Music Theory Rant

A big thank you to Hayley who has provided our first reader submitted question. She asked if I can talk a little about music theory, and oh can I. As someone who is a theory nerd from my physics days and a music nerd from birth, I've always really enjoyed talking about theory, and I even considered majoring in it at one point. I'm going to go over a couple of basics, and I'm going to give you my unsolicited and unpopular opinion about theory as a whole.

To frame the tips below, here comes the unsolicited opinion. Theory is too often thought of as a separate entity, different from music history, another major for composition, and almost the black and white objective and scientific part of music. However, I think this is a huge trap and we CANNOT think like this.

  1. Music theory is always analyzed as speculation. Composers historically, and more often than not currently, write first and analyze later. This ultimately means that theory cannot explain everything written in a piece of music. This was a huge mistake I made when I was younger.
  2. There are some very fundamental elements of writing and performing music that are not even discussed in music theory. Contour, dynamics, and even rhythm are crucial musical elements that you probably casually discuss in theory if you have a good teacher but are often not a part of a formal basic music theory curriculum.
  3. There are many different methods for analyzing one piece of music and many subsets of theory to do so. Most musicians have taken a basic music theory course that explains how notes, staves, etc. works. If you major in music, you'll likely take Music Theory I-IV, but after that it gets really interesting. There's Schenkerian analysis, serial composition and set theory, and you should see some of the computer programs that are now being developed to analyze massive amounts of music at once.

It took me way too long to learn how to "zoom out" when analyzing, playing, and listening to music. So while I'm talking about actual theory below, don't forget that it's just one small part of some pieces.

Okay, my actual tips on theory and analyzing a piece of music, music school-style. Once again, it follows the "zoom out" theme.

  1. Start at the highest, most zoomed out level as possible. What era does this piece belong to? Where was it composed? There's a reason old people annoyingly ask you that all the time, it actually really makes a difference how you play and analyze a piece! This is also why it's very difficult to go to a classical concert, not know anything about what's being played, and really be able to appreciate it. Was this piece written at the height of sonata form madness, or toward the end of the trend when composers were getting bored with it? Just knowing that will help you estimate how difficult it will be to follow the sonata form structure as a listener.
  2. Now that you have cultural context in mind, make a general map of the piece. Does it fall into a form (like sonata) easily? If so, where do the dividers lie? If it follows a structure loosely, where does it break convention? If it doesn't fall into a form you've studied, make up your own form! Let the creative aspect of theory never escape you.
  3. If you could do the last step without analyzing key area, bravo you savant! Now is the time for that regardless. This is, unfortunately, sometimes the step people start with. I've even seen people start by analyzing every chord from the beginning! That's way to much work! However, if you have any sections that you're just not sure about, analyzing chord to chord can be helpful here.
  4. Now is the time to take a step back again and look at all the spots you're unsure about. Does that tricky spot make more sense now that you know all the key areas? Is it clear now whether or not that one section is dipping into a secondary key or you've actually modulated? Hopefully it is.

Before I drone on any longer, these are the biggest steps. This has come from many years of music classes and my nerd brain working overtime on this stuff. If anyone has any more specific questions on theory, please let me know. I would love to help! Anyone is also more than welcome to email with scans of music asking for specifics. I hope to hear from you soon, and to Hayley, I hope this was helpful!

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Ashley Wright

Ashley has a breadth of experience in administration, music, and music management. She currently works as the Office Registrar at the Nashua Community Music School and manages the New England Chamber Players and Barbershop Ladies of Tallahassee (where she was a founding member). Ashley designed and implemented both the NECP and BLT websites, as well as designed the BLT logo. She was formerly an usher and stage crew member at the Florida State University Ruby Diamond Auditorium, and a resident assistant and office assistant at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute.

Ashley has played with the Nevers’ Second Regiment Band, the Southern New Hampshire University Wind Symphony, and she attended the Belgian Clarinet Academy last summer. She recently graduated with a BA in Music from Florida State University as a clarinet major, where she studied with Dr. Deborah Bish. For other musical accomplishments: last year, Ashley composed a film score that was recorded by the Florida State University Philharmonia Orchestra and played tenor saxophone and sung backup vocals in the FSU Ruby Diamond Auditorium for the FSU Blues Band with Charles Atkins.

She received her first bachelor's degree in physics (with a music minor) from Boston University. She worked as an engineer for two years in Quality Assurance and Software before returning to school for her music degree, and she spent last summer as a software intern. She has a lot of experience developing independent Python tools, especially for data processing.