What role has theory played in your compositions and how important is it for people to know the theory behind the music in order to appreciate it? Fred Lerdahl

Fred Lerdahl

Near the beginning of my composing career, around 1970, I underwent a crisis of belief. Modern music had splintered into mutually incompatible styles, each with its own aesthetic, and any coherent sense of the historical trajectory of art music was gone. Contemporary compositional methods were often highly rationalized but inaccessible to listeners except by conscious study. I sought instead to establish my music on a foundation free of the labyrinthine history of twentieth-century music and its often perceptually obscure techniques. A reading of Noam Chomsky‘s Language and Mind opened new vistas. If it was possible to study the language capacity that lies beneath the variety of human languages, was it not also possible to study the musical capacity? I wanted to base my musical development not on history but on nature. Such a quest has a long history in many guises, and mine was nothing if not utopian. But a young composer worth anything at all must have big dreams.

My particular dream turned me into a music theorist. I met Ray Jackendoff, a theoretical linguist who wanted to extend the generative enterprise into the musical domain, and together we worked out our ideas until in 1983 we published a book, A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. Throughout these years I continued to compose, frequently using theoretical ideas that we were developing. And I would find myself doing things in my music for which I then sought a theoretical account. Yet, despite this mutual relationship, I would never compose and theorize at the same time. The feeling of the two activities is very different, and the act of composition must retain its spontaneity.

After my work with Jackendoff was done I intended to give up music theory. But the ideas kept coming, and I had no choice but to pursue them through many articles (on timbral organization, computational modeling, atonal pitch structures, diatonic and chromatic pitch spaces, tension and relaxation, and so forth), culminating in a recent book, Tonal Pitch Space. Again there is a close relationship between the ideas in this book and my composing. But my music does not call special attention to this connection. In my view, the best theory feels so intuitive that it disappears into the musical fabric. My theoretical work has instead given my music its own stylistic trajectory and enabled it to become complex yet cognitively transparent.