Theory: Friend or Foe?

Music theory is the recognition of the patterns of which music is made: chords, scales, modes, intervals, and so on. Naturally, this subject plays an important role in the Four Arts of Music. And yet…

Music theory can be a creator’s friend or enemy. It is like a knife that can be used to prepare a delicious meal or to rob a bank. Its value depends entirely on how it is used. I have come to believe that music theory is often taught in a way that goes against both creativity and music.

I’d like to begin this exploration of music theory by telling four anecdotes that have shaped my attitudes about the tricky relationship between music and music theory.

Story One: “I Didn’t Know You Could Create Music with Them.”

I love to improvise music in various modes, particularly Lydian (my favorite, the brightest of scales) and Dorian (a lighter shade of minor). In many of my presentations, I give an impassioned plea for bringing the modes back into the limelight (why just major and minor?) and for creating fresh music with them.

Not long ago, a teacher came up to me after one of these presentations and said, “Thank you so much for your talk, especially the part about modes. I learned all about the modes in college, but I didn’t know you could create music with them.”

In that moment, I realized: That’s the problem with so much instruction! We learn “about” something, but the knowledge stays locked in solitary confinement in the brain. We don’t bring that knowledge to life. How sad that woman learned “all about” the modes, but wasn’t encouraged to make music with them. That’s like learning the names of various fruits, but never biting into one of them.

Story Two: “My Students Hate the Modes.”

After another workshop on modes, a piano teacher came up to me and said something that shocked me. She said (and I quote her nearly word-for-word because I asked her to repeat what she said into my voice recorder): “Around here, modes are only taught as an academic exercise for a theory exam. They are called the “church modes”—something done a long time ago, and maybe only on Sundays. There is no sound attached to them. It’s just an exercise that you do on paper. Every student says to me, “Why do we have to do this?” If my students do play them (as a pattern of tones and semitones, which is the way they are taught), they sound ugly. There is no beauty. There is no music. It’s just an exercise, just attaching names to a dusty, old, ugly pattern of tones and semitones. My students all hate the modes.”

My central goal as an educator is to awaken a lifelong love of music. And so, this sort of thing keeps me up at night, writing sentences such as the one you are reading!

I was so taken aback by the teacher’s comment that I didn’t say anything. As I sit here now, I want to say to this teacher and others: You care about your students, so if you are teaching in a way that they are learning to hate the materials of melodies, why do you keep teaching that way? What is more important than cultivating deep love? And what is worse than cultivating hate? Why not create powerful and striking music with the modes and replace hate with love, and ugliness with beauty?

Story Three: Teaching Music Completely by Rules

In my college years, I took a class on writing motets in the style of Palestrina. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was born 160 years before Bach. If a poll of music historians were taken, Palestrina would probably be voted the king of Renaissance polyphony, the one “most likely to succeed” at writing soundtracks for angels.

On the first day of class, the professor handed out four sheets of paper that were completely filled with 147 rules written in small type, each with its own number. The title at the top of the first page was Palestrina Traffic Code.

The course proceeded like this: First you wrote a melody while attempting not to break any of the 147 rules along the way. You then submitted your melody to the professor. This melody was returned at the beginning of the next class with numbers (13, 43, 88) written in red ink next to offending notes or sections. The numbers corresponded to the rules that you and your melody had broken. (I was, for some reason, particularly fond of breaking rule number 43.) You were then to rewrite your melody and resubmit it, and repeat this until you no longer committed any transgressions.

Once you were able to part the red sea of ink with a pure Palestrinaesque melody, you were allowed to add a second voice to the first. However, the toxic red tide would then return. You were then to wash that red tide away with a rewrite or two, and then add a third voice. Continue in this way until, eventually, you were able to write four simultaneous melodies without incurring an infraction from the Palestrina polizia.

This was a ten-week class that met for an hour every Tuesday and Thursday morning. In all that time, we didn’t listen to a single note of music. Not a single note! (Living in such a literate world, I keep forgetting—you can’t listen to a note, only a tone. A note is a visual symbol, while a tone is a sound. I should have said: Not a single tone!)

At the beginning of the course, I played my melodies on the piano, but after I had learned the rules (with the exception of 43), I was able to write motets without the help of my dear friend, the one with the wide, ivory smile. It was just like doing a mental puzzle. Some of us in the class became very quick at it. I was able to compose polyphonic music entirely in the deathly silent world of rules. I now wonder what these motets sounded like, but at the time, I had learned that the sound wasn’t necessary to write music. Imagine that! A music course in which sound isn’t deemed necessary and it’s all a matter of following 147 rules precisely!!

After all the amazing musical experiences I have had in the decades since that class, such an approach to music education seems unabashedly bizarre to me now. Not a single tone of music! A music course in which there was not even a suggestion that music might have something to do with sound or creativity!

Story Four: The End of Feeling

Once I was listening to an astonishing piece of music being performed by a college choir. The music built up to a searing climax. Quite unexpectedly, a thought popped into my head saying something like, “That’s a sharp eleventh being sung by the soprano.” In that moment, I exited my heart and went directly into my head. I lost the music and the emotion. A moment before, I could feel my heart breaking at the dissonance. Now I was engaged in a purely intellectual response. It’s as if I was using the theoretical thoughts to escape from the intensity of the emotions.

Music theory has a powerful role to play in a musician’s life. But, we have to know how to use it and when to shut it off! Thinking can interfere with the dynamic, immediate perception and creation of music. Music theory can be a powerful ally to a musician, but only if we are acutely aware of its domains and its limits.

Angels, Devils, and the Higher Purpose of Music Theory

Suppose I am playing an arrangement of a hymn or a folk tune, or perhaps a traditional Christmas carol. The chords sound stale to me, and they make the melody sound old and tired.

Puzzle piece and treble.png

At this point, the Theory Angel appears over my left shoulder (I’m making this part up!) and says in a sweet voice, “Why not add a second to those chords to fresh them up and enhance their flavor?” I try this, and this arrangement instantly sounds so much better!

This incident reveals the higher purpose of music theory: to suggest new musical options at times of need. To enlarge our sense of what is possible. To broaden our range of expression. To inspire creativity.

But, as I mentioned above, theory is usually taught with tests in mind, not art. As a result, it is taught in a way that shuts down musical options and suppresses creativity! At such times, the Theory Devil appears and commands, “You must do it this way because that’s the rule!”

As teachers of an art, we have to be vigilant about how we teach and use theory. Let’s use it to build a road into a creator’s paradise, not a creator’s prison.