– LESSONS: MUSIC THEORY –

July 13th, 2013

The Concept of Music Theory


One should understand that music theory is really all what it says: a theory. They aren’t rules. You could better see them as guidelines to how things work optimally. In my first year of studying music theory at the conservatory we learned about counterpoint, harmony, melody, rhythm, chords, chord progressions, etc. The basic stuff. I had to get used to some things that are always present in a song. Like a cadence. I remember that I couldn’t believe a song by for instance Metallica would have such a clear cadence, while it does. You could compare it to a text.

A sentence has a beginning, something in between, and an end. You know the beginning because the first word of a sentence starts with a capital letter. The sentence ends with a period, exclamation mark, or question mark:

Why are you trying so hard to fit in when you were born to stand out?

In this case the sentence is isolated, so it’s easy to point out that it is one entity that is a sentence.

I love you. I am who I am because of you. You are every reason, every hope, and every dream I’ve ever had, and no matter what happens to us in the future, everyday we are together is the greatest day of my life. I will always be yours.

Here, you can clearly make out the sentences because of the periods. In this case, the rule that a first words starts with a capital letter doesn’t really help, because the word ‘I’ is always capitalized. In that sense, it’s also an example that there are always exceptions to rules.
   Commas are being used to separate clauses (…no matter what happens to us in the future, everyday…), and to join items in lists (You are every reason, every hope, and every dream…).

This framework of what a sentence is and or should be is a guideline, because it can be easily broken. And that’s because we are used to this fixed framework.

I know you’re not here for grammar. I used it as an example, because you know grammar, or you wouldn’t be reading to begin with. And because there are similarities to how these guidelines work for music theory, I compare it to grammar.

For instance, a song ends with a closure or it fades out. What if it doesn’t? Then you would think there’s something wrong with the CD, the MP3 file, the LP, etc. Why? Because it would be the same as not finishing this

See what I did there? Dream Theater’s Pull Me Under is notorious for it. The song intentionally cuts off like that, because part of the song deals with how sudden death can be. The sudden ending of the song is just like an unexpected death for a person. So it has a function why it happens.
   What about a fade out? Well, if I would use that same unfinished sentence, I could write it like:

‘Because it would be the same as not finishing this​—​’, or

‘Because it would be the same as not finishing this…’.

From these two examples, to me, the first seems more abrupt than the second. We put meaning to what we see and in this case, we can accept that the sentences are unfinished​—​even in the first example which has no extra interpunction​—​because we see their function, because we know grammar.