What's music theory?
And why are we learning it?
In my experience, these questions are rarely addressed in college classrooms. Maybe on the first day of class, there might be a few introductory words exchanged, but in general we just hop right to the task of learning facts, examining materials, discussing ideas, and acquiring skills.
In fact, when I've asked my students at New York University and Brown University why they signed up for music theory, the answer was nearly always a non-sequitur: "I need this class to fulfill a requirement." I mean, that answer is not irrelevant – graduating is important – but such an answer reveals that the students haven't actually thought very deeply about what they're learning and why it's worthwhile to learn. And chances are, their professors haven't been regularly encouraging them to do so.
Why so meta?
Knowing why we're learning music theory makes it relevant.
Knowing why we're learning music theory gives us a sense of purpose and drive.
Knowing why we're learning music theory inspires our curiosity and our creativity.
Knowing why we're learning music theory helps us remember things better, because we want to remember things better... and not only for the sake of our grades.
Knowing why is important. Not because your teacher tells you "here's why it's important," but because you individually, on a deep, emotional level, really believe it's important. That deep understanding is not something you can gain by simply parroting what a teacher or textbook informs you of. It comes through deep introspection, through discussion, and not just once but regularly throughout your studies.
But what is music theory???
The trouble is that many of us can't even articulate what music theory is in the first place, let alone why we're learning it.
And the more we learn, the more our understanding of what music theory is can change.
And the more our understanding of what music theory is changes, the more our reasons for learning it can change, as well.
As our knowledge grows, so do we... or, at least, we should...
So this semester, I'm going to try something that I haven't done before. I'm going to regularly challenge my students, throughout the semester, to evaluate and re-evaluate what they think music theory is and why they're excited to learn it. Social media will play a crucial role in that process.
First class: What is Music?
This is why, on the very first day of class, I devoted our entire session to debating the meaning of the word "music." If you didn't read my blog post about that class, check it out. How can we know what music theory is, if we don't even know what music is?
Spending a full hour debating what "music" is may seem trite, or even laughable. But it gets us to think critically. It gets us to look inward and challenge our previous ideas and beliefs. And it sets the stage for further reflection in the weeks and months to come.
First Homework: What is Music Theory?
Now that we've had two weeks of classes, I gave my students the following assignment:
Watch the following four YouTube videos. They talk about what music theory is and why it’s important to study, but each from a different perspective. Write a one-page essay explaining what you agree and disagree with in each video, what you personally think music theory is, and why you personally think music theory is important to study.
In hindsight, I probably should have assigned a fifth video as well, by Dr. Kate Sekula, which offers the most traditional academic conception of music theory: "the study of the structure of music, [... which means learning] how to identify and describe all of the elements that make musical sounds happen." In this PowerPoint-style video, Dr. Sekula explains the five fundamental components of music theory – melody, harmony, rhythm, form, and texture – and how understanding these elements can help us to better perform, compose, arrange, teach, and talk about music. Check it out below - it's well worth the three minutes:
Nour Sharif's video has a similar focus, explaining over 15 ways that understanding the basic rules and principles of music theory can help us to better make, hear, discuss, and think about music:
Not Right Music expands this rule-based conception of music theory beyond the realm of classical music, and even beyond musical notation. Defining music theory as "the rules that make a style what it is," he argues that every genre has its own unique music theory. Pirate metal has its own music theory. Polka has its own music theory. Chance music has its own music theory. Even if we don't typically think of a particular genre as having "rules" or "theory" per se, every genre comes with prerequisite knowledge, skills, and expectations. Understanding those prerequisites – whether a deep understanding of chromatic harmony, or how to work a digital audio workstation (DAW), or how to make your voice sound raw and grungy – can bolster one's fluency and creativity in a particular style:
Samurai Guitarist expands this line of thinking even further by addressing this common question: "If music theory is so important to all genres of music, what about Genius Performer X or Brilliant Songwriter Y who never studied music theory but made such incredible music?" He argues that music theory is not (only) a set of rules that one learns in a classroom, but more broadly our entire way of understanding music. That understanding can be learned entirely outside of an academic setting by simply listening to great music in your genre, by imitating it, by creatively figuring out what sounds good and bad, etc. In other words, Genius Performer X and Brilliant Songwriter Y actually did learn a huge amount of music theory... it's just that they learned it through experience, experimentation, and tons of listening to good music, rather than by sitting and reading a textbook:
The last video I assigned, by Adam Neely, reframes the entire discussion in terms of "prescriptivism" and "descriptivism." Rather than thinking of music theory as a set of prescribed rules that everyone must follow (why many people think learning music theory hinders creativity), he instead urges us to think of it as simply a way of describing and understanding our music. As in the other videos I've mentioned, Neely criticizes those who pride themselves on not knowing music theory. Why celebrate your ignorance about something you claim to love? Why be proud of not being able to talk intelligently about something you might be devoting your entire career to? It's not about rules; it's about understanding:
So that's the assignment! I've asked my students to watch these videos and write a 1-page paper  comparing and contrasting the viewpoints they've heard,  coming up with their own definition of music theory, and  articulating the reasons why they think it's important for themselves to learn music theory.
So far, one student has already e-mailed me to say that she's totally confused after watching the videos, because they all say different things, and she's not sure who's right. Good! That's the point! The point is that there isn't a single right answer, and that people legitimately disagree over this, and that it can be really, really hard to figure out what we actually believe ourselves.
Learning is not about receiving truths from the hands of our teachers. It's about struggle. It's about confusion. It's about disagreement. And it's about perseverance through all that struggle, confusion, and disagreement so that we can figure out what we think. And it's about the courage to challenge even our own beliefs as we revisit the same questions throughout our studies, and throughout our lives.
I'll let you know how the essays turn out! I'm also planning to have a 10-minute discussion in class about it, after they've turned in their essays, so that students can hear each other's ideas, too.
Until then, as always, I'm eager to know what you think! (even – especially – if you disagree with me!)
Cheers from Rhode Island,