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On my experiences with the concept of "music theory"

Updated: Feb 25, 2023

As a foreword to all of this, I am going to be heavily citing Adam Neely's video on "Music Theory and White Supremacy" a good bit, as it has been enlightening for me, and for many other composer friends besides. It broke the mental shackles I was under (as far as music is concerned), and for the first time, I finally felt free to express my experiences learning and performing music with 18th century Eurocentric understandings.

CW: racism, xenophobia, classism, misogyny. This has been hard post for me to write, and as such, it will a hard read.


Growing up, I was fortunate to learn music under two examination boards, both of which gave me different perspectives on musical expression, understanding, and improvisation. They were Yamaha and the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) respectively. The former was centred on improvisation and pupils were awarded points for certain well-placed deviations from the exam pieces. There was even an entire section of the exams dedicated to improvisation, but it only scratched the surface in my estimation.

The latter was heavily based on understandings of music from the Renaissance to the 20th century. That in and of itself interested me, as much music (and art, and literature) was censored where I grew up. With my music education, I received my first window to the outside world. For all its faults, I will forever thank ABRSM for that.

However, Adam Neely pointed out an example that I found very pertinent: by the time we learned Grade 8 music theory -- and he rightly substitutes "music theory" for "the harmonic style of 18th century European musicians," by the way -- we had to learn figured bass. Figured bass is never used in our musical understanding or literature in this day and age EXCEPT in period pieces that require the use of figured bass, like motets, Baroque choral and orchestral pieces, perhaps anything with the use of basso continuo. (Putting Wikipedia links to all of these because I don't want to spend my time diverging from the topic at hand to explain what these are, but a quick word for the uninitiated: these are mostly musical styles and pieces that demarcated the 17th to mid-18th century.)

And as Neely and others would rightly point out: we don't talk about music in that sort of understanding. We talk in chords, rhythmic onomatopoeia, perhaps listening to music by ear... and occasionally, we talk about sheet music.

I was never taught blues scales, so I only had a surface understanding of the tonality behind jazz and blues -- and for a long time, I felt like I couldn't improvise very well. The only scale I knew, which overlapped between jazz and blues and East Asian music, was the pentatonic scale. I didn't know the scales of my own culture, many of which do get passing references in Neely's video. It's pretty sad that I only first heard of much of the music of my own culture, and the terminology used for it, in Neely's video, when Amuja Kamat got featured in said video. (For context, I am of Indian descent.)

I want to talk about the feelings that led up to this point, and one or two experiences that delineate what all of this meant to me in practice.


About a decade ago, after I told a few church friends in secret about my passion for the drum, they encouraged me to see if I couldn't use it in a sacred context. My eyes lit up at the idea. At the time, I attended university, reading law -- and I attended a strongly conservative parish. Seeing as I had no way to travel far on a regular basis at the time, and I was the organist there, I needed to stick with it for that point in time.

I broached the subject to others, including my chaplain, without explicitly mentioning that I was the one who wanted to drum in that context. I was given funny looks. I was given funny looks for even sharing that I could play the drum kit. Some people's responses went into the territory of "what devilry / sorcery is this?".

But here's the deal: when influenced by 18th century Eurocentric understandings, of course people are going to say these awful things. Drums are integral to many musical traditions outside of Europe. Those remarks that I received were laced with racism and xenophobia, but I'm sure that I'm not the only one to have received them. Where parts of the UK -- the country I now call my home -- are still heavily tinged with a Puritan understanding of the world and of people around them, it is no wonder that I and others would receive remarks like these. Doesn't make them okay.

These are the same sorts of people, in my experience and in the experiences of others, who harp on about the classics and the "greats" of centuries past, while ignoring the rich musical history and diversity outside of this continent. They often prattle on about teaching people music theory -- to borrow Neely's definition, the harmonic style of 18th century European musicians, and disregard any and all other understandings as "lesser" or "base." Horror of horrors -- although I have come a long way from my experiences of the last decade, I have recently come to find out that there is one such place in my city, Preston, that boasts about teaching music theory, chant, choral music, and the organ to young people. That in and of itself can be good -- but it's often heavily laced with a subliminal message: this is the best music there is. All the rest deserves to be tossed in the bin. It's a white supremacist understanding of music, that fails to take into account the beauty of the whole world's different kinds of sounds.

To further drive this point home: I have a book that I look to for occasional inspiration, called Angels and Demons in Art, by Rosa Giorgi. There is a subsection in that book dedicated to artistic depictions of musical angels. Further entrenching the false narrative that "drums are demonic" is the fact that, as Giorgi points out, "(in) the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, percussion instruments were considered profane. Introduced into pictorial compositions, they were used more decoratively than symbolically."

This is Gaudenzio Ferrari's painting, "Glory of Angels," depicting many angels playing music and singing in very joyous fashion.
This was the image to which Giorgi added that especially telling note: "Glory of Angels" by Gaudenzio Ferrari, a detail of the dome fresco at Santuario della Beata Vergine dei Miracoli.

And this is just an example of how much othering goes on in music -- an example with which I am deeply familiar. Never mind, of course, that this sort of entrenched belief is pushed by people who have plenty of resources to their names. Even in a Eurocentric understanding, the folk musical traditions of the various peoples in Europe are rarely ever taken into account, except when a certain composer of note ostensibly "betters" a folk dance by orchestrating it for the people who can afford to go and see such a performance.

So when I said earlier in the post that I felt that the mental shackles binding me were broken when I watched Neely's explanatory video, it truly did feel like that. For the first time in my life, I understood that my manner of expressing myself with the instrument closest to my heart was not "wrong." It helped me understand that what sounds good is at first often experimented on, latched onto by others, and then it becomes tradition. There's no reason why what I or others are doing couldn't be looked upon fondly by people of centuries to come -- but what we do isn't the "only" way to express ourselves musically. We musicians are barely scratching the surface.

People talk about "holding onto experimentation at the expense of tradition;" I feel no one's really going to do that. We're doing more conscious, careful, empathetic borrowing from other musical traditions. Tradition is not forgotten here. What is happening in practice, however, is holding onto tradition at the expense of experimentation. That stifles the growth of music, of culture, of persons.


Observing history -- especially musical history, it is fair for me to say that the (male) composers of the 18th century would have taken for their influences and inspirations the composers of previous centuries. The understandings of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance would have carried over across the centuries. So, too, would have the understanding that "everything beyond this culture that we've got going here is degenerate." Art often influences music, and vice versa -- so I wouldn't be surprised if visual artists often thought the same as the musicians of the time who were enabled to flourish.

As an ethnic minority and an LGBTQ+ person, this entrenched belief feels to me like a spectre from the distant past that does not want to be exorcised. But we need to exorcise it. We have been making leaps and bounds in our understandings of different peoples, different cultures, different nations' histories. I like to think that we have moved past the days where people overtly called other musical traditions "degenerate," or made hurtful caricatures of other people's cultures and music. So why is this spectre still here?

Why is it that we are still carrying some of the entrenched beliefs of 18th century European male musical analysts, who themselves had probably carried with them the entrenched beliefs of male musicians and artists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance? (And just to be clear, I am specifically stating male here, as the most notable female composer of the Middle Ages, Hildegard of Bingen, wrote her compositions in an improvisatory nature like many of us do today, and with much greater abandon than her counterpart, Bernard of Clairvaux. And much unlike her male counterparts, she asserted that music encompasses both body and soul -- an understanding that has been rejected by many male composers, and still gets rejected in many circles.) Why the forced musical restraint? Why the overemphasis on these 18th-century so-called "greats?" Why are we just that reticent to let musical minds try and run free?

Is it because we've all been kidding ourselves into believing that music theory explains why something sounds good? I'm sure that, if used impartially and if it encompassed the way music is taught across the world, that would be true. But too often, the music theory we know, the spectre from the 18th century, has been used to explain why all the other musical traditions sound "good" or "bad." And I'm pretty sure that you all can see the problem with that.

The time for what we have often called "music theory" has long passed. It's time we listened patiently, empathetically, to the songs of the people around us, especially those kinds of songs that don't fit within the framework that we were given.

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