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.