What's In The Theory?

I've recently seen some heated discussion on Twitter surrounding the importance (or irrelevance) of learning music theory in the pursuit of creating "good" music. Some argue that without a comprehensive understanding of music theory, it is not possible to create "good" music, whilst others argue that music theory education is not necessary, as evidenced by many a "good" musician who has freely admitted to not knowing much in the way of music theory. Like so many arguments, there are loud voices on two sides of a seemingly binary choice, whilst there's actually a tremendously wide, blurred line down the middle of this debate that really ought to be the topic of discussion.

Insider Information ;-)

Like many musicians, I earn my living from various types of work. One of my jobs is in education - post compulsory, age 16-19, "Further Education" (pre-university). On one hand I'm very much part of the established musical education culture we're discussing here, however this gives me an insider's perspective on the curriculum, the merits of studying theory as well as a number of reservations I have about established music education practices and ideas.

At the school where I work, I'm somewhat that music teacher! You know the one... The teacher that delivers the alternative and contemporary parts of the curriculum as opposed to the more conventional, classical and theory based curriculum content. This is where I'm most comfortable as I enjoy dabbling in the fringes of musical styles and don't shy away from going very off-piste from what the curriculum dictates. My aim is always to encourage an openminded and holistic view of acoustics, sound, tone, harmony, rhythm and most importantly emotion within music. This approach is heavily motivated by my reservations about the wider music theory curriculum which I'll discuss in more detail below.

But First: What is Good Music?

Before we discuss the music theory curriculum, we need to lay the discussion about what constitutes "good" music to rest. I'll keep this brief! What's "good" to you, might not be "good" to me and we're both equally valid in our opinions. Whether music is "good" or not is an entirely subjective matter of opinion and therefore a moot point. We might as well be arguing about our favourite colour or sexual orientation. We like what we like, whether it's simple and repetitive or complex and intricate. One man's rubbish is another man's treasure and all that jazz. Moving on...

12 Tones: A Shared Vocabulary

Arguably the strongest and most significant aspect of music theory is that it gives people a shared vocabulary through which they can easily and effectively communicate ideas. Whether it's notated sheet music, dynamic instruction, chord names, discussions about scales/modes, etc. In collaborative rehearsal and recording scenarios where time is usually money, efficient articulation of ideas through the shared medium of music theory is key to maximising the limited time available and thus making the best of the situation. I believe this is without doubt an extremely positive thing.

Legacy: A Tale of Twelve Tones

Music theory as most of us know it (or think of it) stems from structures, principles and practices put in place by white Europeans over the last 500 years or so. It's built around the 12-tone diatonic scale, in which an octave (or doubling of a frequency) is divided into 12 incremental steps. Melodies and harmonies are constructed from these notes. From birth, we (in the west) are subjected to music created using this 12-tone diatonic scale and so our ears are conditioned to these intervals. This means that when we hear someone play a scale on a piano or a guitar, it just sounds correct.

Colonialism and globalisation has made the diatonic system the dominant music system used across the planet. Whilst this gives the entire world a shared vocabulary it can sometimes leads to entrenched mindsets of superiority and importance. Furthermore, like any entrenched opinion, it draws out the polar opposite opinion in some that has the potential to actively discourage learning any theory at all, which in turn risks deprivation of personal and artistic growth.

I'm sure many a musician reading this will have come across musicians who say things such as "I don't want to learn theory, it will stunt my creativity". I don't agree with this idea, as I firmly advocate knowledge and learning in all scenarios, however I understand why people might say such a thing. The diatonic system comes with a great deal of form and structure that can lead creativity down tried and tested paths (that arguably lack originality). Couple this with the aforementioned elitism that diatonic music education culture can sometimes be guilty of and you've got yourself a perfect storm for anti-intellectualism within music.

One System to Rule Them All...?

The diatonic musical system is actually just one system (or language) in a world that is steeped in rich and diverse musical cultures. Many cultures from the middle/far East, the Africas and South Americas have more complex tonal systems that will utilise more than 12 divisions of an octave. In European Classical music theory, these forms of music are often regarded as "Microtonal" and/or "World Music" (which as a term, I detest). "World Music" or "Microtonal Music" might be offered as a class or unit within a degree that otherwise largely focuses on the 12-tone musical system of white, European music. The irony here is that microtonal music is arguably far more complicated and challenging to study, yet it's glossed over as a minor/optional class in maybe one semester.

There is a deeper discussion that could be had here about the politics (and whitewashing) of music history, as well as the hubris of building an entire music-education institution and industry around only teaching a very narrow snapshot of human musical history. As fascinating as it is, I don't want to get into the politics of that issue right now and want to focus solely on what conventional music theory education (as we know it) does and does not give us.

The Frequency Spectrum & The Limitations of The Diatonic Scale

The human ear is capable of hearing approximately between the frequencies of 20Hz and 20,000Hz (20KHz).

Plainly speaking, there's no reason why this entire range shouldn't be fair game for music making. It's really only a matter of convenience (and colonialism) that the 12-tone diatonic scale has become so widely adopted. By learning music solely based on the diatonic principles of European classical music, we are depriving ourselves of an enormous portion of what we as humans are physically capable of hearing.

Something else to consider is that the human ear does not hear this range in a linear fashion. Far from it! We are extremely sensitive in some areas, and rather insensitive in other areas. Furthermore, this sensitivity varies depending on how loud the sound source is.

This is deeply linked to biology and evolution and it should come as no surprise that we've evolved to be finely attuned to certain frequencies. For example, the frequency range occupied by the human voice and the frequencies where we're alerted to danger; most notably the kind of hissing noise a snake or dangerous insect might make.

Ever wonder why high-frequency white noise sweeps in EDM heighten your excitement and anticipation for the drop? Perhaps that's our evolutionary alertness to hissing sounds? This is just one example, but there is a great deal of interplay between sound, biology and psychology that goes far beyond the typical constructs present in conventional music education.

12-Tone Scale: A Philosophical Construct

I've discussed the above ideas with many musicians, and it is always somewhat of a revelation to them. They may have touched upon these ideas, but never explored them in depth or detail. For example, at no point in their education had they studied realtime frequency-spectrum analysis (the kind of visualisations that software EQs give you) to better understand both their instrument's harmonic picture and how it relates and interplays with the wider world of human hearing (not just other instruments in the orchestra!).

The frequency spectrum in conventional music theory is often taught from the point of view of: "This is the frequency spectrum and this is where musical instruments sit within it. Moving on...".

I don't believe that sufficient discussion is had on the topic of frequencies (and harmonics) and their relation to emotion, feeling, real-world, relatable sounds, scenarios, etc.

This is just one instance where I believe conventional music theory falls short. I've experienced substantial disconnect between what's learned in the classroom and the day-to-day realities of sound, acoustics and sonic behaviour. The emphasis given to the diatonic system and musical instruments found in the orchestra is almost baffling. Students are often conditioned to think in terms of instruments and not harmonic texture, yet sound is not the diatonic scale and orchestral instruments, and therefore neither should music be all about the diatonic system and orchestral instruments.

This is where experimental composers, aided by the development of computing and sampling technologies have been able to blur the lines between what constitutes sound and what constitutes music. By taking non-musical sounds and creating music with them, be it atonal or diatonic, this experimentation explores ideas of what lie between the pillars of convention and subvert what music theory would suggest is "good". Frustratingly, this sort of work is often regarded by establishments as quant or novel, (a form of snobbery, which is a debate for another time!).

Conclusion (of sorts)

As discussed earlier in this article, music theory can be a very helpful tool that provides a group of people with a shared vocabulary through which they can work with greater efficiency. However, it is most certainly not an end-game or be-all and end-all right of passage for every musician and the issue largely boils down to what kind of a musical journey an individual is on as to whether or not they should endeavour to pursue a conventional music education.

Conventional music education is more akin to learning a methodology coupled with a dialect or slang. As mentioned, the downside is that like so many dialects and slangs, it can fall victim to becoming a means of gatekeeping, whereby those who speak it consider themselves more enlightened, worthy or validated in respect to their endeavours/disciplines compared to those who don't speak it.

What's important to keep in mind is that learning established music theory is like learning a language. To be educated in one language does not make you a master of all languages. To be educated in diatonic musical theory does not make you a master of all forms of music.

Should You Learn Music Theory?

Well... Perhaps! It's a question of what your creative goals are and whether music theory will be in any way a help to you. It's more than likely it will however, so despite the shortcomings of the diatonic system, you probably want to at least have some understanding and awareness of how it works.

I think what's more important is that whether you're pro-education or an anti-intellectual, you should at least try to learn the principles and theories that underpin what you're attempting to achieve. That may be diatonic theory, it might be how to use a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and/or synthesisers and samplers (likely a bit of both). Whatever it is however, learning more about it will aid you in reaching your short and medium term goals.

Perhaps the more important question to ask is:

Will Learning Music Theory Make Me a Better Musician?


That's not to say you shouldn't learn theory, it's more that if you believe the theory you learn at school or university to be everything music is about, you're going to have a hard time being inventive and original in your creative output.

A problem I encounter at work is the misconception among students (and their parents) that learning music is akin to a tick-box exercise or driving test; learn the theory, pass the exam, now you're a musician. Sorry, it doesn't work like that!

This is why I dislike the notion of earning grades in your instrument. I know grade 8 pianists who are very weak musicians and struggle with anything outside of their grade exam repertoire.

To be a musician is a lifestyle choice in many respects and you can make that lifestyle work for you whether you're conventionally schooled or not. Keep in mind that to truly learn about music isn't a matter of studying one discourse or methodology in a textbook and it doesn't stop when you leave school or graduate. Honestly, your schooling is just pre-flight preparations. The real stuff starts when you leave school or university.

I'd recommend that if/when you study diatonic musical theory, always keep in mind that you're only learning one methodology; one discourse in a world of diverse and complex musical palettes. You need to take responsibility for your own knowledge (or lack there of) and seek out forms of music not covered in the syllabus. It's there that you will really cut your teeth and delve into creative ideas that you had never imagined. It's serious stuff and it's rarely in the syllabus!

Also... While you're learning music, learn about sound engineering and how to use a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Learn about the frequency spectrum, effects, synthesis (especially FM synthesis) and sampling. This knowledge will pay dividends later in your career. Conventional music theory is deeply intertwined with the modern technology, which has the potential to blow conventional ideas wide open. Current education structures are yet to fully and effectively marry these worlds, preferring still to disconnect the two somewhat, offering one or the other instead combining them in their delivery.

Frankly, just don't ever stop learning outside of the syllabus! Keep an open mind about music and sound. Do it in what ever way works best for you, be it socially, at school, at university, reading books, watching YouTube tutorials and video essays, etc. Just keep on keeping on, safe in the knowledge that you don't know everything and never will, and that's okay. That's where it's most fun!

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