The Purpose of Music Theory

Courses in music theory are required in all universities, colleges, conservatories, and piano studios, but its purpose has remained elusive, you just have to take them. Josef Lhevinne has remarked that advanced students that come to him for instruction at Juilliard ‘barely know what key they are playing in’, and he feels he is teaching some kind of ‘parrot’ whose playing ‘will always remain meaningless’.  How can this be given the fact that theory is a requirement?

The purpose of theoretical studies should be the recognition of scales, intervals, and chords, and what the music is doing by ear. Studies of the types of cadences won’t do this, nor will listing of the modes, or the indication of inversion by way of figured bass, etc., etc.  Playing by ear should be as obvious as driving a car by sight.  But piano students don’t listen, since they have no idea what to listen for as they play memorized notes.

The purpose of theoretical studies should be for example, the analysis of characteristic intervals and what intervals make up a harmony. But that kind of training doesn’t exist. Ear training, as it exists in a course of study is the singing of scale degrees, do-re-mi, an effort far removed from music itself.  Dr. Leopold Mannes lamented regarding, “the seemingly unbridgeable gap between their theoretical studies and the living experience of music itself”. — from Dr Leopold Mannes’ Preface to Dr. Felix Salzer’s book, ‘Structural Hearing’.

The memorizing of compositions is the lowest and most meaningless efforts of pianists.  But when functions of notes, identities of chords, and what they are doing and what they sound like in a piece of music at hand, music comes alive, and memory becomes automatic. I have never taken an advanced or moderately advanced student who could tell the difference between two different scales by ear, and explain their differences, for example.

Following Einstein’s quote, ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t know it well enough’, the entire subject of music theory may be reduced into two areas; function and identity. But these two areas are not to be found in any music theory text, college course, or piano lesson. ‘What are you hearing’, rather than ‘what notes are you playing’ should be the question. Teachers should teach by ear rather than hovering over students watching every note they are playing.

And most importantly, the teaching of improvisation from the very first lesson must be presented so that students begin to exercise their powers of choice rather only the learning of notes. Children learn the spoken language by ear and by choice of words. Music should be learned the same way.

Ralph Carroll Hedges, B.Ed., B.Mus., M.M.

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