As a short disclaimer to begin, this topic is far too complicated to cover in one small blog post. Therefore, I will aim to inspire thought, not give all the answers.
You’re probably wondering about the title to this post.
Am I saying music theory doesn’t exist?
Am I saying music theory is all wildly incorrect?
Am I suggesting that it is, perhaps, just a ‘theory’?
I’ve shared before the story of how I finally understood chords. Not till I was 18 years old, at University, in a music theory lecture.
That shocks many musicians.
How could I have made it that far as a musician and not understood chords?
Because chords don’t exist.
Have I got your attention now?
I mean, of course chords exist. But at the end of the day, someone once put a label on a collection of notes, and told us that it should only be used in a certain way. And to me, chords really didn’t exist. I saw each note as a standalone, that interacted with the surrounding notes. Horizontally. Not vertically, as a chord.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Those labels are useful. They help us to communicate about music and help many to create new and interesting sounds.
But they are only a small piece of a much bigger puzzle.
That chord is in fact made of many separate notes, which often have significant relationships beyond their vertical buddies.
And right now, I know a musical theory buff is saying, “I know that, why are you treating me like I’m stupid?”
Simple answer; we often treat music students like they are.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now: children are excellent listeners.
They haven’t listened to the decades worth of music that we have to deaden their ears to how fascinating sound really is.
And in we barge, telling them that they MUST stay within one key, they MUST voice their chords correctly, and they MUST follow all rules, because Bach said so.
(Spoiler alert: Bach didn’t write his own rules, and broke many of the rules attributed to him).
Beyond the waste this is in western art music, where musicians have to work for years to break their ears, and minds, of the increasingly complicated ‘rules’ of music, it also shuts out all other types of music.
Western art music is elitist, and part of that is the rules that it enforces. Rules that say other music is ‘wrong’, or ‘worse’, or ‘not music’.
You need to think about this. Do you teach music theory as a useful framework, or as a set of rigid rules? Interrogate your thoughts, and your teaching.
And see if you can see it as music ‘theory’.
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