The Value of a Music Theory

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One of the first questions that comes up when considering music theory is why should you study a theory of music and how can you tell if a particular theory is of any value. In this article, I want to give my views on this question.

I tend to think the value of a music theory comes from its ability to explain the widest possible range of music that sounds appealing, in the simplest way with the least amount of possible variations. This notion is influenced by the concept of Occam’s Razor where simple theories are to be preferred to more complex theories. There are essentially three aspects to the value of a theory:

  1. How much music that sounds appealing can be explained by the theory. The more good music that can be explained by a theory indicates the theory has more value.

  2. How simple is the theory. After adjusting for point one above, the simpler the theory the better. If two different theories allow an explanation of the same set of good music, the simplest of these theories will be the better theory. This then leads to the question of what is simplicity in this respect. I can see three main aspects in evaluating the simplicity of a music theory:

    a. The theory should be conceptually simple, and once a little effort has been applied, it should be easy to understand.

    b. The theory should naturally lend to “hearing” the different options a theory facilitates in an ear training context. For example, it is easier to start to hear and identify melodies based on the major scale with a bit of exposure to the scale than it is for a scale such as the whole tone scale or the diminished scale.

    c. The theory should be simple to translate to your instrument of choice. One of the primary goals of studying a music theory is to simplify your options in a song writing, composition or improvisational context. In order for this to be of most value here, the theory should map fairly easily to your instrument. For example, in the case of guitar, studying the modes of the major scale, their various moods and where you can use them is a theory that lends itself very naturally to lead guitar, and this is one of the reasons for its popularity with this instrument.

    On the other hand, studying traditional four part harmony will be of less benefit to a guitarist as the guitar is not an instrument that is well suited to quickly picking up 4 independent melodic lines simultaneously.

  3. How much music that is not of value does the theory accommodate. By not of value, I mean music that does not sound good to many people. If a theory explains a wide range of good quality music, but also allows a wide range of music to be formed that does not appeal to a reasonable audience, this ability to facilitate the formation of a low quality of music will detract from its value.

    If, on the other hand, a large portion of the music that can be formed from the theory is appealing, this will increase the value of the theory. To understand this point consider a theory as mapping out a set of possible decisions at any point of a song writing or compositional process.

    For example, if you are looking at the basics of forming chords from the major scale and are not considering modulation, this notion has limited your choice of next possible chords to those chords that have been formed from the scale.

    Point three here is essentially saying that a theory that provides limited options in the song writing process that do not sound appealing in some way will be of higher value than a theory that provides a lot of options that are not appealing (after also considering points 1 and 2 above).

    If this were to be considered in relation to a field such as computer science, the notion is that a good theory should be limiting your search space of possible musical options by eliminating poor choices while still providing a good range of appealing decisions.

Lets look at this value of music theory from two extremes here. In the absence of any real theory, you simply have all the notes available to you on the guitar. You are then left figuring out how to use these notes to form melodies and harmonies that sound good. This theory has not helped you in that, while you will be able to use your ear to find melodies, progressions and leads that sound good, there is no theory to help you narrow the possibilities available to you to find a range of sounds that satisfy the theory and sound good any quicker than simply understanding you have the notes of the guitar available to you.

In terms of our three points above, this theory would rate very highly on points 1 and 2, as it explains virtually all appealing music and is very simple to understand and translate to the instrument.

The theory performs so poorly on point three however that the overall value of the theory is very limited. The theory provides a huge number of options that will not sound in some way appealing.

Now lets consider the extreme of say the simplest theory I could come up with. Lets look at a theory that simply outlines what chords are the I, IV and V chords of the major scale. In a sense, this theory is very powerful in that it is incredibly simple by simply outlining three possible chords and how they are formed. Considering how simple this theory is, the amount of rock, popular music and blues songs that are formed from these three chords is huge. Additionally, the amount of music that could be based off these three chords and does not sound good in some way will be quite limited in comparison to many other theories of music.

As such, the theory performs very well on points 2 and 3 above, and considering how well it performs here, there is a wide range of music it explains, thus giving it a comparatively good performance on point 1.

Of course, as a student mastered this basic theory, they would want to expand their knowledge into other theories to increase the variety of music they could create. A students knowledge would be quite lacking however if they did not understand these three basic chords.

These are my views on how to evaluate and compare the values of particular music theories. I hope this sounds of interest.

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  2 Responses to “The Value of a Music Theory”

  1. great explanation of theory and it’s value. I went to school for music and so spent lots of time exploring ‘out there’ thoeries that I’ve yet to actually use in creating music – though I loved it because I’m just that kind of person.

    In my songwriting I use so much theory to clarify what I’m hearing in my mind and to have the ability to quickly and easily relay an idea into reality.

    Check out my blog, I write it for the non-theoretical music lovers to understand simple theory concepts. Great article, thanks!

  2. Just like to thank you for explaining chords and modes so simply.

    I have read lots of other interpretations and a lot of them assumed you knew more theory than you actually did but yours is simply the best my friend :)

    Thank you so much


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