Music Theory, Liberator or Great Destroyer?

Music has been evolving for as long as there has been language. At least that’s what some theorists think. A few think music is older than language and even facilitated the evolution of language itself.

mersennestarSince those long past days, music and language have continued to intermingle but have continued their development along separate paths. One of the main contributors to changes music has seen has been the music theorist.

Music theorists seldom reach the heights of adoration that composers and songwriters do, and I think that throughout history, they have been the most feared and hated of musicians, but they play a remarkably important role.

On the surface we might say that the music theorist simply follows the composer around and works to understand and explain the rules the composer followed to create her work. However, it’s more complicated than this.

On another level we might see the theorist as an oppressive force, setting down a series of rules that composers must follow. To destruction, some composers actually try following these rules, and this can be a creativity killer!

Finally, we come to what I think their most important role is – the archiver. They explore and document what composers do. This has a few different effects – some of which appear to be terrible.

First, by documenting, they drain the essence of spontaneity out of the compositional process, and I would argue that, at least in the short run, music may suffer. Composers, writing in a specific style, can easily fall into the trap of repeating old ideas. This is just part of the growth process.

Second, they reduce what we hear to a series of predictable events. This can kill the joy. When listening to a piece and hearing the chords you expect pass by, you lose interest because you remain unchallenged.

But, third, this all leads to a deeper understanding of the unofficial sonic boundaries we set for ourselves. After struggling with the rules, this drives some courageous composers to burst through those boundaries! This is how new styles and forms arise from the old. The documentarians, like the old map-makers, show us the territory we already instinctively know, helping us to also intellectually know it and preparing us for our journey into the sonic wild.

The caution should be placed on what we do with this knowledge. As we learn theory, many of us are, at least temporarily shackled by it. We need to understand that it’s a tool! It’s there to help us. We need to look at music theory as a map of what has been done and fight the misconception that it’s a documentation of the only realm of possibility. Zealots defend this idiotic notion to the detriment of many composers. Fight it!

I believe that music theory can be the destroyer, but only if we allow it. It is entirely our perception and understanding that will make it either a prison or a map to help us find greater creation.

6 responses to “Music Theory, Liberator or Great Destroyer?

  1. So called ‘theory’ is, in practice, a catalogue of the habits of prominent composers over the last 300 years or so. Theory is always one step behind practice, quite simply because a concept has to exist in order for a theorist to step in and formalize the results. As I state in the book, the overarching requirement is that music should demonstrate a clearly defined, strong, artistic purpose that the listener will recognize and respond to. In addition to this, music is a temporal art form, so that a composer cannot take a step back, as a painter can, to get a fresh view of the whole work. He or she needs specialized skills to control lengthy compositions as they evolve in time. Jazz is the ultimate example of a form of music that evolved from illiterate beginnings to become the powerful force we know today and we all have rock musicians to thank for encouraging the emancipation of the rhythm section.

      • Thorne, I’m looking for people to review my book on Amazon. It’s almost impossible to get magazine reviewers to respond unless you’re a mainstream publisher. Endless rave reviews ring alarm bells at Amazon, another reason I only expect frank opinions. I’d need a bricks and mortar address to send a free copy, if you agree, regards, John Morton.

  2. Yes, I suppose we should include Schoenberg’s system in with main line theory these days. (Relativity is part of classical physics now.) Thanks for your enthusiasm. Please let me know if you have any queries etc. If you DO read my book, I badly need someone to review it. Few people bother, otherwise I wouldn’t be asking. Honest opinions only!

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