What Theorists Do

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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
Music Theory's Negativisms, Fallacies, Divisions, and Needs, by Vernon Kliewer
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.)


I would like to try to characterize for you what I think the essential concerns of music theory are, what they might be, but most of all, what I think they ought to be. To do so, I will move from the catholic to the parochial, from definitions and models so general as to be noncontroversial to statements of my own values, however narrow minded or one sided they may be. My purpose in doing so is not so much to convert you to my own particular set of values, as to provide a view of the structure of the field that will allow us to compare values.

Let me begin by borrowing a well-worn definition from other fields—one that is guaranteed not to exclude anything: let us assume that "Music theory is what music theorists do." Well, what do they do? I guess we could agree that they think—and therefore talk and write—about music. To a musician, who makes music, that word "about" is a curious one. What does it mean to make things "about" music? To see what "about" might tell us of the theorist's relationship to music, we had better decide what we wish to mean by "music." Again, let us take the most inclusive view: let us consider music primarily as a form of communication among human beings. For the music that most of us deal with most of the time, these human beings are cast in three different roles: that of composer, of performer, and of listener. (Clearly, under certain circumstances two or even all three of these roles may be played by the same person or group of persons. It should also be noted that some kinds of music do not use all three roles.) The composer imagines sounds in combinations and successions that make some kind of sense to him; he makes marks on paper that he assumes will be sufficient to enable a performer to produce those sounds in those combinations and successions. The performer tries to make sense of these marks by imagining sounds that will both correspond to the marks and make sense to him as music; he then, by one means or another, generates sound waves that he can hear as sounds, sounds that will correspond to the ones he has imagined. The listener stands at the end of the chain; he hears the sounds and tries to make sense of them as music. (See Figure 1.)


Fig. 1 Music as communication.



Where, then, does the theorist stand? One view—and I believe that this is the view tacitly assumed by many or even most theorists—is that he stands, or ought to stand, outside the chain of communication. According to this view, the theorist's job is to act as an independent and therefore "objective" observer of the communication process. On the basis of his observations he can then build a theory of that process, or of the individual messages sent through that process.

But how much of that process can he actually observe from his "objective" position? He has no way of observing directly what goes on inside the heads of the three participants—no way of observing their hearing or imagining or sense-making processes. Furthermore, if he listens to the sounds, he becomes a listener—a part of a parallel chain—and consequently ceases to be objective. Similarly, if he reads the score as music, that is, imagining the sounds it seems to prescribe and shaping these sounds as he imagines them so that they will make some kind of sense to him, he is creating a performance and becoming part of another parallel chain. There are really only two stages in the process that he can observe both directly and objectively: He can look at the score from a completely literal-minded point of view—this symbol indicates a sound that is two semitones higher than and twice as long as the sound indicated by that symbol—and he can see what the performer does, either by watching him as he performs or by looking at a graphic display of selected measurements of the sound waves he generates. Nevertheless, these two are sufficient, if only for studying the stretch of the communication system that goes from one to the other; a theory that explains the discrepancies between otherwise comparable patterns in the two stages of the message would indeed be an objectively based theory of music-as-communication. (See Figure 2.)


Fig. 2. Theorist as objective observer—general model. (Theorist observes communication chain from outside chain.)



Now, of course, most theorists who like to think of themselves as objective aren't really talking about anything anywhere near so complicated. For them we can draw the much simpler model you see in Figure 3.


Fig. 3. Theorist as objective observer—limited model. (Theorist concerns himself with score only.)



In this model the theorist ignores the notion of music-as-communication. He observes only one form of the message—the score. He tries to make sense of it, but this sense-making process does not resemble the one the performer goes through. The performer rehearses in his mind's ear the successions and combinations of sounds indicated by the score and tries to shape them so that they will make sense to him as music; our theorist examines these combinations and successions and tries to account for them either verbally or graphically so that they can be understood as fitting into some kind of rational scheme, the logic of which he can expound without ever having to depend on such nonobjective notions as how the music sounds to him. Here too, then, we have plausible conditions for the formation of an "objective" theory of a piece or—by extension—pieces of music.

Now we need to ask a different kind of question: What purpose could such theories serve? What uses can they be put to? Suppose our two theorists write up their theories in articles or books. Who is going to read them and how is he going to use what he reads?

What we need now is a new character for our models—a "theory-reader." Suppose our theory-reader reads theory because he too, like the theorist in Figure 2, is interested in the discrepancies between the two observable stages of the message; he wants to see what kind of equipment the theorist used, what kind of measurements he got with it, and how he explains the discrepancies between the two forms of the message. Or, suppose he reads theory because, like the theorist in Figure 3, he wants to be able to arrive at a rational scheme for the notes he sees; he knows that the theorist has a big reputation as drawer-up of rational schemes, so he wants to find out how he does it.

What we have here in both cases is a new line of communication, a music-theory line. It branches off of the music line at some point or points in the music line where music is "objectively observable." Now the relationship of these two lines—of music theory to music—is essentially nonproblematic as long as the music-theory line is attached to the music line at one end only. But suppose that our theory reader is not just interested in music theory; suppose he's interested in music too. Suppose, indeed, that his interest in theory stems from his habitual participation in musical communication, as a listener, a performer, or a composer. He reads our two theorists hoping to find something in what they say that he can relate to his own experience of music, something he can use to sharpen, heighten, broaden, that experience. Will he get it?

Well, he might. It is, I suppose, possible that the theorist in Figure 2 just might come up with an explanation for the discrepancies between notational symbols and sound waves that would clarify a musician-reader's own experience of the sense-making process involved in reading and performing music. It is also possible that the rational schemes proposed by the theorist in Figure 3 might prove to be either a sharpened image of what he has already experienced as a listener, or perhaps a useful way of sharpening that image. But are they likely to? I doubt it.

Now, of course, you may claim that no theorist is going to be such a fanatic about the ideal of "objectivity" as to cut himself off entirely from music qua music. This may be. The best I can say is that, in my experience at least, the closer a theorist gets to the theorists in Figures 2 and 3, the less what he says seems to have to do with my experience of music, and—however clean his methodology, compelling his evidence, and complete his demonstration—the less likely I am to finish reading what he has to say. The more theory I read the more I am convinced that if we theorists want what we write to be used by our readers to clarify or even to strengthen their sense-making processes, then we must begin by observing our own sense-making processes more sharply.

Of course, there is no substitute for a cautious, note-by-note scrutiny of the score. But, if you are writing for people who care about music and not just about music-theory, there's also no substitute for reading a score as a musician does, shaping the sounds as you imagine them, so that they make sense to you as music. A theory of the sense those sounds make to you, or a theory of the sense-making process you use, cannot by its very nature be an "objective" theory, but it could be a useful theory to a reader who wishes to come to grips with his own sense-making processes.

Similarly, modern technology makes it possible to gather mountains of data about sound waves. But if you want to use these data to understand the musical communication which those sound waves serve, you will have to learn how to ask the right questions of the data. A reasonable way to start would be to examine what you do yourself when you perform a piece. You and you alone can observe the difference between what you think you are doing and what the data show you must be doing. These observations may not be properly speaking "objective" but they would be more likely to lead you to the right questions than anything the theorist in Figure 2 knows to ask.

In short, it seems to me that the so-called objective forms of the theorist-to-music relationship as shown in Figures 2 and 3 are of limited usefulness at best. What I am proposing instead is that we recognize that the overtly subjective relationship shown in Figure 4 is the more productive one.


Fig. 4. Theorist as subjective observer. (Theorist observes functioning of chain by putting himself in each role.)



Now obviously, such a model is fraught with problems, some of them more apparent than real, some of them serious, unavoidable, and perhaps even unsolvable. Let me end by discussing one example of each kind of problem.

An example of the first kind is the circular-argument problem. What seems to bother most people about the subjective model is that one person—the theorist—gets to play all three roles. What kind of investigation of "communication between human beings" is this, if the human beings in question all turn out to be the same person? To answer this question I'll have to characterize what I mean by "playing these roles" a little more carefully. In the first place, I do not mean that the theorist plays two or three roles at once. He is not both performer and listener in the same performance, except that any performer must listen to what he's doing. In the second place, his playing of each of these roles has a different relationship to reality. He has no problem in being, in every real sense, a listener. When someone else performs the piece, he listens, and, like any other listener, tries to make sense of what he hears; the only difference is that he tries to keep track of his own sense-making processes, and that may in turn affect those processes. The sense in which the theorist plays the role of performer is somewhat more limited. Most theorists lack the technical proficiency to control sound with anywhere near the precision they would expect of a "real" performer. But I'd still like to hope that any theorist can imagine a performance in his mind's ear as vividly and as precisely as a performer can. The theorist's playing of the role of composer is the most limited, the furthest from reality. The best the theorist can do is ask himself questions like these: "What could a composer possibly mean by these marks? If he meant sounds shaped in such and such a way, then why didn't he rewrite such and such marks? Supposing I were to rewrite the passages in such and such a way, what difference would it make to the performer?"

Even with these provisions, the danger of a certain circularity of argument is still present. Like all circular arguments everything is reduceable to a single assertion: "I hear it this way."

Now I'm not so sure that this need be such a terrible thing. Obviously, if the theorist insists on presenting his own experience in various human roles in the guise of divine omniscience—transforming "I hear it this way" into "it is heard this way"—or, if his readers insist on reading him in that sense, then we are in deep trouble. Unfortunately, there is a strong tradition for this sort of thing. I do not know whether the theorist's urge to create Grand Universal Systems is innate or simply conditioned by the knowledge that his readers expect it of him, but I do know that it is an urge known to every theorist. However, if the theorist and his readers are willing to settle for something humbler, there are real gains to be had. It seems to me no mean achievement for one human being to communicate to another vividly, precisely, what a stretch of music sounds like to him.

A far more serious, probably unavoidable, and possibly unsolvable problem is the "lack-of-native-speaker problem." Implicit in the subjective model of the theorist's relationship to music is the assumption that his prior participation in musical communication has made him a member of a musical community, a community whose members all "speak the same language," who can find some basis for common agreement as to what belongs in the language—what "sounds right" and what doesn't. This means that we have some reason to assume that the sense-making processes of composer, performer, and listener, while not necessarily identical, may at least be related. (In verbal languages, of course, communication is normally two-way—the listener talks back and the former speaker listens. In musical communication the listener does not normally respond by performing or composing, but every composer and every performer has been a listener in some prior communication, almost all composers have been performers, and many performers have been composers.) In the subjective model, the theorist's theory of a piece of music is essentially a theory of the sense he makes of that music as he imagines or hears it. His theory of that kind of music is a theory of the sense-making processes he uses in imagining or hearing any pieces of that kind of music. But suppose that the theorist has never had the opportunity to participate in musical communication in a community of composers, performers, and listeners for whom the piece he is studying "sounds right." Suppose there is no such community extant?

I would consider myself a "native speaker" of at least two distinguishable musical languages—tonal music and what for lack of a better word I will have to call 12-tone music. I have participated in musical communities that use these kinds of music all my life. I have a vivid sense of what "sounds right" and what doesn't in these kinds of music, and I trust that sense. I have also listened to, performed, and to some limited extent even composed what I suppose would be called "modal music," but I cannot claim to have anything like the same vivid sense of this music. I am not a native speaker of this music, nor do I know where I could find an informant who is. How then can I possibly be a theorist of this music?

There seems to me to be at least four essentially different answers to this question.

The first is simple: "Don't. Why waste your time dealing with something that isn't vivid to you?" I respect that answer, but still cling to the hope there will be a way around it.

The second is less negative: "Use what you've got. Why suppose that the syntactic assumptions on which musical communication is based have all changed? Use whatever parts you can of the sense-making processes you use for tonal music to make as much sense of pre-tonal music as you can." I find this answer disturbing. I don't trust that kind of method. It seems to me bound to lead to foolish results.

The third answer is straightforward: "Back to the objective model in Figure 3. It's the best we've got." If that's really the best we've got we're in bad shape.

The fourth answer offers a glimmer of hope: "Go read the theorists of the time. They were, after all, native speakers." Yes, but unfortunately most of them were, just like the theorists of today, usually more concerned with building Grand Universal Systems than with telling their readers what the music they heard or read or wrote sounded like to them. Inferring the latter from the former is a highly specialized, difficult, perhaps even impossible task. I, for one, would welcome any efforts by my more historically oriented colleagues to take it on. Whether there is enough information there to bring a dead language back to life I can't predict, but if nobody tries, we'll never know.

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