Saturday, June 03, 2006

Practicing theory

Checking up on a few Wikipedia music theory articles, I found a few discussion pages where articles were critiqued for not representing "standard music theory". While the articles in question may well have had some genuinely unorthodox aspects or even contained the -- in Wikipedia forbidden and dreaded -- "new research", this line of criticism hung, however, behind the great fig leaf of music education, the notion that there is a "standard music theory". In practice, most of what is called "music theory", even well into a university-level education, is, in fact getting command of notation and some terminology, with the goal in the best cases of attaching that notation and terminology onto real sounds as an useful ancillary to performance and perhaps some composition. Few students are made explicitly aware of the diffences between music theory as an analytic or synthetic activity, and many students are confused by the relationship between the physics of musical sounds, the perception and cognition of musical sounds, and the cultural construction known as music theory. Further, very few music students leave even a graduate education with any understanding of the breadth of music theory, whether as analytic theory (concerned how existing works of music were put together, are heard, and possibly what they "mean") or as speculative theory (concerned with how works of music might be put together or heard).

I am at best, a casual theorist (besser auf Deutsch: Teilzeitmusiktheoriekonsument), but I have found theory to be useful and even essential to my odd combination of interests, and admire serious music theory as an intellectual pursuit with depth, relevance, and unexplored potential. Writing now as a trained ethnomusicologist who has closely observed theorists in the wild, allow me to offer three observations about the practice of music theory:

(1) Music theory is parochial. Music theory is sometimes practiced within national boundaries, sometimes within networks of theorists or institutions. Comparing the best selling harmony books in Hungary, Austria, Germany, France, Russia, or the US can be a startling experience. The premises and the notations can be wildly different. (This has very practical professional consequences: without recognizing the boundaries or networks, is may be difficult for a musician or scholar to make contacts or advance professionally. Tangentially relevant aside: In my own case, I think I aced the music GRE because I happened to notice that the chair of the Music GRE Board at the time was a Berlioz scholar. Sure enough, at least one of the 100 questions had to do with Berlioz; whether or not Berlioz was worth 1% of an exam attempting to cover music theory and history with at least token references to non-western and popular music was besides the point, which was: knowing something about Berlioz is worth something on this test).
(2) Music theory is provisional. The nature, extent, and limits of music are not known, and it is far from known what criteria would a "final theory" of music would have to fulfill. We are probably stuck for the foreseeable future in the state of waiting for better theories to come along. This is an active area of research but at any given time, it has probably been explored more thoroughly through innovative composition rather than theory.
(3) Competing theories of music do not neccessarily contradict or invalidate one another. They may complement one another, filling in each others' lacunae, or tracing the alternative paths in a music which is, in fact, ambiguous, or, in many cases, they may be equivalent, alternative ways of describing the same phenomena. While there may be some institutional power to be had in forcing the hegemony of a single theory or complex of theories, I remain persuaded that having as many theoretical tools available as possible is both more sustainable intellectually, and more humble in the face of the complexity of music.


Scott Spiegelberg said...

Shh, the herd might notice you and stampede.

Daniel Wolf said...

Don't be pessimistic: the herd is captive.

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Heh, that is true. Just don't pull a Cheney on us. To go serious for a second, your comments are very astute. I would say that there is such a thing as bad theory: 1) theory based on faulty logic or faulty assumptions, 2) theory that repeats what someone else has already said, and 3) theory that obfuscates.

lprcycle said...

There's a huge difference between "new research" and an incorrect, erroneous, and insufficient understanding of "orthodox" music theory, an academic and intellectual standard which does, in fact, exist.