Monday, April 03, 2006


Music theory has hurt us

In my last post, I said that my teachers couldn’t explain music theory any better than a book. I didn’t mean to imply it came easily that way. While the books could be good, there’s only so much any medium can do to make music theory understandable. It is an arbitrary, needlessly complex system. It could be easier, and if it were, we might have a lot more beautiful music. My blood boils at the thought. Music theory is kind of like counting in French or Hindi, only far more crippling to aspiring musicians than those languages seems to be to mathematicians. (In fact, disproportionately many important mathematicians are French or Indian. Um, let’s ignore that.)

It would take a book for me to fully describe what we should use instead of the Western 12-tones-in-seven-tones system, but in a nutshell, the seven tone system (“minor second” = 1 half step, “major second” = 2 half steps, “perfect fifth”=seven half steps, etc.) is garbage. We should instead lay out everything in 12-tone. Seven-tone scales fit perfectly well in a 12-tone system. The colossal avoidable headache of music students is that the reverse is not true: 12 tones do NOT fit uniformly in a seven-tone system.

A good notation should get out of the way quickly. This is why languages with alphabets dominated pictorial ones, and why Arabic numerals dominated Roman ones. Western staff notation is terrible for information theoretic reasons.

One objection is that, given any melody and any tonic center, we would like the relation between any two tones to be immediately apparent. In 12-tone numerical notation, it would be. With the current system, it takes a bunch of mental arithmetic – more than most musicians are willing to do for most of the combinations on the page. This opacity makes it harder than necessary to compose or improvise, which impoverishes the listening public.

Often, band leaders are forced to teach theory to their incoming members. They recognize the failings of music theory, and so they replace it with their own curriculum. This duplication of effort drains productive time from the lives of some of our most creative people. Musicians should be outraged, and move swiftly to replace the system. I guess they’re too busy starving or something.

(Incidentally, the best (traditional) music theory book I know of is the companion booklet to the program Practica Musica. It is a concise and useful exposition (of a needlessly complex system).)

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