Theory Schmeory: The Dangers And Delights Of Music Theory



Robert Hilferty and some of his theories
Photo by Randy Nordschow

Blame it on Pythagoras. When the old, ancient Greek discovered the relation between musical intervals and numbers–leading to notions like the “hidden structure of the universe,” “music of the spheres,” “mathematics of the soul,” and whatnot–that was the beginning of music theory. Now we’re stuck with it. And there’s no way out.

I don’t mean to start off on such a negative note. Actually, theory can be beautiful and illuminating (as opposed to complicated, obfuscating, quagmired, self-important, self-absorbed). And nothing could be more human: the desire to create systems out of chaos or near-chaos is a natural and (usually) noble expression of humanity’s ability to reason. (Well, there are irrational pseudo-theories about race, which pose, as rational and lead to nasty things such as slavery and extermination.) And there are theories about everything: Goethe had one about color, Einstein had one about gravity, Eisenstein had one about film montage, Brillat-Savarin had one about eating (in The Physiognomy of Taste), Tarkovsky had one about time-pressure in cinematic images (in Sculpting Time), Lakatos had one about numbers, Foucault about sex, Wittgenstein had one about language, Derrida about writing (or should I say écriture), Freud about dreams. Darwin even had a pet theory (literally). People kill each other over theories (i.e. communism vs. capitalism). And there are countless anti-theories, counter-theories, meta-theories, theories à la mode (pun intended). The list is endless. You probably have one or two yourself.

But music theory is surely the strangest. That’s the burden of trying to make sense of the most ethereal, ephemeral, abstract–one could argue the most free–art form. In a way, from a certain point of view, music needs theory. And the theorists themselves? Most of them bear a striking resemblance to the creepy and slimy Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Well, that’s just a theory…

The problem with theory arises when it does not–and is not willing to recognize that it cannot–explain the most interesting aspects of a piece of music Problems arise if theory becomes a litmus test for the greatness of a piece of music, as in the great “organicist” theories of the West which leave out non-western musics and focus on a small group of pieces, which come out of the Dead White Boys Club of the Austro-Germanic School–”masterpieces” churned out by “geniuses.” They were definitely a talented bunch. (Postmodern theory has tried, with varying success, to take these terms off of their pedestals.) The problem with compositional theory is when, in the wrong hands, it seems to be the sole generator of the compositions, when actually the real music-making must come from a different place (something called imagination and “life”).

Theorists can be freestanding, but there have also been many famous theorist-composers from Rameau to Babbitt. Two of my favorite American theorists, Edward Lowinsky and Edward T. Cone, were both initially trained in composition. [Ed. Note: Cone remains active as a composer who has constantly guarded against making generalizations and then feeling that they ought to be applied to his own music.]

Of course, new theories continue to be churned out. Some are profound, some are shallow… The show goes on, so to speak. For the composer, it’s best to take Ned Rorem’s advice, “Compose first, worry later.” And for theorists, “listen first, theorize later.” And really listen. If it ain’t got that swing…

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