Seth Rait

Student, Coder, Sailor, Musician

Most of my friends are not musicians. Most of my friends can’t tell a Bach Fugue from a Chopin Nocturne. However, most of my friends like math, puzzles and applying strict, mostly incomprehensible procedures to obscure patterns effecting novel approaches to problems (programmers are weird). For years I’ve told them that their interest in these tasks should mean that they would find music theory equally captivating, but none of them seem to believe me. None of them except Sofiya, who has somehow convinced me to teach her how to appreciate and play with the puzzles inherent in music. First, however, we need an overview. This post will skirt around any substantive talk of theory in order to introduce the topic about which we are theorizing. In the next post in this series, I’ll start introducing some analytical tools for understanding music, as well as a primer on notation.

On the first day of any Introduction to Music, Music Appreciation, or World Music class, one question will invariably arise: “What is music?” This question is not asked with a single correct answer in mind, nor is it asked in order to elucidate future topics. It is asked so that the students in the class can come to the realization that this question is really hard to answer. That’s because different cultures, and different people within the same culture make and experience music in profoundly different ways. In the Western Classical tradition, the system familiar to most people in North America and Europe, music is usually created using combinations of twelve distinct notes which follow a rigid pattern of whole steps and half steps to create harmony and melody. In other cultures, however, different numbers of notes are used with varying pitches and disparate concepts of melody and harmony. Eschewing those fraught terms, even rhythm varies greatly from region to region. Western listeners unfamiliar with traditional Korean music would be hard pressed to understand the changdans (rhythms) employed in Pansori. Even neglecting the systems used to create and perform music, an exact definition is difficult to pin down. How can one definition encapsulate even music within one culture that contains both Mozart piano sonatas and Bartok string quartets?

A definition to which I am partial, but which to many may seem overly vague is that music is any combination of sounds which has a meaning that cannot be solely described in words. This definition thus relies on both the intent of the composer and the experience of the listener in order to classify sound as musical or not. That is, if the composer intends the listener to experience any thought or emotion because of the sounds they have composed, regardless of if the listener did experience those thoughts or sounds, the composition is music to the composer. Conversely, if one listens to some sound which then causes the listener to have some sort of thought or emotion, those sounds are musical to the listener. This definition leaves no room for compositions being objectively musical, so what is music to one person may not be music to another. One problem with this definition is that although it does include all those sounds which the vast majority of people do consider musical (bird song, a symphony, Bohemian Rhapsody), it also includes sounds which most people do not consider musical (a car backfiring, causing you to think that maybe you should move out of the noisy city). I don’t really see this lack of specificity as an issue, but like I said, this question is hard to answer. If you have a better answer, good for you.

Why am I going on this epistemic treatise of the definition of music in a post that was supposed to be introducing music theory? It is because of scope. I don’t know enough about Raga, Pansori, Gamelan, or most other musics to educate anyone, so I’ll be sticking to the theory of music in the Western Classical tradition. For the purposes of this and following posts, this includes music from Europe and the Americas from Plainchant to new music, irrespective of genre. So this will hopefully be useful to anyone who wants to learn what makes Beethoven Symphonies so special, or wants to really get how I am the Walrus works. We can achieve this goal by the realization that a composer need not know music theory, nor how to read music, in order for its teachings to be applicable to their music. This is because music theory is a descriptive discipline, not prescriptive. That is, the goal of music theory is to understand why and how sounds combine to produce an effect. It is not a system of rules to follow in order to make “good” music. Before going any further, I should admit that I am not a music theorist. I have taken many classes in music theory, orchestration, composition, history and performance, but I’m not a professional. I do, however, have very strong opinions about the music theory pedagogy, and the freely available materials on the internet which relate to music theory don’t abide by my views of how theory should be explained, so here I am.

I hope not to make these posts too boring, but there’s a lot of stuff to learn, and it just gets more and more interesting the more you learn, therefor I’m going to try to cover a lot of ground rather quickly. So you don’t get lost, it is important that you listen to the audio samples I include. Where possible, I will embed them directly in the page, but will often link to external resources. Learning the importance of a Perfect Fifth, for example, won’t do you a lot of good unless you know what it sounds like and can pick it out of a line-up. I will be using standard western music notation, a five-line staff, as well as audio clips, and I’ll give an overview of how to read this notation, but that part isn’t actually as important. No one needs to be able to read music in order to appreciate and understand it. It helps, and can give you deeper insight, but it’s also a lot of work, and I’m sure you’re a very busy person. The next post will give an introduction to musical notation and the fundamentals of things-that-sound-nice (heretofore referred to as “music”).

Music Theory I: Introduction - Seth Rait