In a recent article entitled “Music Theory is Actually Redundant”, David Alan Reed makes an intriguing argument that it is not necessary to know about music theory, and in fact, having knowledge of it can even be a bad thing. He sums up his theory by saying”…music theory is redundant. Music itself is already so very elegant, so supremely well-organized, that its mere contemplation leads one to comprehend it perfectly.” He cites his experience of studying musicians in Brazil and West Africa, who don’t use any form of written notation and have no names for musical concepts or ideas yet still produce complex and well-developed musical pieces, which are not improvised but carefully constructed.
Reed is very critical of music theory as a whole. He speaks about music theory as though it is a list of rules which Western composers adhere to, in effect stifling their creativity as they struggle to conform. He suggests that in the West, instead of getting on with the business of living music, we spend too much time analysing it. He also mentions that, like most Westerners, he was surprised at the level of precision that the Brazilian performers could achieve in terms of rhythm, given that they didn’t know a time signature from a key signature. Reed even claims that in Western culture, music’s purpose is trivial in that it is simply used to “entertain and impress”, whereas in less-developed countries it has a more profound raison d’etre – to heal and connect people with their past and with each other.
I’d like to examine each of these arguments in more detail. Firstly, we need to acknowledge that music came first, and music theory came second. If we look at the history of music in the West, if you go back more than five hundred years there was almost nothing written down in musical notation.
Does this mean that people weren’t making music? Of course not.
Literary sources from the Bible to Shakespeare are full of evidence that music was a huge part of people’s lives. Music was important in the Church, and music was important in the home. Bands of minstrels would roam around playing often bawdy music for entertainment, whereas music in the Church was serene, precise and meaningful – it was a way of reaching God. Although the music played in the West five hundred years ago probably has nothing in common with current Brazilian/West African music in terms of what it sounds like, the way it was shared and the reason for having it in the first place are identical. In every culture, there is music. No cultures have ever been discovered that do make use of music in some way. Music is used for fun, for relaxation, for important ceremonies, for dance, for religion – wherever you go in the world.
Around 500 years ago, musical notation began to be developed. At first, it was more of a pictoral representation of sounds, with marks written high for high notes and low for low notes, without precise pitches actually being notated. Just like any system, over the years, the system was tweaked and refined until we have the system we recognise today. But one thing needs to be fundamentally clear – the reason for inventing notation was so that compositions could be shared – both down the generations in time, and geographically across the world. Notation was used as a way of recording what was already happening in music. It was not invented as a system of rules, dictating what could or couldn’t be composed.
As time went on, the number of musical scores passed down the generations naturally increased. In the beginning this was a slow process, as manuscripts had to be copied by hand. After the invention of the printing press the process was speeded up considerably. By the 1700’s, libraries were beginning to fill up with old music books. Some composers and scholars, interested in how musical styles had changed over the years, began to study the old manuscripts available to them. A musical vocabulary was gradually developed, to describe every aspect of music from chord progressions, keys, musical forms and more. Many people today still interested in this subject. We are very lucky that we can examine the music of the 15th century onwards – why?
Because it’s interesting and fulfils our quest for knowledge. Because it connects us with the past and allows us to view the linear development of music over the centuries. We can connect with other people who enjoy the same music, because we can talk about it with them.
Music theory is a tool which allows us to see back in time, and to discuss music from the past to the present. Many of the greatest Western composers (Mozart, Beethoven etc.) were only able to compose as they did because they were able to study the scores of music written at an earlier time. They used earlier works as a springboard for their creativity, and of course we could not know their music today had they not had the means to write down their ideas.
It is perfectly possible to teach somebody to play/sing any piece of music from memory, just as the Brazilians do. However, it’s not the most efficient method because it takes time and it’s easier for mistakes to creep in. Having said that, it’s a method which is still in use today in the West, in many places where songs are still passed on aurally. Go to any school playground today and you will hear children singing songs which have been passed down for over a hundred years (in the UK) – they don’t learn from notated scores of course! Everybody knows the tune to “Happy Birthday to You”, and the words of course. Who learnt that from a song book? No one. The ability to learn music is an innate skill we have, and which we make use of. Chanters at football matches pass on songs in the same way. Mothers teach their children songs like this. But it’s not the only way.
Unlike Reed, I don’t think for a second that it is surprising that the Brazilians can keep to strict time without knowing about time signatures or note values. Time signatures were invented because most music conformed to precise measures, as a method to represent the metrical character of contemporary compositions. They were not invented so that all music would conform! Throughout the history of music, every development in our system of notating music has happened because composers were inventing new techniques. It has never been the case that composers have restricted themselves to writing only what can be notated. To give you a modern day example, our notation system has recently been tweaked to take into account quarter-tones – divisions of note which are half a semitone. The music notation system is constantly evolving.
In the modern world, music theory sometimes gets a bad press because some people look at it as a set of rules. But this is misguided. Students learn about music theory so that they can discuss existing compositions, compose using similar techniques, or invent new ones – you can’t invent something new unless you know what’s been invented already. All the famous “Classical” composers broke conventions that had been laid down previously.
Music in the West is not only used to “entertain” and “impress” in my view. Although it certainly does do both of those things (and I think both are important culturally), it’s only a fraction of how music is really used in our lives. From the cradle, music is used to soothe babies. In schools, music is used to foster a sense of community (school songs, school choirs and orchestras, bands), it’s used in social occasions where young people meet and gives them something to talk about with each other. At all the important ceremonies in our lives, music enhances the occasion. Music is used in Christenings, marriages and funerals. People choose to listen to music when they feel strong emotions – sadness, joy, excitement, because it is mood-enhancing. Music is used in teaching. Music is used in healing – both formally in a music-therapy context, and more informally when you put on a dance song to cheer yourself up.
Going back to Reed’s assumption, “music theory is redundant”, let’s examine what life would be life if that were true. Without music theory (i.e. notation, and a musical vocabulary for analysis), we would not have any of the great composers from the West – music would have not developed much from that composed around 500 years ago. Without Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, the symphony orchestra as we know it would not exist, because it was a by-product of the pieces written by those composers. The rise in popularity of the clarinet would not have happened, because it was Mozart who introduced it as a regular member of the orchestra. Without the clarinet, it is unlikely that the saxophone would have been invented. There would be a great deal less music making in the community, as the wide-spread teaching of instruments would not be feasible without having instruction books using music notation. No doubt there would be more singing, to compensate. No matter whether we have music theory or not, people will continue to compose and perform music. Personally I think we can attribute our rich heritage of music in the West, (by which I mean all music from classical times to modern day) to the fact that we are a people who for many centuries have been inquisitive about music, who like to talk about it and analyse it, like to be innovative and like to educate ourselves.
For all these reasons, in my view, music theory is far from “redundant”, is actually an “essential” part of our culture.