College Music Theory-What's in a name?

Published by Frank on Nov. 25, 2019

My students at various Colleges over the years all used to grouse about their music theory classes. Leaving aside the fact that administrators love to schedule Freshman Theory at 8 am, the primary complaint seemed to be a lack of relevance with respect to modern day struggles with the instrument and the music. They didn't see how figured bass and German 6th chords applied to jazz improvisation or big band arranging. Well, first, nobody ever said that it did. If the student made that assumption, they are mistaken. After a couple years of this, the student could be forgiven for seeing it all as mostly a waste of time, or at least a very inefficient use of time. But I think the thing is that there is a mistaken assumption that the name "Music Theory" should describe what one should expect to learn while waiting for that 7:30 am coffee to kick in. Sorry, but as the Navy Seals say, "No Joy."

Consider the term Music Theory. All such classes are about music, but not all present what is properly described as theory. The traditional mandatory college variety is actually a historical summary of compositional practice during various areas of European music history. First semester is based on Bach chorale harmony, and so on. These practices are distilled into a set of rules. This is adequate for composers who seek information on how past composers did it, but is it logic based or merely historical? You could ask the same question to Economics professors, who basically teach what happened when governments and institutions manipulated national and global economies under various philosophies, and then present those results as economic theory.

Theory proper is a concept used by mathematicians, botanists, engineers and biologists to describe the playing field they are given before any thought of practice or practical applications occur. For a chemist, it starts with subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, elements, compounds, proteins, and builds from there into that which accurately describes the natural world. It is a description of what is, and that which shapes what is. Music theory can be that. Physics, vibration and waveform are at the bottom of the nature of sound, and it builds from there. But in music theory, nomenclature is a problem. Outdated nomenclature was derived not from a need to define the nature of organized sound, but as a part of a historical narrative. It permeates all musical thought, and obfuscates what we experience while trying to understand what is happening during a performance.

The only way to make a clean break from such entanglements is to jump out from under it and start over, without preconceptions, and develop your own insights. The goal is to free yourself from ambiguity and of supposed rules that do not stand up to analysis. You have to go your own way. Personal investigation of familiar material, looking for patterns, making mistakes, starting over, and a generally uneven, decidedly nonlinear path is par for the course. You wander through this jungle of sounds until you begin to sense that there is some kind of system out there where, in some way, the pieces fit. Then, once you have put yourself through this for a couple years, go on and study theory formally, because at that point you would have some context and some experience. Not every great musician understands this. But all great artists do.

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