Friday, 26 February 2010

Music theory vs music practice

The Associated Board of the Royal Colleges of Music offers exams up to diploma level in voice and various instruments. It also offers to examine people in music theory. The syllabus rarely attracts candidates for its own sake but to take a practical exam beyond grade 5 one needs to have passed grade five theory. And so I often find myself teaching grade five theory to students who have never studied the subject before, picking up the theory they have needed as they learned their chosen instrument rather as a child learns their native language.

I had a very good teacher when I studied theory and will boast, at the right time and place, of my 100% result at grade 8. But there is something of the nerdy anorak about this achievement. 'Music theory' as taught for Associated Board exams has nothing to do with any theory of sound, acoustics or even music. It is purely a study of a particular, albeit widely used, system of notation. There is a difference between, say, learning French and learning about language as a broader concept.

The notation system we favour has proved remarkably robust in the face of change but is not especially well suited to everything it tries to describe. I have to resist the urge to defend it in the face of disgruntled students who hold me entirely responsible. Syncopation and music in the key of F#, for example, can be horrible to read. The playing would be easier if the notation were clearer. Easier still if it were taught by demonstration and imitation. And perhaps this explains why classical musicians, as a rule, can't 'swing' without sounding like Sunday school teachers at a rave. They are hung up on the description in preference to the reality. After all, why bother visiting Rome if you've already read the guide book?

While my expertise in music theory is not wholly useless, I hadn't fully understood my discomfort with it until I read a book review in last Saturday's Guardian. It contained a quote from the book, We Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier (Allen Lane) which goes: information is alienated experience. The ability to write, and so transmit, music and other languages is priceless but the written symbols are merely a description of the real thing.


  1. Hi J, I took grade 5 theory solely to be able to take higher grade practical exams, although I never actually got round to doing this. So it's not based on any kind of experience, but don't you start to learn about harmony and chord progressions in grade 6 theory onwards? I would imagine that that would be useful to budding composers.

    Swinging classical musicians are like Sunday school teachers at a rave? Priceless, and spot on! I once heard a steel band comprising classically trained musicians, and it didn't swing. Swing in a steel band is something I hadn't really noticed before, or perhaps had just taken for granted, but a steel band that doesn't swing? Wierd, man.

    Didn't Stravinksi say that "everything is written down, except that which is most essential"?

  2. P.S In English, when one describes a musical event, it is normally phrased "XXX and such work was performed by...." In France they say "interpreted by" which I think is much better.

  3. It's true, you do start learning about chord progressions from grade 6. I suppose what bothers me slightly is that you could be stone deaf and still get 100% in the exam. The syllabus is designed in such a way that there is no incentive, and certainly no need, ever to hear any of the progressions. Because students often just want a pass with the least effort they resent being dragged off to a piano for a practical demonstration - they don't see the point. But if you can't hear because you've never learned to listen then you do end up with your clunky steel band.

    I had forgotten the Stravinsky quote - it cuts to the core. And I can't help thinking that anything requiring expression, apart from Brahmsian angst and punk rock, sounds better played in French.