Theory as the Study of Emotion in Music
When I first started teaching theory at the instrument, my goals were practical. I wanted to teach music theory in such a way that it became a tool—I think one of the most powerful tools—in learning one's chosen instrument.
But in this act of bringing music theory back to the instrument, I discovered that in addition to unlocking the doors to specific musical skills, learning music theory at the instrument (and in relation to the music being learned) opened yet another door. And what lay beyond this door was a revelation to both me and to my students.
But before I take you through that door...
Imagine me once more as a child, dutifully completing my theory homework at the kitchen table. In this particular exercise, I am reconfiguring the little black dots on the page in order to put inverted chords back into root position. Once I've put the chord back into root position, I know the root of the chord. And once I know the root of the chord, I can name its function within the assigned key of A major, which I proceed to do. In the key of A major, the A chord is the tonic (I) chord, the E chord is the dominant (V) chord, the C chord is the submediant (vi) chord. And so on.
I'm doing this exercise because: 1. My teacher assigned it, and 2. I have a theory exam coming up. These are good enough reasons for me, but I don't see much point to what I am doing beyond this.
Now imagine me again. I have finished my theory homework (40 years ago), and have a student sitting beside me. We are doing a harmonic exercise similar to the one above. But there are a couple of key differences.
First of all, we don't have a theory book exercise in front of us. Instead, we are analysing the chords in a piece of music the student is currently practicing, or perhaps about to start practicing.
And we are, of course, sitting at the instrument. Because instead of only looking at the tiny black dots on the page, we are going to be playing and listening to the sounds that those tiny black dots represent. And so we begin.
We begin by figuring out the key of our piece. This done, we take time to physically explore the building blocks of that key on our instrument. If you've taken music lessons before, then you might think of what we are doing—scales, and chord work—as practicing technique. But although scales and chords can be used as tools for practicing technical skills, in our current situation, we have coopted them for the purposes of thinking about theory. This is the raw material out of which our piece of music has been sculpted. We are getting a feel for the clay in our hands.
Now we are ready to see how the composer molded these materials into this particular musical composition. There are many aspects of this piece that we could (and will) explore, but for the moment we are investigating it's underlying harmonic structure. And so each time we play a chord, we stop and label it. Because we have done this analysis each time the student has a new piece, the student is beginning to recognize by ear (and not only by eye) that a certain grouping of notes sounds like the tonic I or dominant V chord in our particular key.
As we continue to play through the chords and mark down their functions within the key, we suddenly encounter a chord that throws us off balance, a chord that we weren't quite expecting, perhaps one that we can't immediately identify by ear. And this chord doesn't just sit there quietly on the page like the ones in my theory textbook. It does something to us.
It gives us the shivers. Or perhaps a sudden sense of longing.
What just happened here?
We start our detective work. The student notices (perhaps with my help) that despite the fact that we are in a major key, this chord has a minor quality. If the student doesn't yet easily aurally recognize the difference between a minor and major chord, then it is the moment to perhaps sneak in a short exercise on the subject, a few extra examples before we move on. Next, as in my textbook exercise of 40 years ago, we will reduce the chord to its basic root position form. But this time, we will be using our hands on the instrument, and not just a pencil on paper, to do this work.
This use of our hands on the instrument (as well as the use of our ear mentioned previously), would certainly, from the perspective of the theory exams I did as a child, be considered cheating. But we are not doing this work in order to get 100 percent on an upcoming theory exam.
For our purposes—of putting theory to work as an actual tool in learning a piece of music (specifically), and of becoming well-rounded musician (more generally)—the use of our ear and, in this case, of our hands on the instrument, are essential parts of the process. Later I will most likely have students play through this reduced harmonic analysis of their work, as yet a further means of physically and intellectually understanding the harmonic underpinnings—what I call the musical skeleton—of their music. In doing this exercise, we will be setting down the groundwork for a rock-solid memorization of the piece before we have even learnt the piece, and before muscle memory hijacks our intellect. (Not that muscle memory isn't important....But that is a topic for another article.)
For the moment, we are still figuring it all out. We discover the chord's root, then label the chord according to its function in the key. We have figured out that it is the minor vi chord which is substituting for the I chord. Or perhaps, even more unexpected, it is a chord borrowed from another key.
Whatever it is, we have reached the point at which we are about to turn our harmonic analysis exercise into a harmonic exploration.
What if, the composer had used the more expected major I chord here instead of the minor vi chord? Same melody, same rhythm, but a different chord. Let's play it that way. Then let's play it again, using the chord that the composer actually chose. How does this particular chord (especially if it was an unexpected one) make us feel?
Let's compare this piece of music with another we learnt earlier in the year, a piece that has an identical chord progression, and yet somehow has a different feel. How can this be? Perhaps it has something to do with how those particular chords are voiced (same notes, but played in a different order or range on the instrument). Or perhaps it has more to do with the structure of the melody that floats above these chords? Let's explore that. How do the two melodies differ? Let's compare and contrast them. Or perhaps we will have fun just exploring one of the melodies on its own. How does it change the feeling of a particular melodic passage if the composer pauses on this scale degree instead of that one, or changes the direction of the notes from up to down, or keeps all the notes the same, but changes a smooth rhythm into a jagged one, or even just changes the dynamics or the articulation?
And so on and so forth. The possibilities are almost endless.
This type of theory as exploration, is in my view, the thing that really makes music analysis come alive for students. We don't just do the analysis, and leave it at that. We take time to experience what that analysis really means.
Think. Play. Feel.
It is with this final word—feel—that I believe we have fit our key into a door from which there is no turning back.
Because this key that we've been building to unlock practical skills also unlocks something far deeper. It unlocks the door into a whole new level of music appreciation.
It's like opening a door and discovering not a room, but a landscape. It doesn't happen overnight. But as a music teacher, I live for that moment when I can lead students through this musical landscape, opening their eyes and ears to details they would otherwise never have noticed, pointing out how the elements of the landscape (mode, melodic contour, harmony and rhythm, repetition and variation) work together as an interconnected ecosystem of sound.
It's not as though students have never walked through this musical landscape before. Of course, they have let it all wash over them—the rustling of leaves, the twittering of birds, the warmth of dappled light. The difference is that now they are walking through this landscape with a heightened awareness. And this heightened awareness is what allows them to interpret the music more expressively, conveying these shifts in mood and landscape through their playing. Even those students who naturally play expressively, are fascinated to discover that there are reasons underlying their deepest musical intuitions.
Now image once more the student of 40 years ago, sitting at the kitchen table with her theory book open in front of her. And imagine the student sitting beside her today. Which of these two students looks more engaged?
They are learning similar concepts. But the first student—my younger self—is using only her eyes. (She could have used her inner-ear as well, had it been developed, but it had not). The second student—my student—is using her eyes as well. But she is also using her ears (and thereby developing that inner ear that might eventually allow her to hear her music without even touching an instrument). She is using her body. And not just her hands either. Think back to that shiver.
Theory at the instrument has, in other words, become a full-body sensorial experience. Is it any wonder that this second student is more engaged that the first?
Theory taught from a textbook is simply a series of exercises, abstract and uninspiring to the student. But when theory is brought back to the instrument, when it becomes exploration rather than merely exercise, then it becomes the study of what is most meaningful in music, of that very thing that drew me and each of my students to music in the first place.
Music theory becomes the study of why music makes us feel the way it does.
And it is this aspect of feeling that turns music theory from being a dry academic subject—as it was for me—into one with which my students are passionately engaged, and which informs every aspect of their musical lives.
And now, before I let you go, I want to point something out. Perhaps you noticed it on your own?
That in the course of the so-called "theory" exercise outlined above, the student not only reviewed theory concepts (in this case harmony), but also practiced technique, ear-training, and even a little simple improvisation. The student, for her part, may not even have thought of what we were doing as a "theory" exercise. For her, it was just a step, a completely natural and logical step in learning a new piece of repertoire.
This is what I mean by taking a multi-layered approach. It's seamless. It's purposeful. And it doesn't create arbitrary divisions between different aspects of the music learning process, but instead integrates them into a more holistic way of learning.
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