Or at least, music theory should not ruin music. As a musician working on my degree in music education, it's required of me and my fellow music majors to study a good deal of the stuff. I cannot even begin to tell you how many people just can't freaking stand music theory. It's pointless, they say, and it distracts me from really enjoying the music. To which I reply: Are you kidding me? Theory is great! And inevitably I receive in return: What's so great about theory?
Hah. A hah.
What's so GREAT about THEORY? WHAT IS SO DAMN GREAT ABOUT THEORY?!?!?
Well, darlings. Let me enlighten you.
The technical definition of music theory is generally given (in some fancier wording than I am about to use) as the study of every tiny little detail of music: pitch, rhythm, melody, harmony, form, notation, instrumentation, articulation, dynamics, lyrics, cultural/historical context, composer's intent...everything you can think of. That's awfully vague, and frankly not really what it is. Primarily, music theory is the study of harmony. The other aspects all come into play sooner or later (mostly in how they relate to said harmony), but at its root, it's about harmony. Even more simply, and in my opinion much more accurately, the definition of music theory is the study of why music sounds the way it sounds. You there, musician - can you look me in the eye and tell me you can fulfill all that potential of yours without knowing why music sounds the way it does? Without knowing why an Ab sounds awesome in the key of good ol' C major? It's kind of like this yearning sound, right? You know that. Well why does it sound like it's yearning? Because it needs to resolve! And resolution, well gosh...THAT'S THEORY! It's relevant, folks. I swear to the goodness gracious of my dear mother's heart, it's important.
But I get it. Important doesn't mean it isn't driving you insane. You're bored of looking at a piece and going A major...tonic chord...E in the bottom...second inversion. Well GEE, wonder where THAT'S going. Next...E major 7...dominant chord. Shocker. Next...A major again...tonic...big fat 5-1 in the bass. Oh look, a cadence. Joy of joys. Nothing could possibly excite me more than ANOTHER perfect authentic cadence!! Yeah, I know, it can be tedious. But once you start to study it, then you start to recognize it everywhere. It's like when you learn the definition of a word you've heard a thousand times and suddenly it seems like everyone is saying it. And then that kind of fades and you just know it in the back of your mind and it becomes usable without a second thought, like every other word you have stored up in your wrinkly little brain. Hey you writers out there - does knowing the definitions of words spoil literature for you? Just curious. Cause I mean, you could read something and make it sound lovely without knowing a thing about what it meant, but don't you think it would be so much more effective to know what you're reading? Or would that make the sound of it somehow unfriendly? It wouldn't. So how exactly does knowing what's going on in the music ruin it? Just a thought, dearies.
Now what really gets me is when people (musicians!) say that they enjoy music less when they find themselves automatically identifying chords, cadences, non-harmonic tones, form, and the like. Three arguments for that: first of all, yes, it can be kind of distracting when you just learned something and it's sticking out to you. But it'll be less prominent when it's not so new any more. Meanwhile, how about being proud of yourself for being able to recognize it instead of annoyed that you're learning? Second, figure out how to turn that part of your brain that's screaming MODAL MIXTURE! on and off. You can still let yourself get lost in the music. I promise it's possible. It just might take a little getting used to again. And third - and most importantly - why not actually USE music theory to get MORE out of the music? God forbid we dare to think of the significance of some aspect of the music instead of just drowning in sound! As a music major, you're intending on making your livelihood with music. Be actively involved in it! Pay attention to what's going on and learn from it! Be a better musician for it - your wallet depends on it!! And if you're in music simply because you like it and it makes ya happy...well that's great, but maybe it's not what you should be dedicating your life to, if you don't want to take it any deeper than that.
Please, friends, quit griping about what a pain it is to have to learn music theory. It might not be your favorite, but it's practical. And in music, having all your basics set up in a really practical way (like good breathing, posture, embouchure, technique, etc) is necessary to get the best out of your instrument and the music you're playing. You know you want the best. Us musicians, we're always striving to make the music sound its best. So do it. Befriend your theory textbook, study up, and be your best.