Few things annoy me more in the realm of music education than the teaching of music theory. Even the term music theory gives me the creeps. I’m well aware of the usual dictionary second definition of the word theory: “…blah blah blah as opposed to the practice…” But why would any of us music lovers want to separate the structure, grammar and architecture of music from the practice of music itself?
Then there’s the disheartening sequence in which this music theory is taught, usually starting with the not-especially-interesting-or-graspable-at-first and wildly overly prioritized cycle of fifths. Then comes notation, despite fewer and fewer people reading music today or who will ever set their eyes on a score (Don’t get me wrong: I believe reading music to be one of the best skills in the entire solar system. But nothing beats a well-developed ear and clear sense of what’s going on in a piece of music). And when we finally get to something juicy like harmony, chords are presented in some archaic (we’re talkin’ 19th century) way that defies how most composers from Bach to Lady Gaga actually use chords. For example, what is the deal with, in 2017, pretending the suspended triad doesn’t exist? Then during some rambling mess about chord progression, the myth of I IV V is trotted out. Give us a big, fat break: play and analyze five hundred pieces from about 1700 to last night and we see that – oh golly and how blasphemous – the real deal is I V I. You’d think it’s some pedagogical heresy to expose this simple truth.
I dealt with this random onslaught in high school, books, and at European conservatory, then was lifted out of the morass by the brilliance of Berklee’s use of Joseph Schillinger’s incisive work to see that the beauty and strength of music are just that: strong and beautiful. And that beauty and strength can be understood by examining music from its atoms outward, or, from the broad picture to those atoms, as long as lots of actual music is actually listened to, not from marginally useful abstract constructs on paper that seem to have been erected to prevent music lovers from seeing the readily understandable simplicity at the very core of good music, be it Bartok, Esperanza Spalding or Sting. It’s music: no theory necessary.