Angels, Dictators, and the Higher Purpose of Music Theory

I was playing an arrangement of a familiar melody, and the chords sounded stale. This made the melody sound weary.

Fortunately, the Music Theory Angel appeared over my left shoulder and said in a sweet, melodious voice, “My dear, why don’t you freshen up those stale triads by adding some seconds in the mid-range of the piano? That will greatly enhance their flavors.” I followed this polite and timely suggestion, and the arrangement instantly sounded so much better!

This little incident reveals the higher purpose (and the original purpose) of music theory: to expand musical options in times of need. To enlarge our sense of what is possible. To rescue us from the clutches of habituation and open our minds to the infinite horizon of expression. To inspire creativity.

But, alas, we live in the era of the A.P. Music Theory Book, at a time when music is often reduced to an intellectual exercise and taught without any meaningful connection to tonal worlds or to creative musical experiences. As a result of this sort of instruction (we can hardly call it “education”), music theory becomes abstract and uninformed, so it then constrains musical options rather than expands them. The Music Theory Angel is ruthlessly pushed aside by the Music Theory Dictator who commands, “You must do it my way because that’s how it’s been done. That’s all you need to know.”

If our goal is to foster creativity rather than mere intellectual comprehension and blind obedience, we have to intimately connect theoretic knowledge with both musical tones and creative impulses. But how? This is what I recommend: When introducing any scale or mode, play an accompaniment pattern and let the student CREATE melodies with the tones of the scale to experience its tonal characteristics and possibilities. Sometime afterward, name and conceptualize the experience. When introducing a new chord or interval, ask students to improvise or arrange or compose something with these chords, and intellectualize the experience later.

By taking this general approach, theoretical knowledge is artfully layered upon a rich foundation of creative musical experiences. This knowledge is then connected to both musical experiences and creative impulses, and becomes capable of widening the possibilities of musical expression rather than shrinking them. It’s all in how we teach.

blogForrest Kinney