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Music Theory is Actually Redundant

     I have always been fascinated by traditional African percussion. I'm no expert on percussion but I have had the good fortune to study with some great people in many places including Brazil, Uruguay, Senegal and Guinea Bissau. These experiences have influenced me a lot as a person and as a musician. I went to these countries innocently enough, just looking to learn some cool drum rhythms. But what I ultimately learned was a totally different way of relating to music, a different value system. Music serves a different purpose in these places. In my opinion, it serves a better purpose. Its function is not so much to entertain or impress but rather to heal and to connect people with their past, with each other and with nature.

They also have a completely different approach to teaching music. I was surprised when I found out that my percussion teachers had no way of writing down their music. Not only that, but in fact they didn't even have any way to talk about their music! The whole Western idea of half-notes, quarter-notes, rests and measures was completely unknown to them. And I'm talking about some of the most well-known and respected musicians in Brazil and West Africa. These guys are "masters" in the most austere sense of the word. They are incredibly precise and clear-thinking. They have complete mastery over the sound of their instruments and they know a seemingly infinite repertoire of compositions and arrangements. When you get a few of them together to play it's an awesome experience. Their music is thunderous, beautiful, joyful and frightening all at the same time!

When I discovered that they have no names or symbols for the rhythms they play, I figured that their music must be largely improvised, kind of like the hippie "drum circles" that are common in the U.S. and Europe but maybe with a higher skill level. This assumption also turned out to be wrong. In fact the pieces they play are very rigidly defined right down to every last little sixteenth-note. They have different sections with 1st and 2nd endings, codas and the like. And each section consists of multiple parts to be played simultaneously by several different drummers. There are even sections for call-and-response and improvisation. But these are all my words, my way of explaining how their music works. They don't use any of these terms. They don't even know what a measure is. Their music has triplets and eighth-notes, but the musicians themselves have no words to say, "triplets and eighth-notes."

What was most astonishing to me was the absolute perfection and simplicity in their use of time. I mean, if nobody has any concept of a measure or a time signature then probably there will be a few measures with extra beats, won't there? In fact there is nothing of the kind. They play in absolutely perfect 4/4 time, or 3/4 or 6/8 or what have you, with no deviation ever from the basic time signature.

It is actually very easy to notate their music with our Western music staves and symbols because their music is so extremely precise and well-ordered, despite the fact that they live their entire lives without ever analyzing it visually. Being a typical Westerner I was very impressed that people could achieve so much despite the lack of theory. But the real story is about what they are able to achieve as a result of their lack of theory. Unencumbered by a parallel language, they can concentrate entirely on the language of sounds. They simply live inside this world of sounds and they get to know all of its elements so deeply that it never even occurs to them to name the elements that make up their music.

In our own culture we are obsessed with naming things. If we can't reduce something to words we feel like we don't really understand it. In music, this obsession has driven us to invent a staggering number of musical concepts that students are now required to read about and memorize. Every conceivable way to group notes together has been declared a "scale" and has been given some exotic name. Every possible type of harmonic movement has been painstakingly identified and catalogued. College music professors today are more concerned about our ability to correctly name all these techniques than they are about our ability to actually make music.

And yet, despite all our theory and all our names, almost nobody in our society has any idea how music works. Most music theory professors can't improvise or compose anything. Nor can they recognize the harmony in the songs they hear on the radio. Paradoxically, we only begin to understand how music works when we stop asking the question. The question itself pulls us out of the world of sounds and throws us into the world of discussion about sounds. What we are really doing is shifting our attention to a parallel language alongside what was already a very highly organized language. This is why I say that music theory is redundant. Music itself is already so very elegant, so supremely well-organized, that its mere contemplation leads one to comprehend it perfectly.

David Reed is the author of "Improvise for Real" and the founder of, the world's first online music school dedicated exclusively to the art of musical improvisation.

David Reed is the author of "Improvise for Real" and the founder of, the world's first online music school dedicated exclusively to the art of musical improvisation.

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David Reed is the author of "Improvise for Real" and the founder of, the world's first online music school dedicated exclusively to the art of musical improvisation.

Posted on 2012-09-29, By: *

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Note: The content of this article solely conveys the opinion of its author.

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