A Theory of Relativity

Frank J. Oteri, Editor
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Molly Sheridan

One of my favorite things to say to cheer myself up is: “Everything happens for a reason.” This might seem somewhat metaphysical coming from a devout secular humanist, but it reflects a lifelong love of patterns and analysis, which are at the heart of music theory.

As a composer as well as someone who writes about other people’s music, I have always been obsessed with analyzing music. For me, the ability to articulate what’s going on in a piece is almost as important as the piece itself. It’s funny, for years critics of so-called uptown music have derided it as too “theory driven” yet so-called downtown music can be just as theory driven, if not more so, and it was the theory driven aspects of that music—audible processes, phase shifting, alternate tunings and their mathematical justifications—that first attracted me to it. After reading Harry Partch’s Genesis of a Music and Steve Reich’s “Music as a Gradual Process,” there didn’t seem to be enough theory in uptown music. Now I realize that this is not true and I am able to find a great deal of theory in everything, from the most austere music of the new complexity school to the drones of ambient techno music in clubs. However, I also know full well that if music theory is not rooted in actual musical practice it accomplishes nothing.

As a grad student in music at Columbia, I was drawn to the writings of Edward T. Cone before I ever knew that he was also a composer and before I realized that he rejects the term “theory” since it implies something separate and apart from actual practice. Robert Hilferty explores this relationship between theory and practice over the past two centuries in his provocatively titled HyperHistory, “Theory Schmeory.” We asked a group of nine composers, the largest ever queried in an issue of NewMusicBox, to describe the relationship between music theory and their own compositions. Many of the composers, including Fred Lerdahl, George Russell, Julia Werntz, and Tom Johnson, have been as widely known for their theories about music as their own music, yet all see a clear separation between the two. We ask you if music theory is still relevant to you.

Following another favorite catch phrase, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission,” you might think that anything could be explained away in a theory after it exists. And it’s interesting that some music analysts believe music that cannot be analyzed isn’t music. My retort is that if you should be able to come up with a theory to analyze anything. And, if you can’t, it probably doesn’t exist. Although, that said, there certainly seem to be many things that don’t exist that have been explained in great detail for millennia.

If all of this sounds a bit hyperbolic, it comes nowhere near the prose of a great many music analyses that so many students of music are forced to read. And therein is perhaps the root of the bad rep of music theory. The best writing about music is integrally related to the music it’s writing about, and the best music is well served by such writing.