Music theory is kind of like cartography. We can only draw maps of places we've already seen.

Andmyaxe

Strat-Talker
May 12, 2021
275
USA


This struck me as relevant to some recent threads on theory. One of my favorite YouTube channels and this video in particular is great. As he says at around 3:45: "Music theory is kind of like cartography. We can only draw maps of places we've already seen." This comports with my opinion that music theory is descriptive not prescriptive.

Highly recommend this channel for thought-provoking small bites of theory.
 

El Gobernador

fezz parka
Apr 21, 2011
35,194
Nunyo, BZ
This comports with my opinion that music theory is descriptive not prescriptive.
It's both. It's a circle. In study...it's prescriptive. In practice...actually playing...it's not really there at all. You just play. Those rules get ingrained so you think without thinking. Mushin.

It's descriptive if you want to notate it, or tell someone what you just did. Or if you want to tell somebody what you plan to do...the roadmap. That blurs the lines between prescriptive and descriptive, since you're telling someone how something goes, either through verbal instructions, a number chart, or standard notation.

Theory is grammar. People break the rules of grammar all the time and get their message across. Same with theory and music. :)
 

Andmyaxe

Strat-Talker
May 12, 2021
275
USA
It's both. It's a circle. In study...it's prescriptive. In practice...actually playing...it's not really there at all. You just play. Those rules get ingrained so you think without thinking. Mushin.

It's descriptive if you want to notate it, or tell someone what you just did. Or if you want to tell somebody what you plan to do...the roadmap. That blurs the lines between prescriptive and descriptive, since you're telling someone how something goes, either through verbal instructions, a number chart, or standard notation.

Theory is grammar. People break the rules of grammar all the time and get their message across. Same with theory and music. :)
I can get behind this, especially the grammar analogy. Lots of great writers "broke" the rules of grammar. Faulkner wrote in excessively long (arguably run-on) sentences that would make Strunk & White cringe. But that was part of his artistry and style.

I suppose to a certain degree it's a semantical distinction, but I conceptualize theory as descriptive insofar as it teaches an artist what options are available in songwriting and improvisation and improves one's ability to learn new material (whether by listening, studying, or following verbal instructions).

That said, I also concede that theory is prescriptive in the sense that if one wants to write a song in a certain style, there are "rules" that define that genres and periods of music. An artist is free to get creative and "break" those rules, but break too many and you're probably now outside the given genre of music.
It's for sure prescriptive.
In what way? As noted above, I see it differently but always open to other perspectives.
 

Butcher of Strats

Senior Stratmaster
Feb 28, 2022
1,160
Maine
I think of it more like engineering theory, where one needs to know how basic mechanical, hydraulic, metallurgical, etc systems work and combine, in order to design new machines or modify old ones?

Wasnt there some old dead dude who engineered sound machines he couldn’t experience except in his own machinations?
 
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El Gobernador

fezz parka
Apr 21, 2011
35,194
Nunyo, BZ
In what way?
I'll interject...

You have to know the rules in order to consciously break them. :)

I can't expect someone who hasn't played All The Things You Are to be able to follow the moving key centers. A chart...numbers or notation...is the best way to accomplish this without a weeks worth of rehearsal.

You don't need much theory to play a I/IV/V...or a I/vi/IV/V...or even the basic I/vi/ii/V rhythm changes. Even a circle progression is simple.

Once you get to moving key centers...you'd better has some theory under your belt. :)
 

knh555

Most Honored Senior Member
Dec 6, 2016
6,346
Massachusetts
The moment you tune your guitar and use notes within the chromatic scale, you've already accepted some level of music theory. There's a balance between "rules" that guide us to something of aesthetic value and creativity. All of one without the other is unlikely to be something many people are interested in.
 
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Strat-Slinger

Senior Stratmaster
Feb 9, 2013
3,026
Somewhere in Space
I know there's an entire school of thought that is Anti-Music Theory... and that's just fine... those folks can remain in the dark about "Music Theory" if they so desire..
I can make anyone who's interested to take an even brief visit to the land of Music Theory and take some of it in a promise...
It will explode wide open the doors of your creativity if you go there... hey, what's one got to lose by trying it out... absolutely nothing... Music Theory has gotten a bad rap IMO... it's one of the coolest things about music in my book... and it's fun to use it!
That's been my experience on this topic...
 

arct

Strat-O-Master
Mar 12, 2021
991
South Jersey
Hip, snarky, dumb people thumb their noses at "theory". They also go to self taught holistic doctors, don't drink coffee, and have weird facial hair. That's been my experience with "theory".

rct
 

davidKOS

not posting these days
May 28, 2012
16,788
California
Just because a lot of modern music does not use all the tools available to the trained musician is no reason to consider these concepts obsolete.

Much modern music sounds like it does because the creators don't have a full palette of techniques at their disposal.

I look at theory as a set of short-cuts that other people figured out so I don't have to.

There's also no need to reinvent the wheel, so to speak.
 

davidKOS

not posting these days
May 28, 2012
16,788
California
It's descriptive if you want to notate it, or tell someone what you just did. Or if you want to tell somebody what you plan to do...the roadmap. That blurs the lines between prescriptive and descriptive, since you're telling someone how something goes, either through verbal instructions, a number chart, or standard notation.

I agree.

OK, try to compose something like a symphonic work for a small orchestra using several themes, thematic development, counterpoint, colorful orchestration, etc. without knowing any theory, not being able to write down what you want the roadmap to be.

 

Dadocaster

Dr. Stratster
Mar 15, 2015
27,648
Sachse TX behind the cemetary
Much modern music sounds like it does because the creators don't have a full palette of techniques at their disposal.
Ohhh, can't let this slide...... Harmonic complexity has given way to rhythmic complexity and for whatever reason, many people can create very sophisticated rhythms, without having studied much of anything. The fact that current music is not balancing harmonic/rhythmic complexity in a way you appreciate, certainly does not necessarily indicate that "modern" musicians don't have a palette. Possibly it indicates a different palette.

One of my first posts here in ST I said something about the fact that rhythmic information is the obvious identifier of genre. I was assailed mightily, but I still think it's true. :D
 
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davidKOS

not posting these days
May 28, 2012
16,788
California
Ohhh, can't let this slide...... Harmonic complexity has given way to rhythmic complexity and for whatever reason, many people can create very sophisticated rhythms, without having studied much of anything. The fact that current music is not balancing harmonic/rhythmic complexity in a way you appreciate, certainly does not necessarily indicate that "modern" musicians don't have a palette. Possibly it indicates a different palette.

One of my first posts here in ST I said something about the fact that rhythmic information is the obvious identifier of genre. I was assailed mightily, but I still think it's true. :D
Well, SOME modern music is rhythmically complex...and a lot of it is not.

"rhythmic information is the obvious identifier of genre"

there's a lot of truth in that, though.

"sophisticated rhythms, without having studied much of anything"

If you ever get to play music with folks from cultures that have music with very sophisticated rhythms, like Cubans, Brazilians, Egyptians, Turks, Greeks, Central Asians, East Indians, etc., you find that even in those cultures people learn rhythms. They learn from older folks, other musicians, and from the music itself.
 


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