JohnStacy

In defense of music theory

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Preface:

I am a formally trained musician. Went through public school band from 6th grade through high school, got 3 undergrad degrees in music (education, horn performance, and classical composition), and am almost finished with a master's degree (classical and jazz composition). I finished my undergrad with 214 credit hours and am currently 23/31 hours through the master's degree. I am a professional performer (classical and jazz), and a high school band director, but have taught theory and private lessons and classes on guitar, bass and piano. I have performed in almost every genre that uses live performances, on many different instruments.

I see many discussions about the importance of music theory, and honestly most of these discussions disappoint me, but not in the way you would think by the preface above. All musicians fall into one of two categories - Music theory is necessary, or Music Theory is unnecessary. There are no other categories, although there are subgroups.

I'm going to start off by saying, that by far, modern music theory is one of the worst taught classes in the history of classes. I put it below most high school Spanish classes. If you compare the standard expected of music theory students to that of a standard biology or English class, it is almost laughably low. I don't know many classes where it is not only normal, but understood by the *teachers* of a class that half or more of your students are going to not learn the material. This is absolutely absurd. Further than this, I don't know of any creative art other than music where the system of organization used to understand it is emphasized so heavily as rules.

 

Let's give an analogy to help this sink in.


You're in an English class, studying Shakespeare. You're learning about the plays of Shakespeare, but it's communicated that the traits that were used in Shakespeare's style of writing are the rules that dictate how books are written, and if you don't follow them, you're wrong. Right off the bat, you should see some red flags with this. "But what about Earnest Hemingway? He breaks the rules here, does that mean he's not a real author?" "Yes. He broke the rules, so he doesn't write real books."

This is about how music theory is approached by many teachers. If you see this, and understand that this is not what music theory is supposed to be, you'll see why almost all arguments against it fall apart really hard.

 

So what is music theory?

Music theory IS a form of analysis. It is a way to listen and analyze music and understand what's going on. It's a way to learn music, and a way to communicate music.

Music theory IS NOT a bunch of "rules" that tell you how to write music. It IS NOT a way for classical musicians to point at things they don't like and say "this is worthless." If it is used that way, it's used very wrong.

Music theory IS a way to compare styles of music to see what is similar and different, and be able to understand what makes an unfamiliar style of music relatable to styles you are familiar with.

Music theory IS NOT tied to or directly related to sheet music. If you don't read sheet music, you are no less of a musician. Theory actually doesn't have much to do with notation on a fundamental level.

 

You know how I mentioned I used to teach guitar classes to high school kids?

When I taught guitar classes, I taught theory. But I didn't say "we're learning music theory today, here are the rules." It really was more like this:

Let's listen to this Johnny Cash song. Let's learn it, do this now. Alright, how is it similar to <song we learned last week>? These chords here, are they the same as <other song>? Yes. This is called a 12-bar blues progression. Let's look at it. The class learned 25 songs in the next week.

Because we had the framework of what a 12-bar blues progression was, and the theory behind it, we went from learning one song a week, chord by chord to 25. We learned 25 songs that used the 12-bar blues progression. This was music theory applied directly to understand music better. We then did a quick lesson on lyric form (the rhyme scheme and whatnot) of most 12-bar blue songs, and I had them write one. There was no lack of creativity here. They could write a song then teach it REALLY easily because everybody had the common language and framework.

Further than this, in similar ways, my students could play in all 12 major AND minor keys. They could figure out how to finger chords they didn't know. For example, this chord is an Ab major 7th chord. How do you finger it without looking at a chord chart? They knew what notes were in that chord, and what do do with the strings to get that chord to happen, and then they remembered the fingering.

 

This is what music theory is

If you're looking at my description and saying "But you didn't teach music theory." You're wrong. I gave them the same written test that I gave the students I was just teaching theory to. They did just as fine as guitar students as the ones who were specifically theory students. Test scores showed very little deviation when compared. This is how music theory is supposed to be. Music theory is the inner workings of music, and why things sound the way they do. Music theory is the reason I can hear a song I've never heard before, and learn it in a short period of time. Any time you hear a song and go "That's the same chord progression as <different song>" you're using theory. If you write music AT ALL, you're using music theory. You may not think that's what you're doing, but that's what you're doing. If you know that *this chord* followed by *this chord* sounds good, but don't know what those chords are called, you're still using theory. If you know that writing a song using the form "Intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus" makes your song make sense, you're using theory. All musicians who produce music are using theory whether they know it or not.

The advantage of knowing theory is that you can talk about music in a consistent way and help others understand either the music you write, or the music you like. If you hear something I write, and really like it, I can tell you EXACTLY what I did to create that sound and where I got that chord progression/texture from, so you can learn more about it.

 

You know how I mentioned that I have degrees in composition?

I have a degree in composition, and am almost done with another one. I took 14 theory classes in my undergrad. The same 4 intro classes, and 10 specialized classes (such as jazz theory, 20th century analysis, 18th century counterpoint, and electronic music). In all of these classes, the professor (a composer) would ALWAYS have us listen to the piece before doing any theoretical analysis on it. It didn't matter if it were by Bach from 1730, or if it were by Charlie Parker in 1950. We listened to it and thought about how it was similar and different to what we knew. The analysis ALWAYS fit what the music was doing. If we were analyzing a Bach chorale, we looked at it using the style tendencies and traits that defined that style. If we were analyzing a Charlie Parker tune, we looked at it using the style tendencies and traits that defined that style. We didn't do this with one set of rules and traits for both styles, unless they were similar enough where we could do that and actually make sense of that.

As a composition student in lessons, if I wrote a piece in the style of Glenn Miller and his big band, we would look through Glenn Miller sheet music and listen to the charts to find out "Why does it sound the way it does, and what can you do to get that kind of sound in your pieces?" If I wrote a piece in the style of modern, 20th century classical music, we would analyze pieces of classical music from the 20th century and find out why they worked. Then, when writing a piece, I could express myself in that style.

The argument that music theory destroys your creativity is valid only if you're viewing music theory as a set of rules that you have to follow. If you view any creative adventure like that, your creativity will be stifled. However, if you view it as a series of tendencies and style traits that make music sound the way it does, it frees you to write in any style you want, authentically, and express yourself. As a composer, I write a lot of music that blends jazz, fusion, and classical. I write things I'm proud of and think are pretty creative. But they are that way because I know how to look at music I like and take things from it and use them to express myself.

 

THIS IS THE WAY MUSIC THEORY SHOULD BE TAUGHT AND USED. THIS IS WHAT MUSIC THEORY IS AND WHAT IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE USED FOR.

 

One little side note

If you're using your knowledge of theory to say that somebody else is not a real musician, or they don't know what they're doing, or that music has rules, shame on you. You're giving formally trained musicians a bad name. Alternatively, if you are one of those people who brags about not knowing theory and tries to flex on the people who say you need to know theory, you're as big of an ass as they are.

 

I hope that my little essay here has helped you understand a new perspective on music theory and why I feel the argument against it is not particularly valid in most cases.

 

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Informative. Thank you.

I do have a question though.

You state the following as an analogy:

Quote

You're learning about the plays of Shakespeare, but it's communicated that the traits that were used in Shakespeare's style of writing are the rules that dictate how books are written, and if you don't follow them, you're wrong.

Then you state: 

Quote

If you know that writing a song using the form "Intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus" makes your song make sense,

Are songs that are not written with the above form "wrong" or are they "not songs"? To me (a layman) it sounds like this is the same as saying that Hemingway's books are not books. Can you explain the difference, or clarify what "make sense" means?

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13 hours ago, Admiral_C said:

Are songs that are not written with the above form "wrong" or are they "not songs"? To me (a layman) it sounds like this is the same as saying that Hemingway's books are not books. Can you explain the difference, or clarify what "make sense" means?

John can correct me if I'm wrong but I'm pretty sure that's not what he was saying at all. As far as I can tell, he's suggesting that music theory is quite instinctual at its core... meaning that we recognize forms and systems as "a way to do things" without explicitly recognizing them as technically sound extrapolations of music theory... since all music theory does is set out to describe and organize how music exists in the natural world and establish a language for it to be communicated quickly, accurately and consistently. 

Some things, such as harmony, come entirely natural more often than not (not taking into account unique "ears" that find more harmony in disharmony but that's just over-complicating this point lol). Any given musician can utilize any number of constructs in their writing at any given moment without ever specifically setting out to do so... but in doing so, are manifesting a function of traditional music theory as it is taught at some level. This is most obvious in styles of music that originate from parts of the world that have largely developed their folk and/or traditional composition and tonal sensibilities outside of Western influence. And yet, the Western nomenclature can still very much describe most everything any of it does.

This is also why many "musically ignorant" artists can still compose and perform compelling - and at times, profound - pieces of music without the ability necessarily to explain what it was they just did with any metric and/or nomenclature. The problem - and I believe he touches upon it excellently and refreshingly as someone who is, in fact, trained - is when trained musicians negatively criticize those of us - like myself - who don't really know all the nuances of the nomenclature or care to lol

Also, knowing John, I'm 100% certain he doesn't believe that "intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus" is the "right" way to write a song... :) while I admittedly do it plenty, I find it a particularly innocuous and banal way to compose but, hey, there's certainly much to be said about easily-digestable music

Anyway, great read; it's been a contentious topic among musicians for years

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Yup, you got it exactly right - Music Theory is the language you can use to speak to different people about the same song. It's more effective to talk about the V-I cadence that occurs at bar 48 signalling the transition into the new C section of the piece than it is to say "The thing that happens about two minutes into the song sounds cool". What you do with that knowledge is up to you, but now you can accurately describe what you're hearing in a concise way. It's very useful, like that.

You don't NEED it to compose music, but it sure does help.

You don't NEED it to play music, but boy does it help!

Lovely read, I encourage more people to give it a look over before settling on an opinion on Music Theory.

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19 hours ago, Admiral_C said:

Are songs that are not written with the above form "wrong" or are they "not songs"? To me (a layman) it sounds like this is the same as saying that Hemingway's books are not books. Can you explain the difference, or clarify what "make sense" means?

You missed my point, but I definitely see how you could. I was giving the example of *a* song. This is to contrast the idea that a song that is just chorus chorus chorus chorus chorus chorus verse chorus chorus chorus chorus chorus intro wouldn't work as well. Makes sense means that it is logical and follows a system that is consistent with both itself and other songs in the same style. I just threw an example and maybe wasn't as clear with what I meant as I could be.

 

5 hours ago, zykO said:

Also, knowing John, I'm 100% certain he doesn't believe that "intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus" is the "right" way to write a song... :) while I admittedly do it plenty, I find it a particularly innocuous and banal way to compose but, hey, there's certainly much to be said about easily-digestable music

You nailed it, actually.

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Thanks for sharing your thoughts John.

Imagine the frustration of a freshly starting musician who first encounters this clash of opinions. Someone new to the field likely has no opinion on the importance of music theory yet. He runs into it and seeks to understand it, but then comes across all these different people (including teachers) who have a very strong stance on it in either extreme. He may then adopt such a person's opinion as his own, without really having weighed all the arguments. This certainly could have happened to me.

When it comes to the debate Is music theory necessary? I would first like to ask: necessary for what? And of course it would help to define what we mean by music theory. You seem to go with music theory as analysis, but then also as form/structure. When I started learning about music and working through musictheory.net my understanding of music theory was that it provides the basic building blocks of music (note lengths, rests, keys, chords etc.). You could draw the analogy with the difference between analyzing a painting by Picasso and learning the names of different colors, introduction to materials and how to set up your canvas.

So with my definition, I would say the theory is fundamental. As analysis I would find it more of an advanced tool that is helpful to achieve more advance purposes. But in terms of necessity? We can agree on the fact that people can play music and write music without necessarily having the vocabulary to go with what they're doing. In the same way, people can draw nice pictures or make good photographs without having the vocabulary or insight into color and composition theory, or aesthetics. I do think that someone who wants to be serious about his craft would do well to immerse himself in the principles, theories and even "rules" that come with it in order to create more effectively and to more consistently "nail it" with his creative endeavors. Knowing what you're doing is generally helpful in every area of life.

Personally, I'm very analytically oriented and I like to have a grasp of basics, definitions, principles and structures. My teacher will teach me some music theory if I ask for it and if it is relevant to what I'm trying to do, but for the most part she seems to believe that my creativity will be stifled if we get too much into forms and all that. I feel kind of shut down by that kind of attitude. She fears that I will take too much of a mathematical approach and end up "programming" music, rather than writing it. I don't think that's what I'd do at all. I just want to understand what's going on and use specific existing forms as stepping stones to more original music. I'm doing something now, but without more direction I'll likely be stuck doing the same thing over an over. I want to explore the field of music and see what is out there and what I can learn from it. That doesn't have to mean I'll copy everything and lose originality (if that even exists anymore).

 

Lastly, I think music theory in general suffers from a bad reputation as being unpractical, which may explain its de-emphasis in a school setting and the low expectations teachers have from their students. If it is not meaningfully connected to something tangible (as John described with his guitar class) it will stay in the unpractical. And if unpractical, why bother with it?
It probably also doesn't help when a teacher is not a composer/musician himself/herself. I'm trying to work my way through Paul Hindemith's works on composition (part 1 and 2). In the introduction he laments the state of music theory education and names the lack of composer-teachers as part of the problem. If the teacher is not immersed in the craft himself, how is he expected to meaningfully transmit the knowledge to others?
Unfortunately for music theory, it does tend to get a little dry and technical, even a little esoteric when you get to things like harmonics and get the math and physics involved. I find it not as accessible as other subjects, though I imagine you could get esoteric with color theory too if you bring in the frequencies of colors 0_0;

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6 hours ago, BloomingLate said:

Lastly, I think music theory in general suffers from a bad reputation as being unpractical, which may explain its de-emphasis in a school setting and the low expectations teachers have from their students. If it is not meaningfully connected to something tangible (as John described with his guitar class) it will stay in the unpractical. And if unpractical, why bother with it?
It probably also doesn't help when a teacher is not a composer/musician himself/herself. I'm trying to work my way through Paul Hindemith's works on composition (part 1 and 2). In the introduction he laments the state of music theory education and names the lack of composer-teachers as part of the problem. If the teacher is not immersed in the craft himself, how is he expected to meaningfully transmit the knowledge to others?
Unfortunately for music theory, it does tend to get a little dry and technical, even a little esoteric when you get to things like harmonics and get the math and physics involved. I find it not as accessible as other subjects, though I imagine you could get esoteric with color theory too if you bring in the frequencies of colors 0_0;

ah yes and therein lies a rather substantial chunk of the problem...

just the other day, i was listening to Dave and Chris Brubeck's Ansel Adams: America piece for the first time and was thoroughly moved by it. later that evening at band rehearsal, i eagerly wanted to rant and rave about it like the moment i got there lol i sought to describe how intricately they had woven Chopinesque romantic piano with grandiose baroque piano ala Bach all the while writing this sweeping symphonic and rather American (Coplandesque, i suppose) tribute to one of the great American artists.

I ultimately described it to them just as i did now hahaha ie. in very broad strokes, emphasizing the tonal palette they used, the way the different elements juxtaposed and interacted. in the end, i had analyzed and related the piece as would a curator rather than as a composer but when i had piqued their interest and they wanted to know more about how exactly the Brubecks accomplished such a magnificent synthesis, i ran into the quandary of not really knowing exactly how to describe it properly. i eventually would get the point across and they certainly are used to playing with me so they understood me and my quasi-technical lingo... but i was reminded, yet again, of just how practical having that formal training and technical background is.

hell, it could have at least saved us the hour we could have instead been working on our set, not listening to me fumble about with chromaticism and diatonicism lolllllllll

the knowledge gained from proper formal training may very well have made me a better, more efficient, more compelling composer over the years... we'll never really know since i abandoned classical training a long time ago... but it is in these sorts of instances when confronted with having to communicate or break down a truly nuanced and complex piece of music that requires more than just a rudimentary harmonic analysis, that training can be and is quite practical indeed.

it isn't that music theory ever has to be dry. it's just that as with a lot of things, the status quo prevails and institutions as old as "western music" are unshakable even when blasted by a barrage of jazz, punk, electronica, etc. over the years. in the end, the establishment holds because it was built a long, long time ago and it isn't really broken; it just requires its educators to be mindful of emphasizing why we should use the knowledge rather than just providing it.

or maybe, i have no idea what i'm talking about lol

Edited by zykO

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On 8/5/2019 at 5:08 PM, Phonetic Hero said:

The most succinct way I've ever heard it put is that music theory is DEscriptive, not PREscriptive, and it's stuck with me ever since (thanks Adam Neely!)

I was about to post those words verbatim.

I think John makes a lot of important points. They're the same points I've made in conversations over the years. If I could grossly paraphrase some of what John said: the further away music theory gets from talking about specific songs and musical phrases, the less useful it becomes.

But I do have one small point of disagreement. I think that music theory, even when taught as described above, can hinder creativity for some people if the person is learning music theory before they learn to play by ear. (Which is how most of us mere mortals have to learn music theory, unfortunately, so it's kind of a moot point.) How does it hinder creativity? Well, this is going to be a very academic point, but I'll make it anyway: music theory comes with a lot of assumptions that don't line up exactly with our cognition of music. So when we try to learn by ear, after having absorbed the lens of music theory, we're searching for certain "things" in the music that our ear would not otherwise have sought out on its own to form its own intuitive understanding. This doesn't prevent us from learning by ear, but it really slows things down, in my experience of seeing different musicians and finding out their history of learning. Not because there's anything wrong or totalitarian about music theory, but only because of human psychology.

Let me draw a comparison to language learning. Language learning has a lot of parallels. We all know they share some areas of the brain. But more importantly language and music also share a dual life. We have certain intuitive abilities surrounding both language and music, and we also have the more analytical, grammatical understanding surrounding them.

Let's take a sentence. One that a child may learn very early on in life. "Do you want some food?"

If you look at that sentence from a grammatical perspective (the music theory perspective), you've got an interrogative verb order with the helping verb coming early, you've got a second person singular pronoun, the verb, an indefinite pronoun, the direct (?) object. Etc. Etc. All of those things are true and are merely a neutral understanding, just like music theory's analysis can be true and neutral.

But the child learning its first language is not building their intuitive sense of language that way. They hear "dooyoowansum food." And their brain absorbs that, comparing it with similar sounds like "dooyoowanna" or "arrweegonna" or "izzhegonna" until a library of sounds is built by use, comparison, and contrasts. It's not an incrementally accumulated index of words and ideas, it's a network of compare and contrast through use.

Now, when we get older, we might learn a second language. Maybe in high school or college. And maybe then we actually do begin with the grammatical approach, the music theory understanding. In other words, we begin by learning the individual vocab words, the parts of speech, the conjugations. But it's important to remember that this is only the loading program for our intuitive language abilities. We are hyperconscious of the grammar at first (the music theory) until the intuitive abilities of our mother language expand their capacity to this new language. Then the grammar becomes secondary. Still true and useful, but a secondary understanding.

The problem with music is that some people never develop that initial intuitive relationship to music, and they get music theory instead. It's like a child trying to think through learning their first language while simultaneously thinking about the parts of speech they're hearing and using. Not wrong, per se, but not right either.

The trap is that there is an initial burst of satisfaction when music theory starts to make sense. But in the long run, if you haven't learned to play by ear first, you're slowing down your eventual ability to play and write by ear, in my opinion. It just makes you start searching for the wrong 'things' in music.

Unfortunately, the reality is that most kids will never have the obsession or support system to learn music by ear in early childhood. So we all grow up with what I consider a cognitive disabilities in music, just like a child underexposed to language activities would have speech/language pathologies. So we have to adapt education to that reality. And music theory is one of the main compensatory avenues we have. Humans are chatterboxes and sometimes we just need things to be legible so we can get by.

(Speaking as someone who started with classical piano/guitar, and went to college on a full music scholarship to study film composition, guitar, and ethnomusicology. But now I'm a dentist, so...)

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On 8/5/2019 at 4:47 PM, JohnStacy said:

 Makes sense means that it is logical and follows a system that is consistent with both itself and other songs in the same style.

Ok, thanks for the clarification.

Though my eyes tend to glaze over after a bit (Antecedent Consequent Period... I mean... really), I do find it interesting when the practical application of music theory is discussed. For instance I saw a 12 min video on FF7's battle Fanfare and it broke down the different parts that made it a "compelling" piece of music. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EH3RSAT3Asc

It sounds like the creator of this video has a similar idea of theory to your own. But I am kind of curious if you agree with his conclusions.

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On 8/8/2019 at 12:36 PM, Admiral_C said:

...I saw a 12 min video on FF7's battle Fanfare and it broke down the different parts that made it a "compelling" piece of music. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EH3RSAT3Asc

It sounds like the creator of this video has a similar idea of theory to your own. But I am kind of curious if you agree with his conclusions.

I for one definitely agree with this analysis -  8-Bit Music Theory is a Legend with a capital L.  I've been watching his videos to pick up new concepts and gather my inspiration before tough work sessions for a while now, extremely useful resource

Edited by Phonetic Hero

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