Music Theory: Frequently Asked Questions

copyright © 2003 by Larry J Solomon

1. What is music theory (MT)?

MT is the science of music. Theories are generalizations that help us to simplify the complexities of the world. They rely on observation, logic, and mathematics to establish propositions that have some general, observable truth. Thus, MT started with the investigation of the raw materials of music, such as sound. For example, Pythagoras and other ancient philosophers discovered a mathematical basis for the sounds of music in simple number ratios. This science is today called acoustics, which is a branch of MT.

2. Do you need MT?

If you are not a musician, you do not need music theory. MT is concerned with the knowledge of music rather than the experience of music. One can appreciate music without a knowledge of how it is made or organized. Knowledge and experience are frequently confused. Having more knowledge about music can lead to a greater musical experience.

Even if you are a musician, MT is not essential if you are in the category of genius. Some composers and performers have little or no conscious knowledge of the theory of music. Yet, they may be successful musicians. Jazz and pop musicians, for example, may not know what key or chords they are playing; yet they are very capable of creating music intuitively that speaks meaningfully to people. In the same way, one can become a poet without knowing the complexities of linguistic organization.

3. So why is MT important?

MT is not essential to music making, nor to the experience of music. Its relationship to music is much like the relation of grammatical knowledge to language. One need not study grammar to learn a language; in fact, most of us don't learn language that way. Yet such study does add to one's knowledge of the language. The same is true for the study of linguistics. It is not essential to study linguistics to be able to speak and write intelligently, but linguistics does add to the knowledge of language in general.

4. Should you study MT?

This depends upon your goals. If one of your goals is to know about the inner construction and organization of music, then MT is essential. If you have no need for or interest in knowing chords, keys, scales, modes, tonality, etc., then MT is not for you. If your interest in music is entirely confined to experiencing it and deriving pleasure from it, you really have no need for MT.

5. Can MT detract from or ruin the experience of music?

No, far from it. However, a general negativity toward allying knowledge with experience can. This is commonly known as a "closed mind".

In the same sense, a knowledge of astronomy cannot make one unappreciative of the experience of the heavens. In fact, it can only add to or enhance the experience. It cannot subtract from it. The sister of the great physicist Richard Feinman related, "Anyone can look up at the stars and appreciate the beauty of the heavens. Anyone can see the points of light on the celestial sphere and appreciate the beauty of the night sky. But astronomers see more than pretty points of light -- they see enormous distances, a vast time machine, immense suns, glowing nuclear furnaces and profound cold, [gravity so intense that it squeezes time and space out of existence, stars so dense that a teaspoon of their matter weighs as much as the entire earth, etc]. So, I cannot help but think that when an astronomer looks up at the stars, he sees more than an ordinary person." The same is true of the difference between one who knows MT and one who does not.

6. Are there any practical benefits to studying MT?

The practical benefits are enormous. By getting to know chords, keys, scales, etc., they become old friends that you recognize immediately when reading music. Thus, MT can help the ability to sightread music notation fluently. MT also helps in the development of critical aural perception skills, i.e., the ability to write what one hears and to hear what is written (without the aid of an instrument). MT can also help to develop the ability to harmonize and compose music and is virtually indispensible for creating music beyond a basic primitive level. One can hardly imagine creating something of the scope of a Mahler symphony without a thorough knowledge of harmony, orchestration, and counterpoint.

7. Can MT help the interpretation of music, especially in its performance?

Absolutely. Analysis is an important branch of MT. Careful analysis of music leads to knowledge about its organization. A performer can thereby become enlightened about what is important, even essential, to bring out in a performance. This can make the difference between a mechanical "playing of the notes" (like a computer), and a sensitive and highly musical performance. Unfortunately, many students of music are taught to play a piece a certain way without any explanation from teachers about why they believe it should be done that way. This leaves the student impoverished and dependent upon an "expert" to tell how something should be played. Many private music instructors do not teach the theory behind the performance practice that would empower students to analyze music on their own and come up with an independent and yet convincing interpretation. Without this knowledge students may develop arbitrary means of interpretation, or will simply imitate other performances. At worst they may develop purely personal dogmas that will be passed on to the next generation of students.

As an example of how analysis can benefit performance, see my analysis of Bach's Chaconne in D minor for solo violin.


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2003 GUEST