Keys were already part of your world. Once hooked, you love them so much that you read every interview to find out who influenced them. That’s how you and other true fans find out about the backwards progression to North Mississippi Allstars, R.L. Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and then finally back to Charley Patton.

In a nutshell, that describes exactly how music is disseminated through culture. I shared this article with a colleague and we both came to the conclusion to why can’t other topics be taught in the same way? In particular, music theory.

I distinctly remember being a freshman in college with absolutely zero knowledge of standard notation and music theory. Where did we start? Bach chorales and voice leading. I slogged my through it, but at the time I didn’t have that much appreciation for the classics. They were simply rote exercises that I had to get in my head in order to move to the next thing. Now, I’m not discounting how helpful learning about how Bach moved voices individually, but what if we approached it in a different way?

For example, say you want to learn about diatonic chord progressions. Check out the Beatles songbook. What about secondary dominants? Well, also the Beatles, but blues music — even the Black Keys — has some great examples. Extended intervals? Dave Matthews Band has made a career playing riffs with tenths (also, the Beatles). More advanced harmony? Hello, Steely Dan.

When I was teaching more regularly, I unknowingly took this approach with students both for theoretical concepts and techniques. I once had a young teenage girl come in for her first lesson. We started talking about music she was into and almost immediately she mentioned Paul Gilbert. What? That took us down the path of some shred, classic rock, and even a bit of prog that she would likely not have checked out for a while had we started with the dawn of rock guitar and moved forward.