► Stop teaching music theory and start teaching music theories.

Great article by Jason Timothy.

My argument is not that one style of music is better than another. It’s that sometimes when you create your own path, it may take longer, but it’s more likely that you’ll find your own sound, and in doing so, a much deeper satisfaction.

As someone with extensive theory training, I wish a stronger middle ground existed between Timothy’s point of view and the classical “no parallel fifths” approach to theory.

While his argument is certainly well meaning, I’d argue that every musician on his list exploits some commonly agreed upon conventions of western music. Tonality, for instance. The function of chord progression, however strong or weak. These aspects are intuitively known to most trained musicians regardless of theory knowledge, but the rulesy approach administered by most professors is off-putting.

Consider a musical universal like time cycles. These are approached in many different ways with many different specifics, but the idea of starting, stopping, and repetition is present in every form of music on the planet.

Now consider a Western universal aspect like chord progressions. Whether the subject is Chopin, Debussy, Eno, Aphex Twin or anything else on Top40 radio, chords and their functions are almost universally present. Even in Schoenberg the dissonance means nothing without the cultural context of the tonality he tries to avoid.

Music theory is culture, and just as the Webster made a strong call for his dictionary to take a descriptive rather than a prescriptive approach, so should music teachers and professors. The basic facts of music are rarely addressed in favor of endless and pointless exercises like Schenker reductions and Hindemith dots and fugues upon fugues upon fugues!

I’d conclude the real issue at stake here is not whether or not to learn music theory. I think it is nothing less than the fact that how music theory is taught needs to be significantly overhauled to maintain relevance for the modern musician.

Author: Will Kuhn

I teach music technology to high schoolers. I do some other stuff too. @willkuhn on Twitter.

3 thoughts on “► Stop teaching music theory and start teaching music theories.”

    1. I think there might be a lot of interest in this sort of approach – the old school type theory classes aren’t really all that relevant outside of the “future music ed” crowd.

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