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Music and Transfiguration

Basic Ideas about Music Theory

Music theory has always been a strong point of mine. It is an intriguing subject—a challenge, and it requires a constant mental effort. This is one of the reasons why I love it. From my point of view, though, it is also a subject of much confusion and contradictions.

My college music courses were my first exposure to the wide world of music theory. Of course, I heard all the horror stories, too. I can recall one guy I know saying, “Do you believe in life after death? Well, there’s life after music theory.” The horror stories didn’t really bother me, and once I got into my freshmen theory classes I was hooked. However, it wasn’t long, perhaps during my sophomore year, that all the various pieces, everything that I was being taught, stopped fitting together. Then the nagging questions in my head started. The first was just a sense, something at the time I couldn’t quite explain, that the underlying thought process of what I was learning (which at the time was Roman numeral analysis) didn’t match the thought process of the music it was trying to explain. This is a problem that only now I’m beginning to resolve. It is my belief that if music theory is going to be the means of explaining the technical workings of music, then the basic premises of a particular theory must match the basic premises of the music it is to explain. For example, you can’t look at Beethoven through the lens of modern music. If you’re going to attempt to understand Beethoven, then you must approach his music on the same grounds as he did—in other words, with the same knowledge and mindset.

This leads me to the following ideas about what music theory ought to be. If music theory is to be the method of understanding music, then music theory is never an end in itself. There is no such thing as theory for the sake of theory, or analysis for the sake of analysis. It means that music and its theory are one and the same thing. You can no more separate them than you can the laws of nature from the physical world. It means that to refute the theory is to refute the existence of music itself. Conversely, it means that if there is no justifiable theory there is no justifiable music, and thus, is it really music? Furthermore, it means that music theory is not subject to whim—there is no such thing as “anything goes” in music theory.

I realize this paints a very black and white picture of music and music theory, but, after all, existence, and music as a part of it, is very black and white.

Comments        (You have to be logged in to leave a comment)

I have never studied the theory, science or philosophy of music. But now I have plans for writing a critical essay about the music of the 20th century and need to take up this study. Often when listening to contemporary or modernist music I have the feeling that this is just sound or noise, not music. Today, for instance, I heard Pierre Boulez's "12 notations" for piano, and that question arose. I'm not sure it is music to me. What is music? I have a theory about that, as explained in another article here. Does Boulez express himself with this sound or is he merely bluffing? Is it really music to him? Has he forgotten what music is all about and is experimenting with funny sounds? Or is he consciously denying the importance of music and replacing it with sound structure?

Submitted by mustermeister on Tue, 05/24/2011 - 09:54. Report abuse

I have been learning to play the piano for about five years now. Both practical training and theoretical studies. I love the practical side of the piano. But I struggle a bit on the theoretical side.

Submitted by Nizar on Tue, 01/08/2013 - 21:17. Report abuse