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A Confession…Music Theory Sucks

I need to get something off my chest: I hate music theory. Maybe hate is too strong a word. Don’t scientists consider a “theory” to be the highest order of proof? How can you prove music, and why would you try?

This is a rambling preamble to an upcoming post on my jazz composition blog, Professorscosco.

Music “theory” attempts to prove why things sound good, why chords work, why things that our ear naturally hears provide richness, gratification, tension, resolution, all the things that make music happen. But Bach didn’t know music “theory” (he invented the rules of 4-part choral-style writing, seemingly without realizing it). Yet to theorists, he followed the rules, like don’t double the bass in first inversion unless it’s in the soprano voice (where it really shouldn’t be), but do in second inversion. That’s a great rule BTW, and always sounds great–Dr. Borwick at Eastman hipped me to it.

It turns out that our modern theorists friends discerned the rules, and passed them onto we innocent students. So for many of us, when we sit down and face the blank page, we think backwards. We reflexively ask ourselves: “what are the rules, and what can do within the confines of their strictures?”

Not that it’s bad to be aware of rules, they really work, especially when you’re on deadline. But modern harmony is different. We have no rules, and in fact, the tradition of jazz and modern classical music is to stretch and break the rules. Music theory is obsolete.

Maybe in a century some theorists will reverse-engineer modern harmony and make up some rules with which to torment their students. It hasn’t happened yet, for today the only rule is the rule of your ear: if it sounds good, it is good. Let’s enjoy it while we can. In my composition blog I don’t talk about music theory because I want to make or break rules, I just write what “I hear” (to use a hackneyed expression). I’m also attempting to perhaps pass on some wisdom from the trenches; I know that many composers are struggling to work outside the box. I never think about theory when I write, but I do like to go back and figure out why something sounds good, or not. That after-the-fact process for me, is, not theory, it’s reality.

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  • Gordon Shmoolavitz on

    Whenever I try to learn theory all it does is leave me so frustrated and depressed because I cant string together a sequence of fucking chords that I end up “quitting” for weeks at a time.Theres so much to learn that trying to memorize all of it is like trying to memorize every symbol of the chinese kanji.

    It sucks the fun out of music, makes me feel unaccomplished and makes me want to quit playing music altogether.

    Music theory makes want to kill myself.

    • Scott Healy on

      Yes! That’s because you don’t “learn” theory, you learn music, then maybe look at theory to expand, or to at least be able to share ideas with others.

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