What is meant by Music Theory?
"Music theory" may refer to any of the following:
- Analysis (structural, melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, Schenkerian, set theory, phenomenological, psychoacoustic, stylistic);
- Orchestration and instrumentation;
- Under "music theory," our university also lists rudiments, aural skills (ear-training), keyboard harmony, and jazz theory;
- Harmony and counterpoint (renaissance counterpoint, baroque counterpoint, common-practice harmony, late-romantic harmony, 20th-century techniques).
"Theory," when applied to music, often has a very different meaning than when applied to art!
Breaking it down…
Let's break it down by topic within the wider category of music theory:
Analysis is an attempt to understand how music works using a variety of methodologies. Analytical skills are important for composers on at least four levels:
- Discovering how other composers' music works is one of the best teaching tools there is for the development of a composer;
- Analysis of others' works can stimulate the creative process by giving you ideas of things to try in your compositions;
- Analytical skills are essential in achieving a deeper understanding of your own music — this understanding can help you make the most out of your musical materials, and can help get you unstuck when you feel as though you've run into a compositional brick wall; and
- It is easy to lose perspective while composing, because the experience can be so subjective. Analysis of one's own music is one method of introducing some semblance of objectivity into the equation.
Orchestration and instrumentation: Instrumental ranges, the ways in which instruments change tone colour in different registers, how to write idiomatically for different instruments, extended techniques, types of bowing, how different instruments sound in combination with one another, how to create different textures — it's all stuff composers should know.
Aural skills are among the most important skills a composer can have. It is useful to be able to hear an unusual chord, chord progression, tune, rhythm, etc., and to be able to quickly transcribe it, which might spur a creative impulse such as using some aspect of your transcription in your next piece, or to be able to quickly transcribe your complex musical ideas. This skill is essential when rehearsing your music; if someone plays wrong notes or rhythms, you need to be able to hear this instantly and correct the problem.
Keyboard skills: Almost every "great" composer that you learn about in music history since the piano's rise in prominence in the late baroque era was regarded as an outstanding keyboard performer. This suggests that keyboard skills are (or at least were) extremely important and useful for composers, but are they essential? To answer that, it would be helpful to know why so many great composers were great pianists. My guess is that there were at least three reasons:
- Being a skilled pianist enabled composers to perform their music for others, even if the music was not written for piano, such as a symphony. Nowadays, you can use computer technology to make approximate realizations of your music for others, but in earlier times, the piano was the best way to do this; and
- Being an accomplished pianist was a great asset in the development of composers because it enabled them to hear realizations of their own compositions long before computer technology existed that could fulfill this role.
- Being a skilled pianist facilitates score study of works by other composers. Nowadays we can listen to recordings while studying scores, but even so, you discover things by playing (or, in my case, hacking) through a score that you don't necessarily get any other way.
Harmony and counterpoint: In order to become a skilled composer, do you really need to master Bach-style harmony and counterpoint, or renaissance counterpoint, or late-romantic harmony, or many 20th-century techniques? Some people may tell you that John Cage and Iannis Xenakis didn't know any of this stuff, and they became two of the most important composers of the 20th century!
But how true is it that "they didn't know any of this stuff?" Wikipedia tells us that Cage had piano lessons as a boy, although he was apparently more interested in sight-reading than developing virtuoso technique (but note that lots of sight-reading is great training for a composer!). He studied for two years with Arnold Schoenberg (who Cage apparently "worshipped,"), and also with Henry Cowell. However, Cage claimed to struggle with harmony:
Wikipedia tells us that most of Cage's compositions from the 1930s are "highly chromatic and betray Cage's interest in counterpoint." The importance of structure was stressed to him by at least one of his mentors (Richard Buhlig). Cage drew upon an impressive variety of extra-musical influences, including art, architecture, Zen Buddhism, philosophy, and mathematical formulae. He may not have developed the deep mastery of traditional (i.e., "common-practice period") harmony and counterpoint that we associate with practically all other composers, but he did have some training in these areas with some pretty impressive composer-teachers!After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, "In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony." I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, "In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall." (Pritchett, James. 1993. The Music of John Cage. Cambridge University Press; p. 260)
Iannis Xenakis studied architecture and engineering at the National Technical University of Athens, and was subsequently employed at Le Corbusier's architectural studio in Paris, working on a number of projects, perhaps most famously the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair in 1958, completed by Xenakis alone, from a basic sketch by Le Corbusier (Hoffmann, Peter. "Iannis Xenakis", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy).
Phillips Pavillion, Brussels World's Fair (1958),But he also had musical training, having studied notation and solfège as a boy, and having sung works by Palestrina, Mozart, and other composers in his school's choir. [One of the best ways to learn renaissance counterpoint, by the way, is sing Palestrina, so this in itself represents a kind of training.] While working for Le Corbusier, Xenakis also studied harmony, counterpoint, and composition with a variety of teachers. However, when he asked Messiaen if he should continue his studies in harmony and counterpoint, Messiaen famously recommended against it, something he apparently did with no other student.
bearing an uncanny resemblance to a nun's fancy cornette and habit (below):
bearing an uncanny resemblance to a nun's fancy cornette and habit (below):
I understood straight away that he was not someone like the others. [...] He is of superior intelligence. [...] I did something horrible which I should do with no other student, for I think one should study harmony and counterpoint. But this was a man so much out of the ordinary that I said... No, you are almost thirty, you have the good fortune of being Greek, of being an architect and having studied special mathematics. Take advantage of these things. Do them in your music. (Matossian, Nouritza. 1986. Xenakis. London: Kahn and Averill; p. 48)Both Cage and Xenakis had training in harmony and counterpoint, although it was arguably less rigorous than the training received by most composers of classical music, even in the 20th-century.
The fact is that so many composers were well-trained in harmony and counterpoint, even among the avant-garde of the 20th-century, might suggest that these are probably still important skills to master for any composer.
But was this cause or effect? Did skills learned as students in harmony and counterpoint contribute to composers' later "greatness," or were "great" composers such good musicians, even when they were students, that they naturally did well in these subjects, whether or not they applied this knowledge to their mature compositions? We can't know for sure of course, but my hunch is that, for most composers, the harmony and counterpoint learned as students probably informed the development of their mature style, and made them better musicians.
If you studied harmony and counterpoint and did not do well, I do not suggest that your future development as a composer is irrevocably compromised, however.
For one thing, you can go back and study this stuff again. I did poorly on most of my Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto) theory exams until I began my studies in composition, mainly because the material didn't seem relevant to me, and I had no background in classical music. When I began studying with Dr. Samuel Dolin, he basically said, "harmony and counterpoint are relevant, but you won't know why until you become good at them." Since he had trained so many good composers before me, I figured he knew what he was talking about, and I dedicated myself to becoming more skillful in these areas.
For another, the fact that at least a few composers without extensive training in harmony and counterpoint went on to do very well for themselves would suggest that this training may not be as vital as was once considered to be the case (and probably still is in music schools and conservatories).
But I still think it's important and useful to become as skilled as possible in harmony and counterpoint because subsequent experiences as a composer have convinced me that Dr. Dolin's advice was 100% right. And for that I remain forever in his debt.
- Think of the many aspects of music theory as a toolkit; the more tools (skills) you have, the better equipped you are to be a composer.
- It helps to know a lot!