The Philosophy Of Music Theory

One of the most misunderstood concepts out there is that of music theory.  Go tell a bunch of different music teachers “I want to learn music theory.” or “What is music theory?”.  Chances are every one of them will approach answering it differently depending on their background and depth of knowledge on the topic.

When I was the head guitar instructor at Store4strings here in Tampa I had a dozen teachers that I supervised.  I interviewed countless others, most of which were nothing more than hobbyists that thought they were so good that they could teach.  Part of the interview process was I would play the role of the student and they would have to teach me.  When I got to the question “Show me some music theory.” there was always something interesting coming my way.  It was a trick question and you wouldn’t believe some of the answers I got.  One of the most difficult yet mildly entertaining things out there is to listen someone explain something, with complete confidence that they know what their talking about, and be completely wrong.

Among some of the most retarded things were people showing me a scale or mode, teaching how to read music, talking about composers for five minutes until I stopped them, showing me a classical song and the weirdest of all was showing me how to play “Iron Man” using the harmonized scale jazz style.  If anyone ever claims they can teach you about music theory and throws that stuff at you run far and run fast.

The point is that you can’t “know music theory.”  You can know about music theory, understand music theory, or find usefulness of your knowledge of music theory. It may seem like I’m being picky about semantics here but there is an importance to this because its about grasping a CONCEPT, not facts.  If you want to learn about music theory then you need to seek out someone who knows about it, understands it and can demonstrate its usefulness.  This is what I call the “philosophy” of music theory.

So lets start at the beginning. By definition a concept is a broad abstract idea or a guiding general principle.  A philosophy is a particular system of thought or doctrine with guiding or underlying principles: a set of basic principles or concepts underlying a particular sphere of knowledge.

With that knowledge we can easily dismiss statements that novice music theory snobs will make.  Things like “Rock makes no sense because it doesn’t follow the rules of music theory.”, “You need to know music theory to learn classical music.” or “Jazz players use modes so they are better.”  These are just a few of the ones on off top of my head right now.  These are ridiculous statements from stupid people.

Lets take those ideas as examples now and put things in the right perspective.

First, the assumption that music theory is a set of rules to follow therefore rock doesn’t make sense?  Music theory is NOT a set of rules.  People who think that have it completely backwards.  Music came first.  Later when musicians needed a way to communicate accurately their ideas to one another they came up with set of terms to describe it.  These terms cover things like, but not limited to, dynamics (loud / soft), note and pattern relationships (intervals, phrases, scale sequences, etc), Harmony (chords), and form (the layout of a composition as divided into sections, like verses and choruses in rock).

Therefore we can analyze a rock song, or any piece of music, and describe whats going on with it using music theory’s set of terms.  You see this all of the time in guitar magazines.  Sometimes if it sounds good it is good.  Music theory serves the purpose of analyzing why it is good and that analysis is helpful for describing the music.  Take an analysis of Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher” for example.  I doubt Eddie Van Halen was thinking about music theory when he wrote it.  We can use music theory to analyze it and put terms to the musical events that occur so that all musicians can universally understand them.

Next consider the idea that “knowing music theory is a prerequisite to learning some styles of music” and take classical music as an example.  That’s outrageous.  I’ve joked with my classical students that you can train a chimpanzee to play classical music.  Just give it a banana every time it plays something right.  Pretty soon it will play a whole piece note-perfect.  I’ve learned to play plenty of classical pieces and execute them flawlessly without analyzing them one bit.  You can learn to do anything technique-wise just by practicing it over and over.  Its no surprise that classical musicians are known to be prideful for their dazzling technique when confronted with comparisons to music theorists.  When I studied classical guitar performance in college we had a joke: “Don’t fail your performance finals or you’ll end up being a theory major!”

But lets not overlook the fact that knowledge of music theory will definitely help you learn any piece of music more quickly. By analyzing the details within the overall form of a piece you become more aware of what is really happening musically.  If you really pick it apart you may find yourself memorizing it without much rehearsal.  Putting in a little time for analysis will save you tons of time in trying to learn a piece by “brute force”. (That is my term for endless repetition.)

As far as analysis goes, classical music accommodates it.  I believe this is probably due to classical music’s close relationship to music theory as both evolved.  As a genre, it is so accommodating that it in some instances it almost looks like the music adheres to a set of rules or patterns that are inherent in theory.  I think that’s where the misunderstanding that music theory is a set of rules that must be adhered to when composing finds its root.  Again, music theory is not a set of rules.

The conclusion to be drawn is that knowing about music theory isn’t necessary for playing a piece of music well, regardless of genre.  It can however make your understanding of it deeper and help you memorize it more quickly. This is one reason that learning about music theory is advantageous.

Now lets explore the assertion that “Jazz players use modes so they are better”.  Different styles of music require different applications of music theory.  In jazz knowledge of modes is mostly necessary for soloing over sometimes complex harmonic structure.  That’s why jazz players are so into modal theory.  This gives them insight to the concept of music theory but does not necessarily make them better.  There are centuries of tradition, history and formality in classical music so does that make people who study classical music better?  Rock players sell millions of albums, have more work, and are paid more.  Does that make them better?

Its a shame to see that players that come from different backgrounds are always appealing to music theory to elevate themselves above their peers.  They say they know so much yet they haven’t noticed that other styles are analyzed using the same set of terms?  This is a failure to recognize that music theory is a concept at all.  Its like saying you know everything about nothing.

The conclusion to remember is that music theory is a philosophy and concept that can be explored.  This exploration involves study and application.  You will find that the more you find out, the more there is to be found. That is the basis for equality across musical styles.  The act of discovering leads to true understanding.  Understanding what you are trying to play will increase your rate of learning it technically.  With all this in mind, it becomes clear that knowledge of music theory will make you a more effective musician, which is probably your goal in the first place.