Who needs popular music theory?

January 23, 2006

I keep asking myself: is it true? It seems there isn’t any music “theory” about popular music. My colleague David Lefkowitz wanted to write about Cole Porter in his upcoming theory text book, but the cost of reprinting the entire score was prohibitive.

Music majors are made to study analytic methods of approved composers like Beethoven and Haydn and the rest, but why don’t they discuss the song structure of Cole Porter?

No theoretical writing on the melodies of Charlie Parker?

The aesthetic of Led Zepplin?

Or the harmonies of Joni Mitchell or Thelonius Monk?

The counterpoint of Pat Metheny?

The orchestration of Frank Zappa or Ornette Coleman?

The countermelodies of Richard Rodgers?

Hell, music theory classes barely know what to say about the classical music post-1900. All those “rules” we learned fall apart once composers started dumping the “rules.”

So with the background, why would I want to write a book that would include so many analytic essays about Rufus Wainwright’s music? Is there any interest in this, or might I be writing for a non-existent market?

If anyone knows of any such articles or books, please let me know. I know that musicology writes about pop music, but why not music theorists? Too easy?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Valkyrie January 24, 2006 at 8:55 am

Pop music hasn’t been appreciated as “real music” by the serious musicians of the world until recently, in my humble opinion.

Firstly, I think that many people writing and playing music today don’t have a really thorough training in the science of music. To them, music is truly an art form that comes from the heart and mind — maybe as it should be.

In Mozart’s time, my lovely Mozart — we’ll use him as an example since his birthday is coming up — there were strict forms of music, much of it written for the church — which is also fond of following strict forms of things. Requiems were to have “Agnus Deis”, “Kyries”, etc. Concertos had defined sections. From what I’ve read of Mozart, he found these structures somewhat confining — necessary for making money, but confining to his creativity. There has always been a certain snob appeal when classical music is mentioned — no matter the true era in which the music was written.

These days it has all been thrown out the window. People write what they want, they sing the tunes they feel like singing, they write music that doesn’t fit like a square peg into a square hole. And I think that’s a good thing. Like a painting, music should be what you feel and it should be allowed to go wherever you think it needs to go. I find it a bit sad that Mozart didn’t live in this time and place to enjoy it, but then we wouldn’t have his lovely piano pieces, operas, divertimentos, concertos. . .

Jazz is a good window into this freeform style, although jazz musicians are often heavily into knowing music theory. It is almost a prerequisite for them to know theory to be able to wander the notes, yet still play with other musicians in a manner that is pleasing to the ear.

Music theory will probably not change that much, but time signatures, chords, tunes . . . they are ever changing.

My guitar teacher and I often have this same discussion, both of us coming from formal lessons. We have both found that we were taught that music must be this way and that, that is must “resolve”, etc. We both laughed when we found that we asked the same question to our teachers.


Rhapsody January 24, 2006 at 8:03 pm

I don’t know that not appreciating contemporary musicians is unique in the realm of art and talent. Countless scores of musicians, painters, sculptors, writers, philosophers and prophets were disregarded, dismissed and shunned by their contemporaries…only to be revered as a result of historical hindsight. Jesus was crucified, Copernicus was declared a heretic, Galileo was forced to recant his support of Copernican theory (yet was sent to prison for the remainder of his life), Rodin led a tortured, impoverished life, Verdi was forced to rewrite his music to suit the politics of his day, Poe died a broken, poverty-stricken alcoholic….the list goes on.

Rufus left music school because he felt pressured to conform to some classic ideal that he was unwilling and unable to accept. He has been to dark places…but we all pray he has turned towards a productive future. Perhaps that future will study him more avidly and seriously.

Such seems to be the way of human nature. This, too, shall pass.

Previous post:

Next post: