Theory Schmeory: The Dangers And Delights Of Music Theory

A Conversation with Ian Quinn
I thought it would be a good idea to interview a real live theorist, to find out what initially turned him on about the field. I tracked down Ian Quinn, a post-doctorate fellow at Chicago University, who actually looks nothing like Gollum. He’s actually quite dashing, a music theorist with Brad Pitt-like star quality. I asked him why he chose hexachords over Hollywood.

“When I was in high school, I accidentally picked up a few music theory books. They looked so weird and cool with all sorts of numbers and symbols on the music that I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to figure this out.’ I stayed in music theory because it’s really cool. It’s sort of the oldest science in a way, with a long and distinguished history. What I really like about it that it’s sort of about nothing. Well, it’s not really about nothing, but the something that it’s about is very difficult to great a grip on.”

Saying something about nothing—in a compelling, meaningful way—is a real challenge, and one worth pursuing. In fact, it sums up the human condition. You could divide music theory into two broad categories: analytic theories and compositional theories, although there is much overlap between the two (especially in the Middle Ages and the twentieth century).

Quinn has been working on his own super Matrix for the past ten years, which is about to make a splash (or just did) at a conference in Baton Rouge. In his own words: “I’m creating a unified theory of harmony and voice-leading in a non-tonal context. It’s not repertoire-specific. A lot of 20th century theories are not grounded in one common theoretical framework, so what I’ve discovered is an actual underlying set of phenomena that seem to govern all of the supposedly freestanding theories. For me, it is important to get all these different theories to talk to each other in some common arena. It’s a very complicated mathematical system, but the challenge in creating this theory has been to think of it in a musical way.”

Bravo, Ian! And good luck!

From Theory Schmeory: The Dangers And Delights Of Music Theory
by Robert Hilferty
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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