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    The Total Scope of Music Theory

    This thread is a segue to the recent thread "Blog 'Against Music Theory' Sure to Generate Discussion". The present thread is not so much against current Music Theory, rather it is for a bigger-and-better Music Theory.

    Preamble: The study of Music Theory ("MT") has been nearly monopolized by "note-centric" studies (i.e. studies focused around notes and patterns of notes - e.g. harmony, melodic, contrapuntal, Schenker, ...).  While note-centric study is certainly of value, there has been neglect of other areas of MT that are vast, exciting, relevant, and of high-value. Because of this over-attention to one area and relative neglect of the rest, there has been growing complaint (as per Ethan Hein and many others). It is timely for some of us to take a step back, get a broad view of MT, and lead the way to broader and deeper explorers of the total subject of MT.

    I am defining "Music Theory " ("MT") simply as "theory about music", "music" construed broadly. I am allowing "Music Analysis" to be included in MT, since the two seem to be naturally intertwined. My background: I'm a Ph.D. technologist; a very good musician; and also active in the world of  contemporary music (see www.MondayEveningCocerts.org). I'm avant-garde, iconoclast, impatient by nature. I run a computer software firm, think of me as a friendly outsider to the academic world. The materials below are intended to kick-start what I believe could be a very important discussion. Here goes ...


    A. Intro

    There are two gigantic areas of MT that are being neglected: Music as experienced by the listener (section [B] below); and Meta-theory about MT (section [D] below) .   I will focus on these

    (Another gigantic area of MT  - music-as-notes - is about the same as "mainstream music theory", this area of course is being explored vigorously. )

    B. Music as Experienced by the Listener

    I have explored this area vigorously myself. I will outline what I have discovered so far.

    I think my discoveries are good point of reference for other researches.

    Listener-experience includes the following

          [a] Real-time experience/reaction/behavior of listeners while listening

          [b] Delayed reactions

          [c] Thought processes triggered by musical experience - listeners naturally talk about, think about music, sometimes long after the music is over.

          [d] "Transcendental" experiences triggered by music experience (i.e. ecstasy, awe, vague revery, grandiose imaginations, ...)

          [e] Acoustic/sonic experience; theatrical/dramatic experience; networked experience (with musicians, fellow listeners, ...)

          [f] Comparing, ranking, rating

    Can any of the above be modeled in a robust way?

           The answer is Yes.

           One way at getting at the above is to take advantage of the fact that the above is *what professional music critics write about*.

            If you focus on modeling what a music critic does, then you get a fairly good model of listener experience.

            I have tried something like this, with considerable success.

            I can use my current model to output new music-criticism which is insightful, thorough, compelling !

    An emphatic observation: There is rich opportunity now to develop models for comparing, ranking and even rating music.

    Some people are horrified at my observation. But I gently point out that almost everyone does some of compare-rank-rate, it's natural behavior. And there is often a feeling of (partial) objectivity when one does it. The job for MT is to analyze what is going on here (when people compare, rank, rate) , and to abstract into models, perhaps several alternative models.

    C. Goals and "Responsibilities" for the MT Community

    Try to explain why music is valued so deeply by so many people


    Articulate all of the "Great Questions of Music", and try to shed light on them (e.g. "Does music convey emotion, or does it just seem to?" "Is music a kind of language?" ...)

    As per the above, develop outstanding model(s) to compare, rank, and rate music. If there are different models which express alternative viewpoints, get this out in the open. If there are arguments that all such models are nonsense, those arguments should also be carefully developed.

    Help artists to think about effective performance, effective production, and related.

    Work with artists to develop models for specific genres of music. Herbie Hancock did this for Rock in his video series "Rock School", an excellent job! I would bet that Wynton Marsalis or someone from his team could develop something similar for Jazz.

    Work hard on models that work apply to the widest variety of musical styles and genres. (Since "music is music" it is common sense that there be one or more rich universal models that apply to every kind of music!)

    D. Meta-Theory

    MT is not just dry research; it is also a "service profession".

    It should address the interests of listeners, composers, performers, producers.

    Practitioners should be inspired and focused by the needs of these constituencies.

    Here are some key issues about MT:

    [1] Develop a proper characterization of the subject of MT

    In my own view: MT is a kind of scientific discipline, but it is not primarily a laboratory or experimental science.

    Its methods of "verification"/"evaluation" are not primarily via lab experiments or anything like that.

    It has some bone structure in common with Computer Science or Artificial Intelligence.

    Not so much in common with a lab science such as Chemistry.

    (But that's my view. Needs to be elaborated, debated, revised, OR ...)

    Especially important: How is MT (potentially) similar to other present-day disciplines that are highly successful, and what can we learn from them?


    [2] AI/Expert systems are destined to take over substantial portions of MT.

    Prime target: Most of Section [B]; most of mainstream (note-centric) Music Theory

    As this proceeds, there will be radical effects on the work that is done in MT. And in the "identity" of the profession. (i.e. [D1] above)

    [3] Deep analysis of how vocabulary/language operates in MT

    Throughout MT, language (especially vocabulary) is our principal access to musical phenomena.

    ("Our minds can touch music only via words")

    The vocabulary in MT is of wide variety, some of it quite odd.

    Some terms are simple, precise, easy to use (e.g. note, time signature, accelerando, cancrizans, ...)

    And then there are terms which are annoyingly difficult to use or even understand: (e.g. gesture, meaning, emotion, semiotics, ...)

    We can probably learn a lot from close analysis of how we think and write about music, especially at the vocabulary level

    And we can probably improve the way we communicate about music (plenty of poor academic prose that could be improved)

    [4] Connect  MT to the most appropriate traditions in academic philosophy

    E.g., I think that MT would benefit tremendously from linking to certain ideas in late-Wittgenstein.

    Late-Wittgenstein can be used to characterize music as a complex of music + human behavior + language.

    This in turn links with the subjects of Artificial Intelligence.; and *models* over theories

    There is powerful leverage here.

    E. Conclusion

    To recap: The materials above are the result of extensive thought and research.

    For my latest, see  www.OMSModel.com

    All of this is intended to help lead research into vast areas that are being neglected.

    If some of what I write  here (or in www.OMSModel.com) is corrected, surpassed, or abandoned, that's okay: I just want P R O G R E S S

    The potential for MT is big and exciting. Not just to academics, but also to musicians and to listeners of all kinds.


    Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.




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    • 6 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • I'm happy to discover your work Ethan and I am the main instigator!  More!

      - Carson 

    • Regarding your fantasy music curriculum Ethan - brilliant!  Consider me a disciple!  I'm following your blog and have read many of your posts.  Very refreshing.

      I will add that I actually have enjoyed and benefited from studying the Western music canon because I am interested in the teleology of compositional ideas.  It matters not to me what period of history, origin, culture music was written or emanates from, rather in what I can learn and use in my own present music and understanding of composition.  Monteverdi's Orfeo has been on my mind recently.  Why? Form, orchestration, rhythm, vocal part writting and effects, use of polyphony.  But in general I am not looking to the past for sanctuary, just what generalized concepts can be used and/or interpreted in present day langauge.  

    • Ethan, the focal point of your "fantasy music curriculum" ("fmc") is pop music. In 2017, I think there is enough substance in pop music that this is a feasible focal point. (Would not have been feasible back in the days of Perry Como and Patti Page).

      For certain kinds of students, I think an even better focal point would be top-quality cutting-edge contemporary [Chaya Czernowin, Kurtag, Julius Eastman ... and their top performers,such as Patricia Kopatchinskaja or Marino Formenti. ]. That kind of music - when performed superbly - can be the experience of a lifetime, it reprograms the neurons. You could argue that if a reasonable student were to spend an afternoon with a fireball like Kopatchinskaja or Formenti, that would be an ultimate introductory education on music.

      But pop music is certainly a practical focal point for a beginning student. Learn a lot quickly, get some substantial material under one's belt, and then go in whatever direction one wishes.

      Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.




    • “Just listen with the vastness of the world in mind. You can’t fail to get the message.”  – Pierre Boulez

      That says it all Isaac!  I have bookmarked your site and looking forward to exploring your ideas further.  This is what I have also been interested in.  Recently I have seen two fantastic documenteries on music - "Deconstructing Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "Deconstructing Revolver."   Both Beatles albums of course.  The lectures are by a fantastic musicologist and I have to say that there is so much to learn that has nothing to do with note centric theory of prime importance and musical innovation and this is exactly the point for a wider perspective of what's happening in music.

      For example, close micing of string instruments to get a grainy texture and presence, using 5 selected tape loops mixed live in the recording of "Tomorrow Never Knows," slowing down the speed of recordings to achieve a different character or increased durations, using Baroque trumpets, using loud speakers as microphones, use of modes (dorian) as in "Elenor Rigby." Four grand pianos/eight players for the final chord of "A Day In The Life." Orchestra recorded and dubbed four times in the buildup section of the same song, use of Indian instruments and musicians, sound effects (comb kazoos) in "Lovely Rita," disguised vocal track jokes - frere jacque sung by John and Paul in the background singing in "Paperback Writer." 

      I know there is disagreement about the Beatle's place and worth in music history especially among "serious" musicians, but I have to say I was absolutely astonished by these films and came out with a new perspective of the group - Pure Genius and as powerful as any music I have ever experienced.  

    • Visualization and graphics are also another dimension of analytical understanding.  And why it is useful to graph linear and non linear equations - the results are instantly visible.  Palindrome as a visual cue immediately shows mirror image properties.  For me (being the math dummy I am) visualization is a necessary tool in understanding complexity.  I have difficulty converting algebraic symbols into comprehensible information except at simpler levels. But back to the point, there are different ways of examining musical theory relationships besides the note centric models.  However, note centric models are unquestionable, organic, and innate - but not necessarily the best starting place.  Asking questions at the outset is more important than forgone conclussions.