Music Theory 000.1 – Part 1

This started as a single post, but as I wrote it became apparent that this needs to be a series—perhaps a short one—of shorter, easier-to-read posts. So you’re only going to get incomplete chunks of what I have to say on this topic, until this series is done and can be read all the way through.

The topic of the series is “Understanding How Music Works: ways in which traditional Music Theory misses teaching key underlying things, and what they may be.”

Albert Einstein is quoted to have said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” This is, in part, an attempt to understand certain musical truths well enough to explain them simply, and in a way that might be helpful to others, whether you’re a veteran or you’re venturing into music for the first time.

And for this first post, I’ll discuss…

My Issues With Traditional Music Theory

The way I’ve seen it done, we teach “music theory” here as if our theories and models of how music works are Reality. Well folks, there’s some fundamental dissimilarities between how we understand things like gravity, evolution, and general relativity versus things like how humans perceive sound as music.

And I’ve referred to what the dissimilarity is, right there. In other sciences we create models about phenomena that we can observe and measure; in music theory, we make up explanations for why people perceive sounds the way they do, and for how they organize and understand them. It’s experiential.

For physical sciences like chemistry and climatology, you can make models that do a good job explaining the stuff you actually see happen, use them to reliably predict more stuff that’s going to happen, and come to a broad consensus (among people studying these things) about which model(s) are the best explanations. But when we apply that same thinking to understanding a human being’s experience of organized sounds and silences (one definition of “music”), we fall into a trap.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it’s Inaccurate. It’s not even Wrong, quite. No, it’s even Useful. But I believe it gets in the way of really understanding music, and it does so because it’s Not Understood For What It Is.

Scientific theories are not “hunches,” they are rigorously-tested frameworks for understanding something. They’re more like “facts.” But theories in Music Theory are treated like facts when they are actually more like good, practical, working guesses about what’s going on. More like the meaning of “theory” that most people think, which would be closer to the word “hypothesis” to a trained scientist. Or, like the Pirate Code, “they’re more like guidelines, anyway.”

And that’s the set-up. In my next post, we’ll get down to throwing out some concepts, so that in a subsequent post we can take some fresh looks.

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One thought on “Music Theory 000.1 – Part 1

  1. Wonderful post, Amado! I like how you qualified “consensus” That’s one of many misunderstandings people have regarding scientific theory. I also appreciate how you differentiated music theory from scientific theory, i.e. that the former is experiential or subjective. Looking forward to the next rant.

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