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Is Music Theory Really Necessary?

The term music theory may not be something you want to drop into casual conversation at your next party. For some musically inclined persons, it has all the charm of a cuss word and none of the vitality. It means a bunch of difficult and arcane rules that don't seem to have any relevance to actually playing music, not to mention creating your own. For many, it is just a bunch of complicated procedures that they can't seem to understand, and this only leads to frustration. It is thought by composers to be the chief stifler of inspiration. Composers often like to use it as a punching bag. And they may have a point. Notwithstanding personality issues--and, believe me, many of my own theory professors did not seem like the most interesting people in the world (at least until I got to grad school)--the things that we theory types teach (for I have also been an instructor of bored college students like myself and I have vowed not to be as dull as my own mentors) seem mostly concerned with music of past centuries, and to dwell forever in trifling details. Surely the composers themselves didn't think of their music this way--as an homage to the inviolable past, and as an exercise in trying not to do what you weren't allowed to do?   Many have suggested, in fact, that the inspiration of the gifted creator came first and brought in its wake a host of critics and persons determined to justify and explain the music once it was safely non-controversial, and arguably no longer relevant to the mental and emotional climate in which it is performed--when it became a museum piece rather than an artistic response to the here and now. These persons, the line goes, are just draining all the joy out of music. I don't intend to defend people who actually do this, or who substitute analysis for actual music making--merely to suggest that trying to picture theory as a bunch of useless rules and musical creation as an act of complete freedom whereby no knowledge or mastery of anything is necessary--this too is asking for trouble.

I don't believe that the majority of good composers have little or no grasp of some kind of theory, simply that it may not resemble the kind we teach in school. The larger world of theory, it seems to me, involves a concentrated effort to create, or recreate, music in a way that convincingly communicates, or at least seems to communicate, something logical, something emotional, something didactic, something profound, something ridiculous--but that in any case provides an insight into the heart of the music so that it is not a mere string of notes. It allows creators to seek direction and flow in their pieces, to make the details blend smoothly and the completely into their larger purpose. Moment to moment constructions do not sound awkward unless dictated by the larger purpose to do so. For an interpreter, this understanding means an awareness of why a composer chose the notes and rhythms he or she did, sometimes down to the last detail, not out of a desire to explain away mystery but to enable the piece's purpose to shine through the mountains of notes. Persons who are able to do this are always more interesting to listen to as performers because they have established a real connection to the music and are not following the plethora of apparently disconnected instructions (notes, rhythms, dynamics, written instructions, and so on) and hoping things will turn out alright. Simply following a recipe blindly will serve me when I am making a batch of cookies (perhaps), but it will not do when I am interpreting a Beethoven Sonata.

Still, many people would like to abandon theory because it suggests intellectual effort it required. Those persons are probably not going to read this article anyway--for them music is a powerful stimulant for the emotions, and only that. They do not believe in the use of one's brain as an ally in this process, and see it only as an enemy (boy, that is a popular notion!) I can't tell you how many times I have run across persons with that mindset. I have noticed that without exception their own music making is not nearly as exciting as they think it is! When you do not recognize the significance of a powerful musical moment, how can you call our attention to it? And simply playing the passage louder or faster only works on robots and small children.

But is learning a series of prohibitions that were in vogue hundreds of years ago the same as understanding what is and is not important in a piece of music, of determining what should be heard and how it should be expressed?

A recent survey of music on the internet has convinced me that, notwithstanding the abuses that such a definition of theory can create,  in most cases the answer should be a definite yes. Many persons of questionable musical talent are still trying to compose in the style of Bach and Mozart, convinced that music died with those august gentlemen. And it would help if they were able to observe the same methods that their models did. Bach and Mozart didn't double their thirds or leading tones, and it sounds awkward when the people who are trying to imitate them do so. It sounds even more awkward when these neophyte composers write bizarre leaps in their melodies and forget which chords they are outlining so that one voice does not match the other; my ear was rudely surprised on several occasions. Mozart himself wouldn't have been at all nice about it--he wrote a piece called "A Musical Joke" in which he lampooned composers who commit just these sins, as well as ill-conceived phrase lengths and general lack of direction. This is really no different than encountering a writer who doesn't know how to spell, use punctuation, or make his or her point effectively.

The internet has brought about a real revolution in our lives--it also means that just about anyone can have their effusions made very public. This means that untold millions of persons can now clothe in music their imitations of past eras, famous persons, and what they think of as the musical good old days. This is much safer and easier than trying to be an artist and engaging the musical here and now with one's own voice-- whether it be considered stylistically conservative or bold, it will still resonant something original, and something unique to a person and his or her environment. Mozart has already been Mozart more effectively than anyone else can be.

The irony here is that those with talent, who hold out the hope of having something to say, don't seem to be following a bunch of old rules. But study their compositions and you will find, not that they have ignored them, but rather have assimilated them to such a degree that the music sounds free and confident because they are not occupied with the difficulty of avoiding things they should avoid, rather, they do it almost instinctively.

At its best, theory is about communication--at figuring out how the composer intended to communicate with us, at deciding how much communicative territory is appropriate--or necessary-- for the performer, and how one can do it without running contrary to the spirit of the composition, and at being able to communicate with persons in the profession about how those first two things are going on. Those who understand how to do this are able to concentrate on the larger picture, not because they shun the details and the steps needed to get them there but because they have done the gruntwork and have mastered it. But for the rest, theory is a bunch of disconnected and useless details. Stuff you've just got to know for some reason--like to pass the next test.

Every occupation has its own series of buzzwords and buzzphrases that the rest of us don't understand. The point isn't to keep outsiders from understanding (hopefully), the point is to accurately describe a process or an idea or an object quickly and easily so we don't have to go into great detail every time we are talking about something which is quite simple. So in music we talk about intervals (the distance between notes, a musical measurement which is sort of like feet and inches) or dominant seventh chords (which have been around for the last 300 years and have a particular harmonic function that needs to be understood and used properly) or invertible counterpoint (which isn't nearly as complicated as it sounds). We have key signatures and four-bar phrases and ternary form. It's a lot of stuff to learn. But then, so is English. And if you are reading this, you have already come to terms with a language that has lots of rules and common agreements about how letters are put together to form words which represent ideas. It took a lot of work to understand, but now--voila! We are able to communicate.

It is a common notion to suggest that music is a language (which I think oversimplifies things greatly; maybe it is more accurate to suggest it is a series of languages, or at least a vast language group with many dialects). People often make this remark without reflecting that languages require that we understand them, and that that means we have to learn them--either by observing people around us using the language (which is how children begin learning their native language) or by having a series of broad concepts and small details taught to us in some more formal way. Having a thorough acquaintance with the way such a language is traditionally put together allows us to listen or read for meaning and not have to stumble over a jumble of symbols we can't quite understand. It allows us to know when a writer is using language in an unusual way to and appreciate the individual style of a particular author. The customs, and traditions, the patterns of letters and words--all of these can either form a barrier to our understanding, or, if we are well versed in them, can open the door to all sorts of simple and complex shades of meaning and ideas. They may provoke emotional response (joy or outright irritation) or intellectual delight. The biggest difference with music is that it can also deliver a visceral thrill which is present before we have any concept of the grammar of the music. The beauty of the tones themselves might cause us to not wish to spoil them by knowing anything about how they are arranged. After all, "Beauty is its own excuse for being" so why justify it? This only works if you are a passive receiver of music (and only arguably then). If you are going to make it, or interpret it, you are going to want to know something about it.

But before we discuss how the music itself communicates with its listeners, let's consider how musicians themselves communicate with each other about music itself.

Suppose you are in a rehearsal with a group of musicians and you find that the performance lacks something. First you tell the violins to raise the leading tone a little. Do they have any idea what you are talking about? Do they know why that is important? Suppose the third of the chord is being drowned out by the trombone section which likes to wail away on their open fifths. Perhaps the composer didn't understand how to write well for orchestra. Or maybe the trombones could just chill out and let that important note come through. Were they listening to the sounds around them or did they just bask in their own loudness? When you explained the reasoning behind your request, did they understand? If the change is not made, at the performance some necessary harmonic information may be lost to the audience. It might be as if an important plot twist in a novel was garbled or raced through.

Much about theory sounds like a bunch of rules and regulations, a series of "thou shalt nots" that doesn't seem like it has much to do with the way the music sounds. And unfortunately, a lot of teachers themselves don't understand how to make the connection. But despite how legalistic some of theory's tenets sound, they do affect the flow of the music.

At a rehearsal of a children's choir here in Illinois, the choir was reading through a new piece. One measure kept giving them trouble. The person who had composed the anthem had ignored something that used to give a theory professor I worked with fits. It was something called an "improperly resolved seventh." In other words, a particular note needed to go down to the next note, and she made it go up. Present rules about how to resolve sevenths and you've got a lot of people complaining that you are cramping their style, or that at the very least this is boring. But the reality was that this measure was awkward, and even though I'll bet none of the kids present knew why, their ears knew it, and they were struggling with an otherwise easy piece of music.


I've included examples that show why I believe understand music theory is important both to composers and performers, those who create and recreate music. But that doesn't mean I love music theory as it taught in most schools and by many teachers. That nightmarish notion of theory as being a bunch of nitpicky rules that get in the way of a good melody is not without foundation. There are hundreds, if not thousands of quotations by composers who complain that we should be led by the ear, not the rule, and that the pedantry of the theory classroom opposes innovation and can only explain but never create. (or, as Saint Paul said, "the letter kills, but the spirit gives life")

They have a point.

One of the most important things that I believe theory, or in a broader sense, understanding musical construction, can do for us is to distinguish what is important from what is relatively unimportant. What does the ear need to hear in order for the grammar of the musical phrase to make sense? What is the most important thing the composer is try to tell us musically? There may be hundreds of notes on the page, but they are hardly created equal. Just as, if you were to read this essay aloud, you would stress certain words and not others, speed up in certain sections and slow down in others, trying to underline what you felt were the key points (and let us hope my composing has made that fairly clear), in a musical performance you would not always perform in absolutely strict rhythm, and you would not play every note with the same volume. There may be certain indications on the page to do both of these things, but they will not be detailed enough that you can simply follow a recipe without some understanding of the contents. If you want it to sound like a human being is engaged in the music you will have to do some interpreting. Responsible interpreting assumes that you will at least try to get at what the composer had in mind rather than simply telling us what you think about the piece. It also assume you know something about the tradition and customs out of which the piece was written. Which moments are a real surprise and which are standard formulas? If you were reading a letter, you would not make a big deal out of "DEAR Albert!" unless you had some evidence that the writer of the letter hated Albert's guts and the use of the word dear was either a real shift in relations or vicious sarcasm. Otherwise it is merely a polite way to start a letter. Your knowledge of the style and customs of letter writing combine with your personal knowledge of the writer and her recipient.

Unfortunately, this is were much music school theory falls down. We spend a great deal of time on details and little time on applying them. And many of these details have to do with styles which are in some ways buried in the past.

I remember spending an awful lot of time on figured bass. This is a procedure that was in vogue about 300 years ago. Bach and composers before him used it as a shorthand method of indicating which harmonies a keyboard player should use to fill in above the written out bass line. It allowed the player some freedom in the notes he chose, but also required a thorough knowledge of intervals and voice leading. In that respect it was useful. But since very few of us have had anything to do with figure bass in our professional lives, it is arguably not the best way to spend hundreds of hours of classroom instruction.

When it came to harmonic analysis we were only about 200 in the past. Learning about dominant functions was useful--I was good at it--but I find that as a composer most of my harmonic progressions bear little resemblance to anything that Mozart wrote, and I don't think they should. A lot has happened since--a lot of musical history filled with complaining composers suggesting that their theory teachers couldn't apply the rules of the past to the music of today and therefore assumed that the music they were writing was of no value. There are people like that in every profession.

As our semesters of theory progressed, we began to concentrate on styles closer to our own era. At first we had been concentrating on simple harmonies, less adventurous harmonic syntax (diatonic harmonies)--a musical phonics, if you will, in which we might spend an entire class period writing four measures on the blackboard in four part harmony, trying not to run afoul of a myriad of rules. By the next year we began to chart the course of increasing harmonic complexity in music and to analyze larger sections of it. By this time, we were firmly rooted in the Romantic era: music that is around 150 years old.

And in graduate school, we finally got around to music of the twentieth century! This was a time when many of the "rules" for musical style that we had been learning so assiduously up to this point seemed to go out the window. Didn't Debussy live and die by parallel fifths? Since nobody modulates into the dominant anymore, how does analyzing a sonata exposition the old way have anything to do with Prokofiev? If a piece (like Cage's 4'33") doesn't even have notes, how does voice leading matter at all?

All of which calls into question some theorist's pet notions on what is necessary to know about music, and particularly what is "universal" about music. Such a divergence of musical styles calls for real virtuosity--or flexibility-- on the part of those handing down holy writ on how music should be made. Unfortunately, many professors share a fondness only for the past and a thorough disgust for the musical present and future. (They don't call it a conservatory for nothing!) Some of us were lucky enough to study with composers or theorists who did not believe that music was buried with Beethoven. But before we get too carried away by a zeal to remove all of the things Mozart wouldn't have done, let's not forget that some of those stylistic niceties may have more to do with laws of acoustics than simple Victorian politeness. We are still affected by gravity the same way we were in Newton's time, even though we now understand it quite differently.

At the conservatory, we never really made the link to performing music. I think it would be great to someday see a course in Applied Theory where students could take pieces they are working on for recitals and lessons and have them coached on the basis of musical theory instead of instrumental technique. Students would probably also learn to memorize their music faster, overcoming a common phobia in a music school.

If somebody in central Illinois wanted to include this in their curriculum I would take them up on it. I find that whatever the age of the student, whenever I start discussing music theory I find it exciting. Not because I am a pedant, but because I find it a way to connect--cerebrally and emotionally with the music, and to discover things I may not have noticed before, and impart new insights to the student. Charts and graphs, tables of key signatures and non-harmonic tones, proper resolutions of augmented sixth chords--this is, at least in some situations, necessary stuff. On the ground floor. But to soar above it, and be passionate about the music itself is, unfortunately, a lot like the real language of theory. You have to be able to see the connections. And feel them. And think them. Only a few of us seem truly able to do that. Meanwhile I do whatever I can to ensure that my students are able to connect with the reality behind the notes. That is the real joy of making music.


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