Getting critical about theory

Too many musicians these days regard music theory – the in depth study of music’s nuts and bolts, such as that practiced by Heinrich Schenker – as only a very occasionally useful discipline, and think that most of the time it stifles musical intuitions or innate sensibilities (this links to a post in which Jeremy Denk wonders if “endless consideration” throttles music).  Those who try to explain great works of art in terms of music theory are often accused of reductionism.

As a result, too much attention is given to perfunctory and superficial “analyses” that provide little real insight. Too many would-be analyzers and analysis readers alike fail to dig deep. Rather, they dig broadly, where the soil is light and loose. The ability to regurgitate a battery of wide-ranging, but superficial and tangential “factlets” is mistaken for insight. The analytical dimension is missing.

Things like this pass for analysis in the current arts climate. This baffles me. Ross hasn’t said anything explicitly musical except to note that the passage is in E-flat major.

But the problem isn’t only that we have to put up with these long-winded collections of jargon. The bigger problem is that real theoretical and analytical thought suffers because it is supplanted and demonized by the “other way of knowing” exemplified in the above link. Ross’ analytical faculties obviously haven’t been fully developed. Musical understanding eludes thinkers of Ross’ ilk.

To wit: in this post Ross undoubtedly supposes he is going to “lay some theory” on us. Unfortunately he only demonstrates his theoretical shortcomings. Or, at the very least, he demonstrates that he hasn’t read much Schenker, or hasn’t read it for comprehension.

Schenker could not have been more adamant about the idea that not all vertical simultaneities are chords; that is, not all members of a stack of tones relate to each other. Some relate only to tones that come before or after, in the horizontal dimension. This is why one can often find (in music from a vast list of composers spanning the gamut of ability) simultaneities that contain several dissonant pitches. Rossini hardly demonstrates any remarkable gift in constructing one of these.

Here is the so-called chord Ross highlights as evidence of Rossini’s prescience:

Right off the bat we can ignore the “C” pedal tone. The harmonies that unfold above it have nothing to do with it. We can also ignore (and this, I think, is Ross’ big mistake) the “E” in the soprano. It is merely an accented upper neighbor to the “D” contained in the simple diminished 7th that comprises the remainder of the “astonishing chord.” And sure enough, the “E” is resolved, in mundane fashion, to the expected “D” in the ensuing two beats. There is no chord here composed of the tones “C”,  “A-flat”, “B”, “F”, and “E”.

I’m actually rather saddened when I see this kind of thing. The more we tolerate it, the more we pretend it imparts anything of significance, the less we will see of the real deal. Armchair fantasizing is easy. Powerfully explanatory perception is not. If we allow people to consume/produce incorrect music theory, we can’t be sure that someone, somewhere, will keep the flame of genuine theory burning. Once a critical mass of theory nincompoops is reached, we may be powerless to avert a “Musikdämmerung.”


1 Response to “Getting critical about theory”

  1. December 19, 2011 at 6:40 am

    Hello stranger!

    The way I perceive this is: Do you hear music in 3D? In color or black-and-white? And at what “frame rate”? Having said that, there are two other factors in listening to consider, that are not so, I suppose, allusional: the listener’s attention span and past experience. Since we have the ability to verbally “complete another person’s sentence”, we have the capacity to listen ahead in music, and then discover whether we “guessed right”.

    What “true” analysis reveals is that there’s a sort of quantum mechanics that operates in great (or at least effective and satisfying) music, of the sort that Richard Strauss aspired to. Google the following: “strauss compose cow milk”. The quantum mechanics creates the experience of hearing ahead, or for that matter, behind. This is why some conductors said they would wait years before performing certain works in public for the first time, for fear of missing something.

    You already realize you’ll be a better interpreter a decade from now, so saying you “sucked” last week is a sort of “hearing ahead” in itself.

    😉 ecs

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