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I open here a question that appears much needed, not only because it was formally raised by Stephen Soderberg in several postings (https://discuss.societymusictheory.org/discussion/277 ; https://discuss.societymusictheory.org/discussion/279; https://discuss.societymusictheory.org/discussion/275), but also because SMT, after all, is the Society for Music Theory and as such should be aware of what it is about… My hope is that this may turn into a truly general discussion. To this end, I’ll try to avoid biased statements, but not polemic ones — and I hope that reactions will follow.
In a first approach, “music theory” might seem to be that which most of us teach under this name. However, if music theory were only that (or if it were all that), the question would hardly be worth raising. It is because music theory may not (exactly) be what we teach that the question must be raised. We teach both theory and practice, i.e. not only theory itself, but also how it can be put to use in musical practice. A scientific theory, in general, is some kind of hypothesis made about the world; and a musical theory, to me, similarly must be some kind of hypothesis about the musical world, or about specific aspects of it – music theories, in short, are hypotheses about how music works.
The fact is that, when we teach music in practice, we don’t really, or not often question our theoretical assumptions; and rightly so, many of us would think, because otherwise our students would soon get lost. But the risk exists, then, to teach what is but a theory, a hypothesis, as if it were a truth, a certitude. This raises the question of scientificity: a theory, according to Popper, must be "falsifiable" to count as scientific — that is, its formulation must not prevent it being proven false. Are musical theories scientific?
Let’s consider a concrete example, Roman numerals. Am I right to suppose that most of us do use Roman numerals at some point in our teaching, but that fewer of us would consider them a theory? How many of us are aware of the theoretical, i. e. the hypothetical background of such a simple device? The hypotheses involved include, among others, the following:
– Chords are built on a root, they can be inverted without losing their root or their identity.
– The role of chords in tonality is heavily dependent on the root on which they are built, and rather less on their real bass.
– The seven possible roots in the tonal scale produce roughly seven distinct functions, even if these usually are not further defined.
– Some root movements are particularly significant, especially those allowing to build another theory —let's leave it for later—, that of cadences.
Is it reasonable to teach on such bases without stressing that these are but hypotheses, and that alternative theories do exist? Can we reasonably believe that students who might later be confronted with the theories of Rameau, Riemann, Schoenberg, Schenker, and so many others, can be dispensed from realizing that Roman numerals do express a theory? And what if we were later in charge or teaching, say, Renaissance "theory"? We teach music theory, but do we teach music theories? And can we do so without at least some consideration of their history?