Monday, October 17, 2011

Music Theory

Now those are two words to send half my readers into a deep sleep and the other half into an anxiety attack! But music theory, looked at in the right way, is absolutely fascinating. Metaphorically speaking it is grammar, plot and pacing. It helps us figure out why something is working. As a composer, when I listen to a piece of music it usually either grabs me or doesn't. Sometimes it takes a while to grab me. Or after a while, I realize it no longer grabs me. But the reasons why are often mysterious. I don't say that theory can always figure it out; but sometimes, often, it can.

The thing is that we need a lot of different theories, but what we have, mostly, is a pretty well developed theory that deals with music from about 1600 to 1900. This we call the 'common practice' period and our theory is largely based on the music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and extends to roughly fit the music of Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, Wagner and Mahler. Before Bach, we try to look at things a bit historically, taking our cue from theoretical treatises of the time. But the workings of modal counterpoint and harmony are not as clear to us as we would like. Since 1900 what we have are a lot of manifestos and propaganda about various progressive or avant-garde composers' methods. They are biased by the needs of promotion so not terribly useful. In the case of, for example, serialism, the theory is really a workshop in how to construct a piece, but is of little use in trying to decide whether the piece is successful or not. I think that valuations are a significant goal of theory. We can certainly use theory to investigate why, say, a particular piece by Beethoven has the kind of effect it does. We should be able to do so with a piece by Webern, if we had a workable theory. But I don't think we do. Vector analysis is not really that helpful as it seems it is neutral between a very good piece and a very bad piece. Yes, I believe that modernism produced quite a number of very bad pieces and it would be interesting to talk about how and why.

I don't think that any music is beyond being examined critically and theoretically, though not all music is worth the effort. But, given a significant repertoire, whether it be of Indian ragas, Javanese gamelan, mbira from Zimbabwe, motown from Detroit or pop from Liverpool, we ought to be able to look at it and see how it works. Same should be true of Ives, Partch or Cage. Though I can see a lot of headaches in the attempt! Heck, I would be happy if someone would figure out how some of Shostakovich's or Stravinsky's music works. Yes, I know that there are various attempts, but a lot of them seem rather unconvincing. It took a long time to really come to understand the Beethoven late quartets, I'm sure it will take just as long to figure out what is happening in the Shostakovich symphonies.

For example, I don't think you can just explain away this piece, the first movement of Shostakovich's 9th Symphony, by calling it "extended tonality". I think you really need to figure out the structure and talk about things like how and why the little duet between piccolo and trombone is so funny. Shostakovich was a funny guy, not the least because he decided to make his 9th Symphony so comic, going against the long tradition, started by Beethoven, of making one's 9th Symphony particularly portentous.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that good music theory includes aesthetic judgment.


Joseph Parr said...

Hello Bryan,

I would like to start by saying: Fantastic blog! You have shown me many things that I have not been aware of. I didn't know what a sub/mediant was for God's sake!

However, this is why I am commenting. Are you aware of any books that clearly detail music theory for beginner-intermediate sort of level that I can start to grapple with? (Based on the above example I may be a beginner). I am suffering from the conundrum of being paralyzed by choice and I am not aware of what would be the best.

If you can get back to me that would be great.

Thanks, Joseph

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Joseph and welcome to the Music Salon. Thanks for the kind words!

There are two basic kinds of books on music theory: ones on rudiments or basic materials and college-level ones. Here is one for absolute beginners on Amazon that looks suitable (though I haven't looked through it):

At the college level one text seems to be the bible. I have used this one myself and it is very thorough (and expensive):

I have put up a few posts on the blog introducing people to the basics of reading and theory:

You will find more posts if you type "music theory" into the search engine on my blog on the right hand side.

Good luck!