Love Music but Hate Music Theory?

I have been teaching music theory since 1983 when I worked as an instructor at Indiana University while doing my graduate work. I had never intended on teaching music. I’m a composer. All I wanted to do was write music. But I fell in love with teaching music, specifically that dreaded subject, music theory. Since then, I have written three music theory textbooks. I have experienced the joy and agony of bringing music theory to life for countless students. Now you might ask, “How can you bring something as dead and boring as music theory to life?” The answer to that is simple: you focus on the music, not the theory. You see, you already love music; that’s why you’re studying it. Learning what makes music work will only deepen your love for it. I’ll have more to say about that later, but first let me define what I mean by “music theory.”

Any theory, whether it be science or the arts, is simply the study of that discipline’s principles as opposed to its practice. For example, there are classes in automotive theory. Basic automotive theory teaches about the different parts of an automobile and how they work. Music theory, then, teaches about the different parts of music and how they work. Back to automobiles for a moment, can you imagine studying automobile parts without actually experiencing a working automobile? Learning about, say a transmission would be pretty dreadful if you never saw how it actually worked in a real car. Unfortunately, that’s how many students (and some teachers) approach music theory. They treat it as a separate entity: learning intervals, scales, rhythm, harmony, and so on without taking the time to see how these elements operate in actual music. Everything you learn in music theory must be consciously applied to actual music if it is to have any real meaning. Sure, it takes a little more work, but I promise you, if you make that effort, music theory will come to life for you because no longer will it be theory. It will be music! Learning the parts of music and seeing how they work in an actual piece of music, especially one that you already know and love, will intensify your love for that music, providing you have the right attitude, and decide to put forth the effort.

If you determine to approach music theory as a labor of love for your art, I promise you will be rewarded. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. If you love music, you can easily learn to love music theory, because you’ll discover that music theory is music!

A common attitude toward music theory is that one’s enjoyment of music is spoiled because listening to music becomes an analytical exercise. In all my years of teaching, I have never known this to happen. The opposite, however, is quite common. When someone truly learns and understands what is going on in the music they love, they actually love the music more deeply. Furthermore, just because you can analyze music doesn’t mean that you will do it every time you listen to or perform music. You can choose to listen for, say, the formal structure of the music you are hearing. But if you’re not trying to and you happen to notice it, this added knowledge and understanding of the music becomes a new level of pleasure and excitement for you. Here’s a personal example.

The Neapolitan chord is a very striking chord and tends to stand out. In today’s music, it’s not that common. When I was watching one of the Star Trek movies a while back, I heard a Neapolitan chord in the main theme. I wasn’t trying to analyze the chords, I was enjoying the movie! But there it was. Did knowing that I was hearing a Neapolitan chord somehow distract from my enjoyment of the music or the film? Of course not! It was simply an added pleasure, knowing what I was hearing.

My desire for my students is not so much to love music theory. Music theory by itself is dry and boring. My desire is for them to love music on a deeper level. 

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