[Home] [Up]

Theory Project 1: Introduction

David Raleigh Arnold

Knowing is not enough; we must apply;

Willing is not enough; we must do. –Goethe

Chapter 1. Introduction

Estimated Time to Complete?

Feel free to skip this entire chapter, but I hope you won’t. Its a quick read.

The History of Western Music

In the West, early Christian monks devised a modal system in a completely new way. They did it without using a stringed instrument for reference. Because of that modal system, which cannot be demonstrated to have been derived from any other, notation became almost inevitable. For the first time in all of mankind’s experience, there was a way of writing music as sound, not merely as instructions in how to play certain notes on a stringed instrument.

Musical notation is the unique contribution of Western civilization to the cultural history of man. In that one way, Western culture was superior to all others. Western music has to some varying extent adopted all other musical traditions, and the same certainly cannot be said of any other musical culture. Ten thousand years from now, if we are remembered at all, it will be for having developed musical notation.

With notation, music with many different voices at once[1] became a practical possibility. A way of measuring the time values or lengths of notes is necessary to write music for many voices, and a way of noting time was then quickly developed.[2] Written music is timed, and not merely a sequence of notes. Rhythm is the most important element in music, because there is lots of music without musical tones, but there is no music whatever without time.[3]

At first, harmony was considered to be the interaction of voices and nothing more, and theories and practice of counterpoint (writing voices which interact with each other) were in large measure the curriculum of Bach and his predecessors. During Bach’s lifetime Rameau published a Treatise on Harmony which propounded the notion of the fundamental bass, which we usually call the root today, and thus invented the idea of the chord as we understand it now. Soon, music began to be written accordingly, but for many Romantic composers, as for the Classical composers, serious composition remained a matter of using the theories of the past as well as the new theories to write music entirely as individual moving voices. Chord names described and analysed, but a chord was not an entity in itself. This way of writing is called common practice. In a very few years, some composers developed chord sense,[4] which is the idea, implied by Rameau, that a chord can be a building block in writing music regardless of what happens to all the possible independent voices. From 1722 until today there have been composers and songwriters with all three views, to varying degrees, at work.

Put another way:

–1750: The Baroque Era ends with the death of Bach.

1722–1830: The Classical Era

1722–1900: The Romantic Era

1722–Present: The Modern Era

It’s hard to see how the “era of common practice”, if “common” is taken to mean that almost everyone did it, could have lasted more than a week.[5]

If music theory is considered in this way, nothing much has happened since 1722. Carcassi’s use of 9th and 11th chords in 1836 and Legnani’s use of altered chords, stable tonic added 6ths, and dominant 13ths in 1813 show that their writing of harmony had more in common with that of Duke Ellington or George Gershwin than that of their contemporary, Sor.

Progress in art is individual accomplishment, not style.

What is the purpose of music theory?

Musical theories are very important in the history of music. Musical theories can sometimes supply practical working guidelines, but one theory does not fit all. Musical theories and analysis is not about absolute truth, or what a given fragment of music really means. It is all point of view. It has been very wisely said that understanding is nothing more than seeing something from more than one perspective.

To learn musical theories is not the point of studying, or rather practicing, “music theory”. Traditionally, that term refers to a series of writing exercises. Reading most web pages devoted to music theory is like reading an arithmetic textbook without doing any problems. It really doesn’t lead to understanding, or skill, or anything.

The traditional content is related to pitch and hardly at all to rhythm, and fortunately that is slowly changing, but even now many musicians are so crippled by ignorance that they don’t know what a musical accent is.[6]

How to use this Workbook

This is the first and last chapter that doesn’t require work from you, and the chapters are called “projects”. Don’t be tempted to skip anything if you haven’t done the work before. Use a pencil, not ink. Appreciation of fine writing of musical scores, in a calligraphic sense, has never been very widespread, and you have no present need to invest in it.[7] However, work on writing notes legibly will help greatly with your reading, although no workbook is a substitute for slowly and steadily naming the notes as you play them.

This workbook begins with the assumption that you are still insecure on your instrument, and that you can’t read very well. The exercises have only one part or voice. The same music is to be written on staves appropriate for piano, viola, or guitar. Every instrument is provided for here. Depending on your needs, present abilties, and ambitions, you may choose to do the work only on the staff or grandstaff that you are used to, or trying to become used to. You might want to come back and fill in the gaps at some time in the future. When the music in parts begins, the alto clef will be dropped, because it is not used for a polyphonic instrument.

It is trumpeted with great persistence that the piano is the best instrument to use to study harmony and such topics, but that is not true. The best polyphonic instrument to use for studying these things is the one that you have and the one that you are able to play.

For detailed information on music notation, Wikipedia’s articles are generally excellent. Unfortunately, in spite of academics who make claim to expertise they do not have. and in spite of all the books written on the subject, there is no such thing as an expert in music notation. The best has to be good enough.

It doesn’t matter how much you may already have read or what you know or understand. The only thing that matters now is how much you have already done. One thing that you should have learned already in life is that time spent on fundamentals is well spent. I hope that you will find time spent on these particular fundamentals to be sometimes interesting as well as always rewarding.

End Notes:

§1 Polyphony. A melody alone is monophony.

§2 Mensural notation introduced time values. Mensural means, unfortunately, both the specific early style and all the later styles in which each note has a certain time value.

§3 Music happens in time. Yu can raed tihs easliy cnat yio? You can’t do that with music. Therefore very early music literacy could be expected to help reduce dyslexia, in my opinion.

§4 Chord sense does not imply that Bach and Mozart didn’t have any sense, and the term is not meant to convey anything other than a style of writing in which some of the voices have no identity except as members of chords.

§5 Common practice is the basis of harmony classes in universities. These are extremely beneficial, as are classes in species counterpoint. None of it is about absolute truth. These are disciplines or means of training oneself.

§6 For example, Olivier Messiaen apparently never figured it out, but that didn’t stop him from persistently teaching a lot of utter nonsense about rhythm.

Every ethnic musical tradition seems to have champions who make the claim that something about some particular rhythm or other is somehow unique, but that is never true.

You can get a degree in music without spending any time playing conga or guitar, when a working knowledge of both should be required in addition to piano and voice. In my opinion. ☺

§7 An autographed score is one which has been handwritten with ink on paper in such a manner that it looks as good or better than one which has been well engraved. See some of the scores that Vladimir Bobri did for Segovia if you get a chance, and Bobri was just an amateur. (at music, not at art) Perhaps there will be more interest in it as art since it has become less practical in publishing.

[Home] [Up]
©2007, 2008 David Raleigh Arnold - http://www.openguitar.com