What is music theory?

Music theory is making the rounds lately. It seems to have started with Ethan Hein’s post on Quora, and subsequently on Slate, “How Can Traditional Music Theory Mesh With Modern Pop Music?”. It’s not a very flattering piece about the discipline that I call my professional home. Unfortunately, Heim’s post, as Bryn Hughes points out, contains straw-man arguments, misinformation, and generalizations, but it’s received wide publicity. Of course, there are a number of things—some of them big things—that Anglo-American music theorists need to do better. However, it is clear both from Heim’s post and from the ease with which it circulated that most people simply don’t know what music theory is and what music theorists do. That, of course, is largely the fault of music theorists. On the whole, we tend to be a fairly insular bunch. Following Bryn’s lead, I hope to do my part to correct that a bit by offering as concise a summary I can of what music theory is, and (in light of Heim’s specific critiques) what college music theory courses are about.

What is music theory?

Music theory is a discipline, in which we study multiple theories about multiple musics. Individual pieces of music cluster together into styles, and each style has a diversity of theories around it. There is no one way to make music, and there certainly isn’t one theory about how to make and understand music.

What is a musical theory?

In the sciences, a theory is an explanation of observed phenomena. That explanation makes predictions about future observations, and where those explanations fail to make accurate predictions, the theory is (or should be) revised or replaced to account for new information.

A musical theory is similar. Given a repertoire, what traits define that repertoire and to what degree? What is essential, common, rare, or absent in the style? What do the characteristics of that repertoire predict about other pieces in the same style? These characteristics can include notes, rhythms, chords, phrases, instrumentation, typical performance venue, presence/absence of lyrics/drama, language of text, etc.

A musical theory is not at its core a prescriptive set of rules for composers to follow. Musical theories almost always follow practice and seek to represent with a few basic principles a diversity of practices from creative individuals. A musician can use these principles to guide them in composing according to a particular style (what we call “model composition”), and occassionally composers set out to create a set of rules and adhere to them. But theories are generally descriptive representations of a style, not prescriptive principles to guide creative compositional work.

If a musical theory typically does not guide one in creative composition, what is it good for? Theories are most helpful for guiding creative and critical analysis of musical works. They provide a set of norms against which we can interpret the meaning of the ways in which specific composers or songwriters follow or deviate from those norms. In a sense, then, a musical theory is a simplified, expedient, and usually preliminary step in intertextual analysis.

It is important to keep in mind that while musical theories are representations of stylistic norms, the norms and the practices from which they are extracted are fluid. A good musical theory is flexible. That is not to say that it is wishy-washy. The mathematical concept of fuzzy sets and the scientific concept of cognitive schemata both provide a rigorous way to work with fluid, flexible categories, and both form the core of many modern theories of music.

What happens in the core music theory curriculum?

The discipline of music theory is vast and diverse. There is no way to plumb the depths even in four semesters of college-level courses. The role of the core curriculum (usually 3–5 semesters of music theory, aural skills, and keyboard skills) is to give students a solid foundation of musical fluency. This fluency is something they began pursuing prior to music school, something they cultivate in other areas of musical study while at school, and something they continue to cultivate in their personal and professional lives beyond school.

As a professor, my personal goal for the core curriculum is to help students think critically and in detail about music, and to communicate clearly and persuasively about music. Since my students have a variety of different goals for their musical lives, and since the current musical landscape is so variegated—nevermind the fact that their musical lives will involve much more than what their first post-graduation job will require—we will not “cover” everything that they “need.” However, in these courses, we lay a foundation of things that are essential or beneficial to understanding, or to independently learning, a variety of musical styles. We will also walk through several different styles in detail. The goal is to help them develop knowledge and skills that will serve them broadly, and to give them enough exposure to the process of musical learning and theory building that they can teach themselves things that go beyond what we can cover in these courses—and even things that won’t come over the musical horizon for another 20 or 30 years. Teaching only job skills, on the other hand, ensures 1) an impoverished musical life, and 2) a lack of marketable skills the next time the industry changes. As educators, it is our ethical responsibility to do better.

Who teaches music theory?

The majority of university courses (some estimates place it at two-thirds or three-fourths) are taught by part-time, under-paid, overworked adjunct faculty or graduate students. And according to some estimates, over 70% of music theory and musicianship courses are taught by people who are neither theorists nor composers (Steven Laitz, keynote address at the Music Theory Society of New York State 2011 Annual Meeting). To be sure, if music theory truly ties to other musical activities, many kinds of musicians will be able to teach it well. Likewise, expertise in a discipline does not mean expert teaching. Many performers make better theory teachers than theorists! But the fact is that music theory—and especially aural skills/musicianship—is too often an extra, load-filling course for people who would rather be doing something else, and they are often underpaid and overstressed at the same time. They are dependent on textbooks and workbooks in order to prep and grade in a timely manner, and the textbook industry is moving more and more towards one-size-fits-all, and therefore one-size-fits-none, solutions. This is not a recipe for educational success.

It also does not fairly represent all that the field has to offer to musicians and music lovers. It is too easy for students, even faculty, to teach/study “by the book” and then come away with the idea that there is a “textbook” way to do things. Since the composers we care about most don’t follow the “rules,” or at least don’t follow the same rules, the rules are irrelevant.

Were theory a set of prescriptive rules, and were the most popular textbooks the best representation of those rules, I would wholeheartedly agree. Theory would be irrelevant. And so I unfortunately agree that theory, as many musicians know it, is irrelevant.

But composing “by the book” is not music theory. Explaining what the norms were when Brahms deviated from them, understanding what options he did (and didn’t) have at his disposal, helps us better understand why he deviated in the way he did, why it was received the way it was, and why it still has meaning for us today. Likewise, understanding the heavily contextual nature of musical styles helps us understand not only why Bach and Brahms are different, but also why some people who care deeply about music don’t give either Bach or Brahms a second thought. Those questions are not all answered in Freshman theory class. (In fact, some of them have answers as fluid as the practices that are being explored.) But these are the kinds of questions music theory equips people to engage.

[Photo by linh.ngan]

6 Responses

  1. Thanks for this post, Kris. At first I thought it might have no relevance to me but I am so glad I read t because it makes so many good points beyond the discipline of music about what constitutes good teaching of theory, for example. Learned a bit about music, too :) on a side note, a friend once told me her music teacher told her thar American country music went against all musical rules (or some such thing). Was he doingtextbook iinterpretation of music theory, then, or does some theory discuss country music or at least how it deviates?

    1. Kris Shaffer

      Maha, thanks for your comment! Yes, usually when people refer to some pop or non-Western music not “following the rules,” they are referring to the simplified textbook version of Western classical music. Unfortunately, even that repertoire has a wide variety of practices, and teaching one set of rules often turns students off when they find all of their favorite composers breaking those rules!

      Yes, there are a number of scholars doing research into American pop music, including country genres. As far as I know, though, there’s more work that’s been done in relation to rock, blues, etc. than country. I think there’s actually some cultural prejudice against country going on there, but that’s for another article. Check out Bethany Bryson’s “Anything but Heavy Metal” (if you have access) for a sociological study of cultural tastes and prejudices in American pop genres.

      1. Kevin Burke

        Kris, thank you for sharing this. What struck me by Hein’s post is that he is the perfect example of how music theory as it is traditionally taught can serve musicians well. As a teacher, I am always flattered when students challenge “established” beliefs and methods and adapt them to new practices. But that critical perspective does not come from feeding students what they think they need. It involves expanding comfort zones, introducing alternative methods, and enticing rule-breaking by teaching commonly-accepted standards.

        1. Kris Shaffer

          Yes! And I always wonder how many of the things learned “in spite of” class (Hein’s phrase) are actually learned because of that class/instructor/school. We certainly learn things independently or collaboratively outside of school, but a good course has much farther reach on one’s intellect and skills than simply the materials listed on the syllabus, covered in class activities, or included on an exam.

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