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komponisto comments on The Best Textbooks on Every Subject - Less Wrong

167 Post author: lukeprog 16 January 2011 08:30AM

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Comment author: komponisto 12 February 2011 04:40:48AM *  5 points [-]

As a graduate of Juilliard I am curious about this assertion. Care to elaborate? Not that I personally have ever had much use as a performer for abstract notions about music theory. My experience has been that it gets in the way of actually performing music. Which leads to the question 'why should this be so' ? Those of my colleagues who were great adepts at theory were uninspired performers of the music they seemed to understand so well. All head and no heart. But why? I can understand that they are different skill sets, but why should they not be complementary skill sets?

It's a complicated question, but the short answer is that what usually passes for "music theory" is the wrong theory. At least, it's certainly the wrong theory for the purposes of turning people into inspired performers, because as you point out, it doesn't.

But then, if you'll forgive my cynicism, that isn't the purpose of music theory class, any more than the purpose of high-school Spanish class is to teach people Spanish. The purpose of such classes is to provide a test for students that's easy to grade them on and makes the school look good to outside observers.

(Nor, by the way, do students typically show up at Juilliard for the purpose of turning themselves from uninspired into inspired performers; rather, in order to get there in the first place they already have to be "inspired enough" by the standards of current musical culture, and are there simply for the purposes of networking and career-building.)

But music theory isn't inherently counterproductive to or useless for becoming a good performer or composer; it's just that you need a different theory for that. Ultimately, inspired performers are that way because they know certain information that their less-inspired counterparts don't; to see what this sort of information looks like when written down, see Chapter 9 of Westergaard. (And after reading that chapter, tell me if you still think that knowledge of music theory "gets in the way of actually performing music".)