Saturday, September 29, 2007

What's a Theory Comprehensive Exam?

This morning, I took the first of my comprehensive exams, one of the barriers between me and my degree. Today's exam was over music theory, which is probably better explained as music analysis. The exam had three parts: the counterpoint example, the tonal music example, and the 20th century example. I'll explain them all as I talk through the morning.

I arrived on campus at about 8:40 am. The exam begins at nine, and it's always good to be early. For just about everything. The exam is taken in the education building. It's just across the street from the main academic music building, but I'm not really comfortable finding my way around in there, so I arrived in plenty of time to find room 357. In fact, I've been in there SO infrequently, that the only other time I've set foot in the education building is when I took the entrance examination in August of 2004. My only memories associated with this building will be big, scary tests. Now that I think about it, that's a rather good marker for "education", in general.

I arrive at the room with plenty of time to spare, clutching two mechanical pencils (both found during the course of the previous two weeks) and a pile of blank paper I "borrowed" from my printer, which doesn't work. Two other students are already hanging around. We all smile nervously at each other. "Here we are," we seem to say, "ready to fight for our degrees". The room is approximately 20 by 20, rather small for a classroom. It's crammed with desks, and there are no windows. There are painted cinder blocks for walls, on which hang one blackboard, one dry erase board, and two motivational posters. The room is as about as generic as a classroom can be.

The other two students begin to complain about how little "real estate" the small desks have. "How can we prop scores up AND write graphs?" they say. Another student enters, notes the lack of audio equipment in the room, and realizes there won't be any music examples played. The piano player begins to rattle off the pieces he's scared of having to analyze. This litany doesn't help the room feel any more confident.

Another student begins methodically sharpening pencils. Everyone seems on the brink of laughing or crying. No one enthuses the "academic jock" outlook; everyone seems to realize their chances for failure.

I don't know if "zen dread" is a feeling, but I had it. The time for preparation had ended, and all I could do was sit and wait for the exam. People complained that the proctor had better not be late. I'm not really aware of the passage of time. I am simply in the room, there to stay until finished.

The proctor arrives, splaying the copied exams on the table before him. Four hours begins now.

Some people take all three exams. A friend (a soprano) and I take one. "Gotta do them all eventually," I say. I immediately wonder why I said that. Do those words even have meaning? Can't think about it now; the exam sits before me.

I grabbed the nearest to my seat, which turned out to be the Counterpoint exam. Counterpoint is the complex interaction between 2 or more individual lines of music. This exam covers a particular sub-species, 17th-18th century. Bach is the most famous composer of this style, and the exam piece is indeed a Bach fugue. Those keeping score at home can check off Fugue #22 in B-flat minor, from book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

The front page has only one line of text:

"Analyze this fugue completely, including discussion of all contrapuntal motives, key areas, and structural elements."

My brain immediately grinds its gears. How do I do this again?

Working dilligently, I make good progress. I'm not confident enough, however, to escape the "am I even doing this right?" voice in the back of my head. A student next to me asks the time. The proctor responds, "10:16." I wrap up my analysis, knowing that I need to keep moving in order to get all three finished.

Turning the counterpoint exam in, I grab the next paper. It's 20th century analysis. I sigh. 20th century music is notoriously all-encompasing, with composers feeling able (and possibly even OBLIGATED) to pull techniques from all periods of musical history and all cultures. It can be a snap to analyze, or an impossible mire. The exam offers two pieces, choose one. One is a piano sonata (maybe) by Alban Berg. The other is a piano concerto by Webern. I quickly do mental arthmatic: is either one a 12-tone piece? The Webern is, without a doubt.

12-tone refers to a compositional method popular in the early 20th century. As the name suggests, it involves using musical lines that contain all twelve musical tones; every chromatic note in western music inside of an octave. In its strictest forms, it is highly ordered, with specific sets of 12 tones, which cannot advance to the next tone until the previous one (in order) has been played. For 12-tone serial works, the quickest way to analyze is to make a matrix. This is a grid, 12 by 12, which shows all possible transformations of a given set of 12 pitches. By filling in the initial order used by the composer, one can then speedily make a chart of all possible outcomes. Want to know what the original tone set would look like upside down, backwards, and up a minor sixth? The matrix will tell you.

Assuming you do it right.

It turns out that matrices can be a boon or an incredible curse. It's easy to transpose numbers, and if you don't double check, you can end up with the entire matrix being wrong and misleading. No fun.

My matrix works great. I can identify the retrograde inversion at the 6th. I can see the transposition at the 4th. I can see the retrograde transposition at the minor seventh. But then, I get to a passage of music I can't explain. The order seems wrong. I double check the matrix. I double check the music. I triple check. Quadruple check.

Too much time being wasted. I set the matrix aside, and pick up the final exam portion. The tonal theory exam covers a "standard" analysis, if such a thing can be said. This semester, the piece is Beethoven's first symphony, third movement. How is it typical, how is it remarkable. Standard analysis questions. Again, I hope I've giving the answers that are expected. Ask any music major, and I bet they'd tell you that theory is a crap shoot. It's only possible to be FOR-REAL certain about very specific things ("That note is a D-sharp! I swear it on my uncle's marble collection!")

I finish the tonal analysis and turn back to the 20th century. It still doesn't work out right. I call this matrix-analysis "calculator music", and like a calculator, there is only one right answer. The problem either works, or it doesn't, and my analysis has stopped working.

"Ten minutes remaining," says the proctor calmly. Nine groans can be softly heard. A girl behind me says, disbelieving, "there are no words...." She seems to be having a hard time. Eventually, time runs out and all sheets are handed in. I leave the building. Four hours have elapsed. In the room with no windows, it's easy to forget how long you've been there. Even more so if you're dealing with problems whose answer always seems to skitter away, convincing you that if you just had more time, you'd understand.

I drive towards home, but stop at a restaurant. I eat lunch alone, which I very rarely do. Ordinarily, if I'm going to spend money to eat expensive food, I want there to be someone there to enjoy it with. Today, it's all about not thinking. I flip through my newspaper, but I can't remember a single story I read. I came home, and immediately took a nap.

Next Saturday comes the Music History exam.

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