Review of Ralph Turek, Theory for Today's Musician

By Fankhauser, Gabe; Snodgrass, Jennifer Sterling | Music Theory Online, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Review of Ralph Turek, Theory for Today's Musician


Fankhauser, Gabe, Snodgrass, Jennifer Sterling, Music Theory Online


Received April 2007

[1] Ralph Turek has offered an impressive textbook that could change the way we teach music theory. His Theory for Today's Musician confronts several common problems in today's theory curricula and makes an assertive and effective effort to fix them. The most important mission of the text is to make music theory relevant to students. Turek accomplishes this in several ways. First, his examples draw more or less equally from classical and popular genres, not simply for the sake of including popular music but more importantly to help students absorb theoretical concepts. In his preface to the text, Turek states:

Part of the effort entails a recognition that popular music and jazz can be vehicles for conveying much of what traditional theory teaches, and that apart from its own intrinsic merit that repertory can serve as a conduit to other musical styles. (xiii)

The juxtaposition of Loesser and Carmichael's "Heart and Soul," a piece even the least experienced music student may know, with Bach's "Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben," (377-381) demonstrates the equality and respect, and occasional subtle irony, with which Turek presents his musical examples. The variety of musical styles used in each chapter shows how principles of tonality transcend genre and historical periods.

[2] Increasingly, theory instructors seem to supplement their courses with examples from popular music, and Turek's text is one of the first to push the trend so deeply into a textbook. To our knowledge no prior theory text integrates and equalizes classical and pop repertoire to the extent that Turek does in Theory for Today's Musician. For students to recognize that there is not such a fundamental rift between the tonal language of J. S. Bach and that of, say, Bill Evans, may likely strengthen students' appreciation of both.

[3] If the goal is to connect personally with today's students by using music they listen to, however, the examples fall somewhat short. The examples are appropriate for their chapter's subject, but for the students who are not big fans of show tunes and Billy Joel, additional examples may still have to be supplied by the instructor. While no hardcopy text can stay current with ever changing student tastes in music, Turek's text would be strengthened by more recent (post-1985) and more rock examples (e.g., Nirvana or Radiohead). Still, the value of Theory for Today's Musician is not so much that it uses music that current students may like but that, as the title indicates, it offers theory and analytical skills that today's musician should find relevant.

[4] A second way the text makes music theory relevant to the student is in its prose. Turek's accessible, enjoyable writing style encourages even the most reluctant student to read the text. In his presentation of the legend of Pythagoras and the discovery of the natural overtone series, for example, Turek states that "the old boy was nothing if not inquisitive, so he sought out the 'harmonious blacksmith' and examined his hammers . . . " (12) While some of the language may seem "old school" to some students, the familiar tone does present a "let's-have-some-fun" attitude. Less verbose than many texts which may overwhelm the student, the written text aims to engage students with musical examples more than offer lengthy explanations and definitions. To support varying learning styles, graphs and charts introducing concepts such as lead sheet symbols and progression/retrogression occasionally accompany commentary and musical notation.

[5] The text takes a daring step as it begins not with fundamentals but with selected topics meant to arouse interest in the study of theory. Part I, "In Lieu of Fundamentals" assumes proficiency with scales, key signatures, pitch and rhythmic notation, and other fundamentals; these are placed in the appendix, which also contains a brief introduction to lead sheet symbols and part-writing principles. …

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