Against music theory

I am mercifully finished with music theory in grad school and couldn’t be happier about it. You may find this surprising. My blog is full of music theory. How could a guy who enjoys thinking about music in analytical terms as much as I do have such a wretched time in my graduate music theory classes? It wasn’t the work, I mostly breezed through that. No, it was the grinding Eurocentrism. Common-practice period classical music theory is fine and good, but in the hands of the music academy, it’s dry, tedious, and worst of all, largely useless. The strict rules of eighteenth-century European art music are distantly removed from the knowledge a person needs to do anything in the present-day music world (except, I guess, to be a professor of common-practice tonal theory.)

The title of this post is a reference to the Susan Sontag essay, “Against Interpretation.” She argues that by ignoring the subjective sensual pleasures of art and instead looking for rigorously logical theories of its inner workings, academics are missing the point. She calls scholarly interpretation “the intellect’s revenge upon art.” I’m with her. Music theory as practiced at NYU and elsewhere is the intellectual’s revenge on music. Sontag’s punchline is right on: “[I]n place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” Speak it, sister!

Not everybody shares Sontag’s position. Louise Norlie points out that if Sontag is right, then “[i]nterpretation would be little more than a marvelous description of how a novel or a sculpture makes [elite audiences] feel.” But that’s the whole point. What is a theory of art if not an organized method of understanding the sum total of people’s tastes? Where do the rules of musical correctness come from if not from our collective whims? Theory might include some handy mathematical methods of describing those whims, but do our whims emerge out of the math? I don’t believe so.

Understand: I have nothing against music theory of a particular kind, the kind that’s descriptive of what people have found to sound good. A worthwhile theory teaches us specific skills: how to listen and understand, how to perform and interpret, how to compose and improvise new works. If you learn how to derive the modes and chords from the major scale, you gain a valuable toolkit for understanding and generating a lot of the sounds that Western people like. Same goes for an understanding of the circle of fifths, or the blues, or the backbeat.

Good music theories are descriptive, rather than prescriptive. They look for patterns and structures that have been found to work. They don’t define what’s acceptable and unacceptable. Bad theory is the basis for codifying arbitrary value judgments. The classical rule against parallel fifths is nonsensical if you play rock power chords, or traditional music from a variety of world cultures for that matter. The rule against parallel voicings generally would throw out all of rock and a sizeable chunk of jazz. Maybe it’s time to stop thinking of the classical rules as rules at all, and instead call them what they are: a guide to the subjective preferences of people in powdered wigs.


Scientific theories are valid only to the extent that they make predictions. But music theories deal with the vagaries of human preferences. We don’t know what we’re going to like until we hear it. Musical innovation is only possible when some inventive composer or improviser plays something “wrong” in a way that sounds right. A theory can be a coral reef for memes, a hospitable ecosystem for the proliferation of new music. A bad theory inhibits such inventiveness.

A lot of popular music is tonal, but a lot of it continually violates the rules of tonality. A quick scan through the songs on radio reveals unresolved tritones, parallel fourths and fifths, major and minor thirds freely intermingled, and so on. Blues and jazz in particular are exceptionally poorly described by the rules of common practice tonality. Yet blues-based music is not “atonal.” There are clear key centers, functional chords with associated scales, more and less dissonant embellishing notes. A good theory of tonality would be able to account for the blues.

Really, a good theory needs to be able to account for everything that people find gratifying. The parallel to scientific theories is necessarily limited. The rules of quantum mechanics or thermodynamics are universal and unvarying. But the rules of music are culturally contextual, and they evolve over time. When one of my theory professors played us an example of “bad” voice leading, moving an entire major chord in parallel up a whole step, the classroom lit up with pleasurable recognition — it sounded exactly like the opening phrase from “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles. If a classroom full of musicians likes something that’s “incorrect,” who’s wrong, the musicians or the rule?

There can be an empirical basis to music theory, but we should be aware of the limits of what we can know about human preferences. We may be able to discern trends and patterns in our tastes, but we can never make predictions or models with the precision of physical theories. I like Steve Dillon’s “extended aural perception” framework: we should consider the effect of music on the listener, and then examine the effectors that caused it. We can draw a circle around the most generalizable effectors and call them “music theory.”

A theory of music emerges from and defines an interpretive community. We are all members of the community that recognizes octave equivalency (along with rhesus monkeys.) We are pretty much all members of the community that likes combinations of the pitches derived from the overtone series. Mozart was in the community that doesn’t dig parallel fifths; Kurt Cobain was in the community that does. Music theory should really be a subdiscipline of ethnomusicology. Then maybe the classes would become a lot more useful.

16 thoughts on “Against music theory

  1. Just a few resources that I’ve found helpful in expanding my idea of “music theory.”

    Paul Hindemith “the Craft of Musical Composition”

    Vincent Perscietti “20th Century Harmony”

    James Knapp “Jazz Harmony”

    In addition to writings by Schoenberg concerning harmony and countless treatises on music and harmony written by people like Descartes, Keplar, St. Augustine, etc… even Plato wrote extensively on music.

    I guess my point is that there is so much more to theories of music than just 18th century voiceleading rules. Sounds like a curriculum problem more than a problem with the subject.

  2. Pingback: An Experiment in Criticism: in which I defend Western art music | Old World for the New

  3. Pingback: A Journal of Musical ThingsInteresting Read: Meshing Traditional Music Theory with Modern Pop Music » A Journal of Musical Things

  4. What a refreshing read. Many years ago I created a list of all of the possible structures of our ‘Equal Tempered’ scales and a dictionary of the first 8700 rhythm families to facilitate my exploration into ‘New Music’. Whilst I have had decades of fun playing around with these tools I have completely failed to attract any academic interest at all, it is as if the academic community thinks they have it all sown up.
    Whilst I am clearly out of the loop it seems obvious to me that music needs new tools to move forward and these tools are not yet in the hands of the academic community.

  5. Music Theory killed my interest in music it is something that those that can’t compose do to satisfy their own intellectual curiosity. Theorists are the equivalency of accountants in business. Don’t ask then to innovate, they can’t. True also of brilliant theorists: they can’t create new they can rehash existing. When I composed my 4 published pop songs, I followed rules I could no longer name and created new combinations of existing patterns, a lá Ralph Lauren. I found my theory classes USELESS. I found diagramming far more useful and it serves me well as a business process analyst.

  6. This blog is referencing Tonal (Trad/Classical) Harmony. Not expanding to Jazz Harmony, as an example, where Tritones exist due to music being Modal not Tonal. Parallel structures moving up is called Constant Structure and is a coveted move in the Jazz worlds and even Pop worlds.

    I went to Berklee. I studied Jazz, Tonal (Trad), Polytonal, Atonal, Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, other Modern Harmonies, Improv, etc. The art of all of these Theories is simple, they all intermingle and explain each other.

    I grew up playing piano by ear, and above all, that is what any composer or musician must trust, but it is ignorance to believe Theory, the understanding of Harmomy and the accumulation of knowledge-any knowledge-will somehow limit the mind to be freed up to creativity.

    All things inspire creativity. Biology, Theology, Musicology, so on and so forth. all things.

    Don’t blame Theory, blame your mind for not allowing that Theory to become a catalyst to your “free thinking” mind. Don’t forget, rules were meant to be broken. The Masters knew this, so must we.

    • It would be great if every music school was like Berklee, but Berklee is extremely unusual. I learned jazz harmony as an undergrad, and I agree, it was way more germane to all the different flavors of pop, rock, hip-hop and so on that I work with out in the world. But here at NYU, as at most music schools, jazz is a little island off the coast of the main music curriculum. It’s fine if you do jazz as an elective, but everybody in every music program here has to master classical theory (and history, and aural comprehension.) No one needs to be able to play the blues, or improvise, or any of the things that you and I would consider to be basic musicianship. It’s maddening. Nowhere do I suggest in the post that theory inhibits the most passionate and dedicated musicians from being creative. What it does do is scare away the people who aren’t already 100% devoted. That’s a bad thing. I want music to be like basketball or cooking, a thing that a normal person could be actively involved with in their everyday life. Right now, most music education is busy selecting the future professionals, and neglecting everyone else.

      • I agree! My criticism wasn’t for you in my response to your blog, because I understand what side of the isle you are coming from, but rather it’s more of a general criticism towards institutions that fail to acknowledge every era of music was proceeded by a new era ushering in new rules and fundamentals, and for someone who may read this blog and only find fault with fundamental and traditional teaching. Trust me, there were plenty of both of these types at Berklee! I’m grateful though, because the underlying current at the end of my education was essentially, “Trust Your Ear.” Which, every composer before us did. Beethoven, Bach even, trusted their ears above all else. The rules they fell subjective to were in part passed down from their predecessors, as you know, but in part what stylistically sounded good to the ear of that era. This changed when Debussy or Wagner were penning compositions. Then changed again with Charles Ives, etc. Music, Art, Culture and Architecture, all closely linked, progressed slowly.

        I hope our generation leaves a mark on music that is greater than twerking and What Did The Fox Say songs, but I think we’ll figure it out someday.

        I appreciate good dialog like this, thanks for blogging and making this discussion relevant!

  7. I would still rather be able to approach a keyboard having my cranium full of all the scales, chords and historical context than walk up to it knowing a smattering of scales and chords and having to noodle my way into discovering chords pleasant sounding sequences (the latter being my current state of skill, or lack therof). Pooh-poohing the privilege of having gained theory to the point of a master’s level degree is just utterly bizarre to me. Do you know how much better music would be if half the people pounding away on a sixteen square sampling controller actually bothered to get some sort of instruction?

    • I appreciate the privilege of all of my music theory, but I learned it as much in spite of my schooling as because of it. The reason there are so many people pounding away at their samplers without any instruction is that most of the instruction available is useless to the hip-hop and techno people. Chords and scales are useful to any musician. But a lot of us go to music class and listen to them talk about all these rules from the eighteenth century that are actually incorrect when discussing music of the present, using all this terminology that no one outside the classroom ever uses. You’d be right to walk away from such an experience feeling like you’re better off figuring stuff out on your own.

      Part of my mission as a music educator is to make music theory useful for practicing musicians, not just academics. So instead of a theory of music that’s presented as a set of rules to be followed, I present it as a set of useful guidelines for making sounds that have a predictable effect on people. It’s the way that my better music teachers taught me, and it works well. One of my favorite books is Music Theory for Computer Musicians by Michael Hewitt. He presents theory in a pragmatic way, couching examples in terms of the MIDI piano roll and following actual practice instead of classical “correctness.” If the sampler pounders were getting that book in school, they’d probably study it eagerly.

  8. Pingback: Teori eller ej? | Musikvidenskab i dag

  9. Hemingway understood this concept of relationships, Symbioticology. Please excuse the spelling as Siri and I can’t spell the correct word. If it even exist?

  10. One a personal opinion, The subjective is equally important, the rules are just a guide to forget about which usually takes about 8-10 years. To untwining process of oneself as to the objective knowledge, however if you like Bach, they you will understand it is a paradigm. Both must exist to create a balance whether conscience or subconscious… Structure and deconstruction have a symbiotic relationship. No?

  11. I saw one of these “rules” by John Cage recently that said something to the effect of, “Don’t try to analyze while you create. They are two entirely different functions of the brain.” This has been helpful to me in pushing past the boundaries of right and wrong that my theoretical education has established. Sometimes even the process of notating the music I write demolishes the mystery and quirkiness of something that I’m hearing. Frustrating, that.

    In a similar vein – I leave with you a quote by Hemmingway, “Write drunk. Edit sober.”

Comments are closed.