The Problem with the Term "Music Theory"

Music Theory. You will forgive me for turning, as I always do in moments of intellectual want, to my Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, which defines the word "theory" as, and we quote, "The analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another." My friends, few words offer as much rational solace as does the word "theory." Examining the plausibility of a theory demands that we analyze facts, reason logically, think objectively, and examine comprehensively. Having done so, we will assumably arrive at a conclusion that is the end product of a process of scientific method, which is itself defined as, "Principle and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses." Ergo, if something is a theory, it is knowable. It's something we can study. It's something we can learn. It's something that is explicable. It's something that is rational. The theory of relativity. The theory of evolution. Game theory. Complex, yes, but concepts that can be understood, compartmentalized, absorbed, and digested.

Music Theory, implied in that compact and oh so innocent-sounding phrase is the idea that there is a knowable, graspable, all-encompassing set of truisms that, once understood, compartmentalized, absorbed, and digested, the very essence of music will stand revealed, it's various elements and expressive content united int oa singularity the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Wrong. Speaking for myself, I dislike the phrase "Music Theory" almost as much as I dislike the phrase "Music Appreciation." What we call "theory," what we call "Music Theory" is in reality a huge and varied syntax, a syntax that deals with the various ways sounds can be arrayed across time to create a musical experience. We don't grasp musical syntax the way we grasp facts and the analysis of the facts. Rather we first learn to distinguish different sonic and temporal phenomenon. Then we come to understand how those phenomenon are interrelated; after which, we can begin to understand how and why we perceive structural integrity and expressive meaning in a given section of music.

Learning musical syntax is very much like learning a language. We start with the rudiments and every so slowly accumulate understanding and insight as we comprehend that language in evermore sophisticated ways. The phrase "Music Theory" implied that there is a science of music, a set of rules and regulations of absolute rights and wrongs that govern what composers can and cannot do as they create a piece of music. Wrong again.

In reality, Music Theory, like music itself, is an art and not a science. Something much more akin to language, with all its idiosyncrasies, quirks, eccentricities, and inexplicable idioms than it is a "body of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method," which is how my web.col defines "science."


"Theory" implies facts and scientific understanding through observation and testing. Music is an art, filled with idiosyncrasies, and no hard rules.

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 Understanding the Fundamentals of Music
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Greenberg , Robert (2007), Understanding the Fundamentals of Music, Retrieved on 2013-01-29
  • Source Material []
  • Folksonomies: music music theory


    29 JAN 2013

     Critical Theory is an Art, Not a Science

    Summary of Postmodernism > Concession > The Problem with the Term "Music Theory"
    Critical Theory and Postmodernism frame themselves as science with absolutist position that there are no absolutes and all knowledge is subject to relativity. Robert Greenberg's explanation of why "Music Theory" is not theory, but art, serves as an excellent retort to the postmodernist intellectual snobbery.


    29 JAN 2013

     The Two Cultures

    Memes concerning science and art, how they approach reality, how they are different, and how they are similar.
    Folksonomies: science art two cultures
    Folksonomies: science art two cultures