Theory and Practice

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Theory and practice in music are often portrayed as opposing modes of discernment. Theory is viewed as abstract, analytical and remote from the musical moment. Its tools and methods distill a work to its elemental components and provide the mechanical framework for a piece’s construction; but they hardly account (or attempt to account) for music’s affections or aesthetics. At its most austere, theory becomes what seventeenth-century philosopher Marin Mersenne conceived it to be: the reduction of music to the movement of air. Opponents of this approach, like social critic Morris Berman, point to its apparent spiritlessness. For them, music is a happening, existing to be heard and felt, not dissected or diagnosed.

If we take the extremes of either position, then listening and analysis are two unrelated activities. True, the theorist rarely dwells on the effects of a piece while examining it under the microscope. And the listener rarely ponders specific properties that are stimulating a musical response. However, theory and practice are not as distant as we might presume. Not only are they aspects of the same phenomenon—music—they also address companion human needs for order and wonder.

The combination of formal design and amorphous impact is at the root of music’s appeal. Though features such as pitch, timbre, duration and harmony are susceptible to meticulous examination, their cumulative effect cannot be accurately predicated, precisely measured or empirically determined. It is at the same time science and art.

Mathematician and polymath Jacob Bronowski made a related observation in his influential book, The Identity of Man (1965). Using science and poetry as contrasting pathways of human inquiry, Bronowski explained that while scientific imagination seeks to resolve ambiguities by conducting decisive tests between alternatives, artistic imagination encourages divergent paths without deciding for one or the other. Science is miserly, weeding out the proliferation of new ideas; art is generous, exploiting the vastness of ambiguities. For Bronowski, these two trajectories of the imaginative process—narrowing and expanding—form the basis of human consciousness.

It is intriguing that both avenues exist simultaneously in music. A musical selection is receptive to the scientific approach of the theorist, who separates, labels and quantifies its basic materials. But it is also open-ended, inviting subjective reactions and creative interpretations. These modes of engagement can appear mutually exclusive and certainly call upon different devices and frames of mind. Yet, when we apply Bronowski’s insights, it becomes clear that theory and practice satisfy the concurrent and fundamental human needs for certainty and possibility. Science and art merge in music, enriching the entirety of consciousness.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

16 thoughts on “Theory and Practice

  1. John Morton

    Interesting post Jonathan discussing a subject that I still ponder over to this today, and I wrote my first few notes in 1958. Strictly speaking, it probably isn’t correct to say that music’s cumulative effects could never be predicted, although the task would be daunting and, ultimately pointless, possibly. There comes a point where we drop below a human being’s ability to discern the difference between discreteness and continuity (if there is such a thing), which would drastically reduce the size of the task. (We know, for example that, in a computer playback from a notation program, we can create a steady rise in volume incrementally because of our inability to discern small changes.) I often find myself ‘constructing’ music, not as a result of any belief in the process itself, but to find a way forward or to discover new avenues, and I’ve always found it fascinating how musical architecture (for lack of a better word) serves up unexpected delights as I play around with musical materials and their development. I know that if a composer relies on intuition alone in the vain belief in his or her musical infallibility the music will suffer. If you go to you will find a piece entitled ‘Los Jardines de Espana’ which began as an experiment in using the Fibonacci series as a source of melody, harmony and rhythm. John Morton.

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Thank you for your comments and for sharing your music. Intriguing stuff, indeed.

      I think you and I are in agreement that theory and experiment are both crucial guiding forces in Western art music. Intuition probably plays a larger role in other forms, especially in many ethnic and oral traditions. But it may be true that we are never completely free when we write music, as musical conditioning begins in the womb.

      By not being able to predict music’s effect, I mean simply that we cannot say for certain how a listener will respond: what images will pop into her head, what memories will be recalled, what mood will be induced, what sensations will be felt, whether or not she’ll like it, etc. It is the subjectivity of that experience which theory alone cannot account for — and why music remains an enigma even as we have tools with which to construct to measure it.

  2. John Morton

    I was pleased to read your comment about musical conditioning beginning in the womb. I believe it does. Added to this, there is still no agreement regarding the role of the inheritance of personality traits, talents etc., as well as physical characteristics.

    Re: music’s affect on the listener, I believe that music reproduces the very nature of a physical existence that existed before mankind. A slowly oscillating melodic form suggests tranquillity, inactivity (etc. etc… in the interests of brevity). A melody demonstrates inertial and kinetic forces. I’ve had discussions on here before regarding the possibility that music is a universal language and I’ve tried to entice musicologists into the thread. I’m just a composer. One problem is, for example, the different effect the minor scale has on an Arab (or a Jew?). This is probably a matter of conditioning.

    Attitudes to ‘intuition’ might be affected by the presence or absence of religious beliefs.

    I’m not sure if you played Brasshouse Alley on Soundcloud but this little piece was more constructed than created and yet it really works for me. The others (except for Los Jardines) use the usual mixture of factors involved in the process of composing. Most of the pieces were written to sell to middle-range bands. There are many others.

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      I’m really enjoying your insights and music.

      Regarding musical responses, I think there are some basic ways in which we can expect people to respond to a piece within a given music-culture, but I hesitate to predict universals (in music or anything else). There is simply too much cultural diversity and individual variations among the world’s populations. At the same time, I also feel that music is pre-linguistic and does certainly induce “primal states” (to quote Aaron Copland). But I think that conditioning (cultural and individual) has much to do with how we respond to music in modern times. However, there is a measure of mystery involved. As far as I know, no definite reason has been accepted regarding why exactly people respond to music emotionally. As such, I tend to be more open than most musicologists to the ideas you propose.

      1. John Morton

        Thanks for your enthusiasm. I, to, enjoy these exchanges.

        Your comments are very much in line with other comments I’ve received in the past. Perhaps, in the main stream of ‘western’ music, for lack of a better word, there might be universal responses to the way in which the shaping forces in music are arranged. This has been my experience, at least.

        In less industrialized areas of the world some of our responses would not be shared. For example, the ‘up, up and away’ effect created by a melody that soars upwards, as if defying gravity, might fall on deaf ears. It would also be difficult for them to respond to bebop, where the forms echoed the confusion and uncertainty of a world where religious belief was put under strain by the horrors of WW2. The flattened fifth divides the octave exactly in half, causing the position of the tonic to become obscured.

        My own wife, a country girl, doesn’t like some of my SoundCloud posts. She asked me to turn the volume down even though it wasn’t set high.

      2. jlfriedmann Post author

        I hate to be so conventional in my thinking, but the human mind and human societies are so complex as to defy stereotype. That being said, once the conditions are set (however they are) we tend to respond in stereotyped ways. That is why film music works. What is universal about music, to me, is that we all seem to need it, whatever our reactions to particular sounds.

        I have the same problem with my wife: she likes some of my compositions, but can’t stand others. (You can hear a few at my website:

      3. John Morton

        One possible explanation is the degree of superficiality that prevails. For Example, in popular music, judgements are often based as much on image as on the music itself and, even in jazz, the trad/mod divide still exists. On the other hand, in the classical field, one wouldn’t expect to hear someone say ‘Oh, you’re into Beethoven, are you, I’m a Mozart man myself”. I’m not suggesting that you yourself are superficial. We’re discussing the effect that music has on people as a whole and I believe that the principle of music being able to be ‘engineered’ (for lack of a better word!) to create a response based on its ability to echo physical reality begins seriously to break down when the superficialities of so-called culture are brought into play. I’ll check out the website!

      4. jlfriedmann Post author

        There is certainly an abundance of superficiality when it comes to musical opinions, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the functional nature of music. All music, even absolute music, is accepted or rejected based on whether it “works” for the listener. Visual stimulation in pop, though extra-musical, is for many people a determining factor when it comes to embracing or rejecting a certain performer or song. Similarly, one’s preference for Beethoven or Mozart (or certain of their compositions over others) is, to my mind, really a statement about the purpose(s) the music fulfills or doesn’t fulfill. In this view, musical judgment is about more than just the sound. We have moved beyond the evolutionary origins of music in the human species, but we have not outgrown the fact that music was (and is still) made for a complex set of functions.

      5. John Morton

        I believe you’re correct in pointing out the complexity of these issues and the (inferred)danger of making hard and fast generalizations. Your comment about the functional nature of music puzzles me a little because that’s at the centre my thoughts, too, and yet I come to a different conclusion. I might substitute the word ‘subjective’. I’m also pleased you mentioned ‘absolute’ music. I wonder if there is such a thing, in the strictest sense of the word, but it would take this discussion too far off track to pursue that here.

  3. John Morton

    I’ve just ‘Liked’ the post referred to, because I do. The rising and falling of pitch in melody, linked to the horizontally conceived ‘time’ axis, together with the tonal recession into the orchestral landscape created by instrumentation and dynamics, give us a feeling of space. Loud brass create an aggressive feeling (etc. etc…). Personally, I can’t think of any of my friends and colleagues who might settle down for an evening of serial music but even that will not be free from associations with everyday, tangible realities.

    “It comes to us as a container brimming with associations, the contents of which are the by-product of our unique life experiences. It triggers a varied assortment of memories, visuals, sensations and sentiments. In short, we derive meaning from it whether we intend to or not.”

    This is true in my opinion, too, except that I also believe in the broader sense of emotion in music being created by the shaping of musical materials. Added to this, some of the associative factors are sometimes so intensely personal that it’s difficult to integrate them into an art form. I might put a house brick on a plate and someone, somewhere, would respond to it. Or I might paint a masterpiece but the person depicted might remind an observer of a teacher he didn’t like at school. As I point out in the book, our creative abilities can be affected just by what we ate for breakfast, something I find difficult to live with.

    Having said all this, some believe that everything we do is ‘art’ simply because we did it.

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Good points. The complexity of musical responses derives largely from the entanglement of personal factors and the music itself. This may also account for why we can listen to a recording over and over (and over many years) without growing tired of it. The music stays the same — the expected or “baseline” effect is still present — but we are different people each time we hear it. It is a new yet familiar experience.


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