A casual survey of so-called music theory books used by piano and violin teachers reveals that music theory is frequently understood to be the body of knowledge needed to read music. When students using these materials “learn music theory,” they are asked to name notes and chords, identify and define symbols such as key and time signatures, measures, kinds of notes, and so forth. When I got to college and had to take freshman music theory, I saw that now my professors considered knowing how to label octaves, write with correct voice leading in four parts, and analyze chords as music theory. Later still, I found that studying music theory meant doing Schenkerian analysis, which included making reductions. So what exactly is music theory? Is it note and chord spelling, a method of musical composition, or analyses of musical works?
Perhaps we should start with a simpler question: what is a theory? The writers of the Webster-Merriam Dictionary wrote that a theory is “an idea or set of ideas that is intended to explain facts or events.” Notice that the facts and events themselves are not the theory, but the explanation of them. Theories explain how things in the world work; things like gravity, the human mind, and relativity. A theory of music, then, describes how music works, but not in the sense of A’s or G-sharps or B-flats, but in terms of harmonics and vibrations. It would explain why certain pitch combinations sound dissonant with a discussion of the tones not sharing overtones, while notes that sound consonant have multiple shared overtones. Such explanations have a scientific basis, and explain why music sounds the way it does. Piano tuners use such a theory all the time as they measure the tempering for pairs of notes. Knowing that a pitch is a B-flat doesn’t explain how music works, any more than saying a house is made of wood and bricks explains the forces acting upon that house that keep it from falling apart. Children who are learning note names, chord names, and note types are learning the materials of music, not music theory.
While it may seem pedantic to dwell on this point, many well-intentioned music teachers have been led to believe that note, chord and rhythm spelling is all one needs to know to learn to play or sing competently, and to understand music. A teacher with this disposition will not find it necessary to go further, avoiding such important things as note tendencies and attractions, differences in the tensions of different intervals, and the expressive potential of these. If one focuses only on what is found in so-called music theory books, (and the reader will now understand why I say “so-called) aural skills will often remain divorced from music spelling limiting the musical understanding to written signs and symbols without sound and, because it is music, without meaning.
Schenkerian analysis hits closer to the mark, because it at least begins to explain how the human mind organizes music beyond the physically heard sound. Lerdahl & Jackendoff’s Generative Theory of Tonal Music comes even closer, articulating a psychological basis for how we organize and understand music that we hear. With knowledge of these actual theories, a music student can then understand how the notes, chords and rhythms they are learning are formed into structures of meter, motifs, themes, theme groups, sections, movements and works over periodic time-spans, and create patterns of tensions and relaxations that are the expressiveness of music. Note names, chord names, and rhythms are just the beginning, and alone are inadequate for teaching music theory and music in general. Teachers should by all means teach music spelling, but must also teach what sounds those things being spelled are, how and in what forms they exist in the physical world as sound, and how they interact and are perceived as musical in combinations that have musical and psychological bases. That is the essence of music theory and essential to good music teaching.