I’ve been pondering the idea of music theory lately. As some of you know, my choral setting of the text Far Far Away on Judea’s Plains has recently been published by Jackman Music.
Having a print publication out there opens me up for some criticism. On the one side, I’ll hear from people who know just enough theory to be dangerous: “Um, didn’t you see all the parallel fifths? They’re even in the first measure!”
For the record, yes. I saw them. Actually, I wrote them. On purpose.
On the other end of the spectrum, I’ll have some comments from people who are very well-versed in theory: “It was a good attempt, I suppose. But didn’t you it came out a bit predictable?”
If you equate listenability with predictability, I suppose you’ll apply that label to most music.
The trouble is that for so many musicians, a working knowledge of music theory gives a false sense of expertise. Traditionalists want stringent adherence to rules. Never mind that the greatest composers in history intentionally broke those rules on occasion; we must honor their memory by following the rules without deviation.
Some modernists, on the other hand, find the rules of tonality and trite and boring, and they dismiss any music that follows the rules as unoriginal, repetitive, and dull.
The problem in music theory, as in politics, is that there are so few moderates. I suppose this makes sense: how many people are passionately moderate about a given subject? I have never seen a rally to encourage moderation on any issue; it’s either left or right, either for or against. In music theory, it’s either traditional or modern.
Here’s my trouble: I agree that music written strictly by the rules is often dry and unappealing. I also agree that music written without any rules is often unpleasant and irrelevant to the audience. I want to have it both ways.
So like so many other composers do, I pick and choose. I decide when I want to be tonal and when I want to be atonal. I sometimes resolve suspensions properly, and I sometimes don’t. I am not a Mozart or a Beethoven, but I do something they did: I write what sounds good to my ears. My audiences generally seem to appreciate and agree with those choices.
In my listening, I also try to be empathetic. I listen for what the composer was trying to accomplish and the road he took to get there. I consciously choose to avoid thoughts about how I would have done it differently. All composers (even those I really can’t stand) have lessons to teach and techniques to examine.
Theory is a science that simply examines practice. Practice comes first. Musicians make music first, and then theoreticians dissect it. Some theoreticians do become great composers, but they must bring more than theory to the table; they must combine their knowledge with an undefinable human element in order to make organic music.