Music Theory's Negativisms, Fallacies, Divisions, and Needs

October 1, 1977

This article was originally delivered as part of a unified group of papers entitled Music Theory: The Art, the Profession, and the Future, which was read at a plenary session of the national conferences of The College Music Society and the American Musicological Society, in Washington, D.C., on November 6, 1976. The other papers read in the session were:

If We Are All Theorists, Why Aren't We All Theorists?, by Richmond Browne
What Theorists Do, by Peter Westergaard
Diversity and the Decline of Literacy in Music Theory, by Carl E. Schachter
Sketch of a Foundation for Music Theory Today, by Carlton Gamer
Music Theory in Re-Transition: Centripetal Signs, by Allen Forte

(These papers were also included in SYMPOSIUM Volume 17#1.)


To initiate a re-examination of our art and profession, I shall adopt a negative stance that borrows freely from philosophy and literary criticism. Such negativisms are not to suggest that we are in the midst of a "dark age," or that our particular branch of learning is lacking in specification.

To be more direct, I shall enumerate a group of fallacies, which although not intended as an exhaustive catalog, are indicative of the scope of my argumentative negativism (whether or not the fallacies themselves are real or invented is not central; rather, this argument-with-self is more like pre-compositional activity which by the end of our composing may give some clues to the future).

A prevailing misconception views our discipline as being concerned with collecting, counting, isolating and naming what are loosely called musical facts. If such is the case, it is apparent that some of our reasons for being, such as analyzing tonal structures to determine their ideal relations to one another or the development of general principles that help us to understand any aural experience, have not been successfully communicated to our public. For our present purposes, let us assume that lack of understanding arises from activities and statements emanating from our profession and that these misunderstandings lead to the formulation of logical fallacies.

First on my list of negativisms is one I call the "quantitative fallacy." This fallacy is denoted by confusing the frequency of occurrence of the parts with the whole, and results in a tendency to equate statistical frequency with relational significance. We are all aware of studies that have quantified major and minor thirds, perfect fifths, etc., but how often have we neglected to point out that "more of something" is only indicative of relations, not an explanation of relationships; more importantly, that statistical frequency does not constitute a theoretical statement.

Unfortunately such quantifying of isolated phenomena is often encouraged in our educational institutions and is fostered by members of our profession who permit the identification of elements to become an object of knowledge (i.e., understanding) rather than a vehicle to knowledge.

Another typical fallacy fosters the conception that the study of symptoms is the object of musical knowledge. This "symptomatic fallacy" thrives on such things as "sweet thirds," the "Corelli clash," the "Mannheim rocket," "soggetto cavato," etc. Such an approach encourages identification and description of the musical object (experience) based on signs that are external and superficial and thereby fosters the notion that a catalog of symptoms provides information about the relational system that is a musical composition.

To elaborate, employing a priori concepts of consonance and dissonance often leads to false observations and inaccurate diagnoses. In the forefront is the grouping of intervals into two classes, consonant and dissonant, without proper regard to the context or the musical period. Thus, literally thousands of young musicians have been brainwashed to think of seconds, tritones, and sevenths as dissonant and symptomatic of tension; and that such tension requires, actually more like demands, resolution. This symptom of tension then is transferred indiscriminately to the atonal music of the early twentieth century. Since the observation of the symptom contains within it the diagnosis, music with a predominance of class 1, 2, and 6 intervals is incorrectly diagnosed as containing only tension and as being devoid of resolution. It is obvious that such a diagnosis is not conducive to the development of musical understanding.

Closely related is the nominal fallacy. This fallacy encourages the view that a thing named has intrinsic value in and of itself, and that events with the same name have identical structural value. Unfortunately this misconception is so firmly entrenched that it is difficult to combat. How often have you heard a student, upon hearing a movement, boldly proclaim that the movement is in "sonata-allegro" form, but upon inquiry it is evident very little musical content was experienced. It is not unlikely that stressing the name of an event is directly responsible for closing-off the achievement of an adequate musical experience, and that nominalism deludes a person into believing that musical understanding is being achieved.

Also pernicious is the nomothetic attitude, the law-giving, rule-oriented approach to explain musical organization. Characteristic laws many students erroneously believe to have been legislated are: V always moves to I; a major seventh is always dissonant; a decorative (embellishing) note is always dissonant; etc. I exaggerate, as before; nonetheless the legislative component of our art is easily observed and quickly promulgates a confusion between the rule-as-object and the principle as a means to musical understanding.

We come now to negativisms of more recent impact, or if their origins are in the mists of the past, they have assumed greater prominence recently. The first of these is the phenomenalistic fallacy: this view encourages the notion that only phenomena are knowable, and that only discrete phenomena exist. In the case of the theory of music, phenomenalism discourages the discovery of musical relationships (in fact, if we are to believe some musicians, the highest attainment a musical experience can achieve, with apologies to Buber, is the "I-Now"; hence it is not analyzable because the "I-Now" of the analysis is different from the thing being examined!). There is an inherent unpopularity in introducing this tangent, but I do so to point out that this modern solipsism has had considerable impact and has led many to believe that we should not waste our time seeking for and formulating principles that explain musical relationships. The fault is not one-sided, for neither should we impose principles on those situations to which a set of theoretical relations are not applicable. As should be clear, the phenomenalistic approach, adhered to without reserve, confuses the discrete events with the totality, rather than considering the discrete in its relations to the actual or potential totality.

Equally troublesome is the affective fallacy. This fallacy tends to confuse the musical work (the aural experience) with its results; or, more simply, confuses what the experience is with what the musical experience does. This attitude is actively promoted by certain psychological and educational circles; flow-over from their views successfully removes our art from formulating and developing musical relational principles to making statements that are descriptions of psychological states. Concomitantly, it measures verifiability of a theory by formulations extraneous to the relational set to be verified.

Frequently invoked, although often not recognized, is the intentional fallacy. In its attempts to explain the total aural experience the invoking of intent confuses the musical experience with its genetic origins. As a result the derived relational systems lead to the formulation of structural principles in terms of patterns deduced from the composer's intent. Such intent is often based on improperly drawn inferences, often historicism. As with the affective, the intentional fallacy formulates theoretical statements based on relations external to the thing being explained.

Perhaps the most difficult to cope with is the organic fallacy. There are many manifestations of organicism; the most prevalent are identified by such concepts as "Basic Shape" and "Thematic Unity." Typically, the organic theoreticians attempt to construct a system that relates musical operations to some germinal source (the "chord of nature" is another example). By concentrating on so-called processes of growth and organic connections, it is simple to demonstrate that all components of the musical experience function analogous to a living organism. The result is, and has been, that the analogy, because of its generality, does not lend itself to coping with specifics; in addition, references to "organic" often cover up faulty or non-rigorous analysis.

The last on my list is the reductive fallacy. The danger inherent in this is that it contributes to a confusion between the abstraction, the musical object, and the aural experience. That it poses problems arises not from reduction per se, for that is basic to all theory-making, but rather from the failure to recognize what the function of an abstraction is, or what principles of structure and organization an abstraction serves to elucidate.

Reluctantly, I have taken time to enumerate this group of logical fallacies that, invoked individually and in excess, afflict our art and profession. They are outgrowths of basic misunderstandings our public—our students, our colleagues, our administrators—have about the musical theorist and the theory of music. In actuality these misconceptions are directly related to our willingness to spend much of our time devoted to activities that have little to do with our profession, formulating theories of the total aural experience, i.e., formulating theories of music. One consequence of this state of affairs is that few theories are being formulated (and those that are, are very often produced by the youngest in our profession, the doctoral candidates).

Regrettably, this state of affairs is fostered by the inability of many who refer to themselves as theorists to articulate what a theorist is and how what the theorist does fits into the total education of the musician. It extends beyond that, for we need to ask ourselves how well have we articulated theories of music to those myriads of individuals whose teaching load is "filled" by being assigned a theory course (usually a course in musicianship)? Have we made available to these teaching musicians new theories, which in their initial formulation and presentation, are highly technical but in their application are less formidable? Have we attempted, as the sciences do, to make a theory comprehensible without destroying it in the process, by using language and other techniques of communication that will make the theoretical conceptions understandable to the inquisitive and intelligent musician? How often have we inadvertently publicized the minutiae without making known what the theoretical formulations are to explain? How often do we imply that system qua system has greater intrinsic value than how a system leads a musician to better understand the total musical event? Or similarly, how often do we imply that the "method" of a theory is the object of veneration rather than being the means for clarification?

How often do we permit ourselves to be trapped by adopting an incomplete system as if it represents a theory? These incomplete systems, usually those systems that concern themselves with only a limited number of musical dimensions, are the sources of the logical misunderstandings enumerated earlier and of our ancient dilemma of making the theory of music appropriate to everyday musicmaking.

Modest advances have been made in recent years to advance the theory of music, even though the centers of activity are limited in number, as perhaps they should be. One of the greatest weaknesses I perceive is our inability, sometimes unconcern, to present theories of music as art (art here means that branch of learning concerned with explicating musical relations) and our inability to restrain the amount of emphasis placed on the procedures used to illuminate those relations. There is also considerable use of a kind of scientism, which tends to produce theoretical statements that do not readily appear to conform to the description of an actual musical structure. The error is not the method, but our lack of framing such statements so that they become available to the members of our profession.

It is apparent that the professional theorist (no matter what stature this person has) continues to wear many hats, with too often minimal allowance made for theoretical activities. As the so-called "pure-science" researcher, the "pure-music" theoretician is hard pressed to prove the merits of theory-making, particularly when the results cannot be immediately translated into tangible monetary returns for an institution, much less as a measure of artistic productivity.

The artistic component is problematic, for on the whole, our profession has been singularly unsuccessful in allowing ourselves to be artists. Perhaps, that is why the perimeters of scientific endeavor are so enticing. The old myth that theory is a science of music, meaning that theory refers to those things that can be measured, needs to be dispelled. Such measuring is not, and never was, theory of music, even though such investigation is a necessary concomitant to theory-making. Neither does much of what is taught as theory—identification and recognition of intervals, chords, interval sets, etc.—represent more than an acknowledgement of what the materials of music consist of. Not until we begin to explain systematically structural relations do we begin to engage in our art and involve those with whom we are associated in the theory of music.

And it is as professional theorists that our future continues to be bleak, particularly when certain trends are surveyed, From my pessimistic pedestal it appears that the seismic crack between the professional theorist and the music profession as a whole is continuing to widen at an ever increasing pace, almost as if racing towards the return to separate continents in which the theory of music and musical practice operate in a Leibnitzian universe, travelling together but never interacting.

Can we relieve the inexorable pressure of the re-creation of separate continents? I believe it is possible if all members of our profession in their theoretical activities articulate with utmost clarity the contributions the theorist has made and continues to make.

We know that the theorist must be a musician first (as a matter of fact, it is a commonplace to state that his knowledge of music must be more extensive than that of any other musician). The theorist must also constantly strive to express his systematizing and describing vividly and clearly, avoiding at all costs obscurantism. More importantly, as a professional he must occupy himself with thinking about music, explaining the new, drawing on the old, so that new hypotheses are constantly forthcoming and so that the bases for a new theory of music may be established.

To provide for the future of the profession we must insure that institutions of higher learning and particularly the top echelon of administrators come to understand what is required to train the young theorist. This person, the potential theorist, must demonstrate musical proficiency of the highest order (by no means should it be a program populated by rejects); this person must be exposed to and become proficient in subjects related to logical examination and systematic description. Finally, everything possible must be done to provide the climate that is conducive to the development of creative theoretical activities, both for the theorist now practicing and for the development of future theorists.

The professional theorist is a necessary artisan whose worth should be measured by his contributions to theoretical knowledge and by his ability to bridge the gap between the composer and the performer. We must make this known to everyone concerned.

2590 Last modified on November 12, 2018