How Critical Is Music Theory?

Article excerpt


In this article I address the problem of locating 'music theory' within contemporary critical theories in the social sciences and humanities. I show how two kinds of music theory can be distinguished: music theory as an interpretative and 'critical' set of theories used mainly in music analysis, and theory of music as an 'uncritical' set of practical tools for both composition and analysis. I trace the origins of such theories and the separation between the two, and argue that theory of music as a prerequisite for practice comes from a notion of theory inculcated by music pedagogy in the nineteenth century, entrenched through the external examinations of London-based conservatoires. I show how the ethos of such examinations became lodged in the musical consciousness of South Africans as one of many colonial traces, but I argue that, unlike other aspects of colonialism, theory of music did not become adapted in the process of colonization, but has remained something of an anomaly in music teaching and practice. Especially, it has remained a different kind of 'theory' in critical discourse in the social sciences and humanities. Music theory in South Africa, too, has not undergone the kind of transforming process as other 'critical' theories have although it has far more possibilities for critique, but has remained a somewhat limited tool for music analysis in South African scholarship.

Keywords: Music theory, theory of music, music analysis, critical theory, interpretation, composition, conservatoire, university, music pedagogy, grade exam, Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

Introduction and definitions

Contemporary theory in the social sciences and humanities--'a vast body of ideas, inherently unmasterable', as Jonathan Culler puts it (1994, 13)--has at base the notion that theory (from the Aristotelian notion theoria) is different from practice (praktike), (1) and that the two operate in parallel spheres, relating to and supporting each other but developing distinct modes of discourse and application. It offers critical tools for the interpretation of empirical data and ideas, and in this essay I attempt to show what 'music theory' offers, using the South African context to propose an idea of what it is and how it operates in comparison to other social or cultural theory. I relate 'music theory' to practice, and reveal some of the difficulties in maintaining a distinction between the two. I argue that there are two different understandings of what 'music theory' is, in current usage. The one, broadly speaking, is an activity of analysis and commentary, often equated to 'music analysis'. The other I define as a more pedagogically driven body of hegemonic knowledge covering music's sounds, concepts and terminology, and I call it 'theory of music'. The sense of defining component parts inherent in the latter is used both in relation to the sphere of composition (music as creative practice) and--and this is where confusion around terminology enters--in the sphere of music analysis. In countries where a large intellectual project around 'music theory' exists, such as the United Kingdom and the United States the terms 'music theory' and 'music analysis' imply slightly different things: in the UK they are almost synonymous, while in the US 'music theory' includes both music analysis and also what I am here calling 'theory of music.'

I consider in this essay the historical development of these two kinds of theory as I have articulated them, and show how each has developed norms and assumptions, some of which, I suggest, are more 'critical' than others, and some more critical to a certain way of seeing music than of it. (2) My aim is also to show how critical theories in the broad sense of a collection of theories in the social sciences and humanities can critique theory in relation to music. The fundamental questions I ask are, how actively critical to the interpretation of music and ideas, or how subject to critical examination, is theory in the discipline of music; and what are its ideological origins in relation to a South African context? …