What is theory for?

Spotify search results: 10 'Bib Band Theory' albums
The punning album title they just can’t resist (Spotify search results for ‘Big Band Theory’).
But what else is theory good for?

Mark Levine’s introduction to The Jazz Theory Book must be one of the best one-page explanations of why an aspiring jazz player should study theory. Hopefully you can take a peek at the introduction, at Google Books or Amazon. Any ‘look-inside’ links I give probably won’t work for long: the online booksellers are a bit capricious about what they let you see.

Front cover 'The Jazz Theory Book'

By the way, you don’t have to buy this or any other book online. Why not support a library, or a local physical bookstore that takes the trouble to stock jazz books? Use it or lose it.

I’m not sure I agree with Levine that a great solo is 1% magic. It might be as much as 3% or 5%. Who cares. The point is that everything else can be analysed and explained. And, ahem, copied.

Without theory, it is difficult to do much more than literally copy the notes. That is an important way of expanding your jazz language. But if you can reach a more abstract understanding of what a player is doing, you have a chance to add new tools to your personal collection of rhythmic, harmonic and melodic techniques.

Later, you can pull things from your toolbox, try various combinations, and come up with something unexpected. That is very important in jazz, where players and arrangers are admired for their ability to reinterpret familiar tunes.

As a jazz musician you need to know a lot of little things. You have to be a fox. There is no hedgehog option – unless you want to be the person at the jam session who tackles every tune in the same boring, predictable way.

Aim for that state of grace

Levine sees theory as a way to get a grip on things that you should, eventually, know implicitly. “Aim for that state of grace, when you no longer have to think about theory.”

There is a lot to know about jazz, and theory provides a way of organising it. That makes it essential both for learners and for teachers.

At the most basic level, some theory is needed to read and write scores and lead sheets. Theory also gives you a language for talking to other musicians about music, and understanding what they are telling you. The good thing about this is that you can easily reference certain shared, unquestioned truths. The bad thing is that those truths go unquestioned. It is very hard to escape from concepts that are embedded in our language, however fossilised and obsolete they are.

What theory isn’t for:

  • Telling musicians what they should and should not do
  • Trying to reduce ‘what we like’ to physics or mathematics

Theory can give hints: ‘this usually works/does not work’. Beginners wanting an instant veneer of competence are often taught various Things To Avoid. These are accompanied by impressive-sounding theoretical justifications, not because the justifications are true but because students have to be told something to shut them up. For mature musicians, however, creativity is often about making something work unexpectedly.

As for physics and mathematics, they can certainly help us understand how music works and even, to some extent, why we like it. But they can never provide the whole story. Musical tastes are cultural.

Any theory of music will be particularly relevant to a certain genre or genres of music, at a certain epoch. Though you might draw parallels between, say, modal jazz and North Indian classical music, each of those genres contains concepts that the other does not recognise.

Some theories will span more genres than others, and one of the joys and aims of music theory is to discover commonalities and differences among the world’s diverse musical traditions. However, the work of theorising will never cease, since musical traditions cross-fertilise and evolve. Even with the scant twelve notes that are the basic palette of the western ‘common practice’, we have not finished creating new things.

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