By: Aaron Zimmerman
Music theory sometimes gets a bad rap.
People tend associate music theory with tediums like naming notes, labeling chords, and determining form. These are good skills to develop, they help answer questions about music that come up frequently. But they are not at the core of music theory.
Music theory is an attempt to answer a simple question:
Why is this music good?
This is a different question than what makes music good. That is a rabbit hole I’ll not venture down at the moment. Rather, lets first just assume that a given piece is good, and try to figure out why. What worked for this symphony? What made this rap song memorable? Theory is observations about music that has been created. We learn about chords, scales, harmonies, because these form the basis for almost every piece of music we encounter. When someone discovers a new way to make good music, we label it, share it, and discuss it. Music evolves over time, as innovators discover new ways to create it. Music theory is a reaction, a formalization of these discoveries.
Music theory is context, vocabulary, and enjoyment.
Most people can identify the chorus of their favorite pop songs. This is an internalization, a labeling, of something they like in music. Verse-chorus is a form, a pattern for organizing musical ideas. It is an easy form for the listener to identify. There is a chorus that is always the same and a verse that is the same except for the lyrics. By giving this pattern a name, we create three advantages:
Context – We can identify where we are in the song, we can understand how the music will flow.
Vocabulary – We can talk about the song together – “I really like the chorus of that song”. “I like American Pie, but it has way too many verses”, etc.
Enjoyment – We can identify what we like in music, and compare one piece to another. A lot of music is an aquired taste, you have to develop a base line theoretical understanding of that music in order to appreciate the beauty therein.
Music theory changes how you listen.
If you listen to a pop song that doesn’t follow verse-chorus, it might take longer to appreciate, it might feel a bit awkward, and the end result could be something you like or something you don’t like. The more music you listen to, or study, the greater experience you will acquire. The more music you have experienced, the larger your vocabulary, the more context you will have from which to appreciate a new piece you listen to, and the more enjoyment you will get from music of all kinds.
Music Theory Rocks
Along with other posts about teaching and learning piano, I’ll post an occasional analysis of a popular piece of music. I’m not really sure how to define popular music, so I’ll just stick to the self-evident definition of “music that people seem to like”.
The purpose of the analysis is to think about why people like the piece in question. Along the way I’ll try to point out core music theory concepts where they apply. I’ll also be forced to use some of the jargon, I can’t explain what a scale is in every post, etc. If you need a refresher on some basics, check out this post.