Because I write microtonal music and spend a lot of time with other people’s microtonal music, there is a lot to try to figure out—microtonality is still new, even over a hundred years after Julian Carrillo began experimenting with it. So in addition to composing, I’ve written a few articles exploring microtonality and have done some teaching on the subject. Still, music theory is useful for me only in two contexts: with the practical matters that are directly related to how I put my own music together (which really should be called “compositional technique” rather than “theory”), and with my attempts to understand the inner workings of other people’s music through analysis.
With regard to the compositional technique: many composers do have well-developed theories in place before they begin composing. Every mind works differently. I would feel paralyzed if I knew so much about how my music was supposed to work before I even composed it. I begin with musical impulses and some simple ideas about how I’m going to get where I’m going, and build upon my experience with past pieces. As each piece evolves it eventually becomes pretty complex. But if I set out from the beginning with such complex plans I would probably fail to achieve them.
As for understanding the music of others: the importance of knowing the theory behind the music depends on the music. Obviously if the music is strongly centered upon some extra-musical concept, the listener will be in the dark without some explanation. Concepts and theories involving psychoacoustics, gender, culture, even class, abound. Some of them are based on beliefs about what people want or need to hear, while others are concerned with changing the way people hear or think about music. Personally, I am not moved by much heavily conceptual music; I come to music to access that part of people’s minds I cannot access during conversation.
In the case of pieces that are not so conceptual, but which may simply be harmonically and rhythmically complex or busy, many people mistakenly perceive this sort of music as something “too theoretical” which cannot be enjoyed or appreciated by people without a theoretical background. This is silly. It is not a matter of theory. If such music is written and performed with inspiration and skill, then the listener needs nothing more than two simple things to appreciate it on a purely artistic level: an open, curious mind and repeated listenings—both of which are often in short supply, unfortunately.
That said, it is true that the more a listener examines a piece (including getting some background on the composer’s point-of-view, if possible) the deeper his/her understanding will be. The continuum of understanding begins with the open mind I mentioned and progresses through increasing levels of fascination and inquiry. If I am really grabbed by a piece of music, then I will be eager to analyze it, to try to figure it out. We can call that “theory”—”my theory about how that piece works.”