Tag Archives: Music Theory

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.

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