Theorists or Terrorists?

作者按:這是幾年前作者因為一邊學習 set theory 一邊滿懷不滿的心情下寫的,言詞頗為偏激。今日再看,有些看法已經改變了。

Music theories are often regarded as scientific and logical way to understand music. Theorists often take it for granted without noticing the fact that music theories are always derived from perceptions and prejudgments from their own aesthetic experience. To call music theory as “theory” is somewhat deceiving, because theory should be something universal and applicable to objects of different parameters. There has never been any universal rule that is reproducible and or repeatedly practicable on all genres of music. Although theorists like to employ technical descriptions like set, matrix and other mathematical or logical devices, they are often unaware of the fact that music can never be totally explained by rules. Technical descriptions are regarded as scientific. However, what seems to be a scientific way of describing music is merely pseudo-science that never grants an objective result in its end.

Music theory is based on analysis of musical structure, while analysis is based more on the notated score rather than sound. Analysis often focused on what they see rather than what they hear. In an analysis paper, any subjective personal feelings should be ruled out so as to make it sounds objective. If we observe it carefully though, we will see that every proposed theory has its own limitation, and there is no universal law that can be generalized from all music compositions. We can never explain why a piece of music moved us while another piece of music does not. We cannot judge a piece of music is better just because it utilized some theories. Vice versa, we can never ensure that if a composer follows some theories, he would produce good music. Any music theory is limited to a specific period and genres of music, not to mention that music theories in western culture are incapable of describing music in other culture. However, theorists take the universality of music theory for granted without questioning why.

Theorists are actually doing a job of sorting out what is masterpiece and what is not. We can see that many theorists prefer the great German tradition. They believe that a piece of music should be coherent and unified. Thus, they prefer music that employs as few materials as possible, music that repeatedly used related motives. If the piece is more saturated with related motifs, the better the composition is. In an analysis, most theorists try very hard to show that every single pitch should be explainable. And what is mean by explainable is indeed the pitches conform to a certain pattern, a pattern of repetition with variations. They think that every pitch should have inter-relationships with each other. Once a pitch does not follow a pattern, they are confused. When they are confused, they’d rather try to give another explanation than to admit that the composer does not follow rules. They are not aware of the fact that NOT all composers are as rigid and stubborn as Webern or Boulez. Composers often employ pitches freely, according to their flow of ideas, rather than conforming to any rules. Composers are often composing with a subconscious mind rather than a logical mind.

Theorists often analyse music by composers which conform to rules and ignore composers who do not conform to rules. In such a way, they are indeed trying to justify who are the masters, who are not. There are much more analytical papers on Schonberg, Webern and Messiaen than on Debussy or Takemitsu. It is because Debussy and Takemitsu’s music does not always follow rules. Thus they are more often neglected by the theorists. This does not only show that there is many limitation to the current music theories, but also that theorists are NOT objective in their judgment of music and selection of canon. Theories are subjective. Theorists are in fact always trying to tell people what is acceptable, what is not acceptable according their own taste. They neglect the fact that it is impossible to find an objective way to perceive music. What are regarded as definitive rules are only consensus – a set of inter-subjective views suggested by a group of “authorities” in the academic circle who represent only a very small fraction of the whole society.

Is it a must to find out “inter-relationship” between notes? This belief in so-called coherence and unity of a piece only shows the aesthetics of some people in the twentieth century, but we cannot take it for granted for all compositions. This rule does not apply to many non-western music. So this theory can only be used to describe a limited number, limited type of music in a limited time period. Thus music theory is NOT scientific theory. A scientific theory should be applicable to objects of different parameters. If the changes of parameters will affect the correctness and accuracy of a theory, it is not a scientific theory. A scientific statement is something that you can prove or disprove. But an argument in a music theory cannot be judged as right or wrong, they can only be judged as more convincing or less convincing based on our belief. We should be aware that music theory can only help to show some characteristics of a very limited number of pieces.

Let’s take set theory as an example. First of all, set theory is limited to music that is written within a collection of twelve pitches with equal temperament. If the music is not equal-tempered, then it is not within the scope of set theory. Non-western music is by nature out of the scope of set theory. Secondly, we must assume that we would perceive an interval going up and the same interval going down as the same thing. Only with such assumptions, we would say that inversion, retrograde and transposition of a motif are “related” to the original motif. When we try to find out the intervallic motifs in a piece, we are trying to prove that the materials in the piece are “inter-related”. However this so-called “inter-relationship” actually depends on our perception and has no objective validity of existence.

Music is an art. The perception of music cannot be measured by scientific method. I am not saying that music theory is not useful if it is not scientific. I am just trying to show that there are too many limitations of theory. Theory is just as subjective and open to interpretation as personal feelings. I am in doubt of why technical descriptions are praised in research writing, while personal feelings are suppressed. We know that analysis of the structure of a piece is not enough for understanding music totally while writings about personal feelings of a piece can help to fill this gap. They are two different tools for approaching music, though none of them are the goal. Technical terms are inhumane. When I hear about something like hexachordal combinatoriality, I feel perplexed, astranged and uncomfortable. It is not because these terms are difficult to understand; it is because it is so metaphysical that it depart too far away from music. I do believe that we can enjoy music without the aid of any literature and analysis.

Theorists have long been inclined to pitch analysis. If not neglecting, they are at least overlooking the importance of rhythm, dynamics, timbre and other elements. But what if we include all the elements? If we include all the elements into account, does it means that we get the music as a whole? NO, words can never describe music as a whole. If words can totally describe music, why don’t we just converse in words and abandon music? Music cannot be replaced by anything. Music is self-contained. When we try to describe it in words, it seems that we discover something, but at the same time more details become hidden.(*) When we try to define music with words, we are departing from music. I believe it is better for us to enjoy music, feel music, write music, play music rather than write about music.

One may say that music theory can help composers to learn how to write music and give instructions to performers how to interpret music. However, starting from the twentieth century, theory has moved further and further away from other fields of music. I believe that unless the musician is also a theorist, musicians mostly do not read theory articles. I am not showing that theory does not affect composition and performance. I am trying to show that theorist do not actually dedicated his writings to composers, performers or general publics. The potential readers of analytical writings are 90% theorists (with the other 10% students). Theorists are writing for obtaining the approval and the recognition from other theorists rather than to contributing to the process of music making. If you believe my words, you will know that it is not worthwhile to write an analytical paper which is only aimed at arousing interest from musicians. Believe me, writing about theory is only for getting a job or for your own interest (if you like it). It is NOT a way to make music and it affects very little to the process of music making.

Theorists are mostly ignorant to popular music, non-western music and any music that does not utilize theory. They are in fact going further and further away from common people. Strange as it is, these marginalized people holds supreme positions in tertiary education institution in which their knowledge becomes a powerful weapon to defend themselves from people less informed in musical knowledge. Their musical knowledge give them power to take the dominant position in the bureaucratic music institutions. They are the authorities who control the game of the academic circle. Theorists often argue among themselves to struggle for the control. They like to claim their own judgments to be more reliable and question the validity of others. On the surface it seems that debate in music theory is a constructive process in which wrong or less appropriate understanding will be later replaced by a better or more appropriate understanding, but what seem “better” or “appropriate” are in fact based on many cultural and social expectations. The hidden aim of such debates is in fact to struggle for survival, for a superior position in the institution. This is a game of politics rather than a game of music.

Students in music institution are required to take courses in theory and analysis. What students can do is only to follow the authorities and fulfill the requirements of this game. Although professors suggest students to be “critical” in doing musical analysis, the hidden rule is that students must at least believe in the authority of music theory. Students are introduced with the big names like Schenker and Allen Forte in the first lesson without given the reason why should they learn. It seems all taken for granted that studying music theory is a necessary way to understand music. Are theorists really theorists? Or are they terrorists? Terrifying students and listeners with their authorities?

If we see that the world is full of unrest, the society is full of conflicts, we cannot forgive people who create an imaginary world for themselves and turn away from the world, and also turn away from music. Being a theorist hiding behind the doors to write papers is a miserable life. Theorists are baring themselves from the outside world, and spending their life in searching for an imaginary truth. Analysis is metaphysical and never falls into the ground of our normal life.

By writing this paper, I am declaring war not only to theorists, but the music institution as a whole. So long have I been deceived, and this is the last chance for me, in my university life, to say “NO” to this giant monster .

Now, it’s your turn.
Take Action, Say “NO” to Theory!

written by LC, 23-04-2003