Why I think music theory rules (but also kind of sucks)

Okay, so the title of this one may be a tad confusing, if not just a bit silly. But I do think it is apt, because that’s the best I can describe my feelings toward “Music Theory,” in it’s common sense.

The term itself is strange I think, first of all. I mean music theory seems as though it could possibly refer to so many different ideas and concepts. However, its usual meaning is an organization of musical concepts such as pitch, rhythm, and harmonic relationships, into a system; more or less it is a language. Or, more accurately, it is a new set of terms and rules to add into our own language the ability to accurately describe music and have other people understand what the hell you’re talking about. That’s the most important concept to understand when thinking about music in its theoretical terms… it is NOT a set of rules, but merely a common understood language. It is a tool for understanding and description of general, and specific musical ideas. In this capacity, knowledge of theory is wonderfully useful. As a musician, to be able to describe to other musicians what you are playing, or what you want them to play so easily and clearly is invaluable.

I think this is a fairly easy way to think of music theory, and without a doubt the most important in my point of view. However, there are other uses of these concepts, but to be appreciated properly, I think a bit more background is needed before they are introduced. Where theory came from (in a conceptual sense, rather than a geographical one) is immensely important. The ideas and terms related to music theory have been developed over hundreds of years, and have come about as a result of studying the past. From the tasks of studying, cataloging, and explaining the thousands of significant musical pieces written throughout history, certain patterns have emerged, then developed and expanded, and so on. The process of development between music theory and of actual music have been ongoing, and fluid. But the important point here is that theory is a result of music, and not the other way around. So the idea that theory is a bunch of rules is debunked right there. If you want proof, do a formal and harmonic analysis of any Beethoven symphony and tell me how well he follows the rules. If you are well taught and learned, you will likely be able to come up with theoretical explanations for the things he does, but its only because terms were invented to solve that very dilemma. If you were wondering, this is the area in which theory starts to suck pretty bad, when dealing with some beautiful piece of music like a Mozart sonata or one of Beethoven’s symphonies. In many cases, it becomes an exercise of near-futility to really make sense of it, and that’s because the truth is that when these pieces were being written, the composer wasn’t thinking much about theory, or so it would seem. It seems much more likely that they were doing¬†whatever the hell they wanted,¬†and, of course, what they thought might sound cool.

So there’s my big statement: composers composed what they composed because they thought it sounded cool. Of course they were informed, they had learned the theory relevant up to their time period in one way or another (although historically it was learned much more through practice than lecture,) and that does have to be taken into account. But if they were following guidelines, it was because they knew it would work for whatever part they were working on, and showed little hesitation in shaking things up. So, in that way, theory is very useful information. Being well studied, it can be quite handy to look at a passage and have a great idea as to how Handel or Mozart might have treated it. The problems set in when you use your knowledge of theory like a rigid framework and let the music serve it, instead of the other way around. Many “old-school” composers dislike the idea of composing within a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) environment, or a piece of notation software, because you are inherently limited by that software’s capabilities, or the methods which it may promote by its interface design. Holding too tight a grip on principles of music theory is no different.

As I’ve said of past topics, none of this is new. I think everyone figures all this out eventually, or I hope they do. Even the high-art types in the music scene embrace the breaking of the rules (but only if you know those rules ahead of time.) However, there isn’t enough emphasis put on the practical reasons for learning theory when you are actually being taught it, in many cases. I know that was the case for me, and it led to a lot of frustration. Learn it as a tool, a multifaceted one. Remember the doors it can open in communication, and the great inspiration it can provide. Just never use it to dictate how you treat a new musical piece. Unless you want to… I guess the most exciting point in all of this is do whatever you want (musically that is).