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What kind of questions does theory of music try to answer?

I wonder whether there are formal theories of music which define axioms and rules of inference. There must be plenty possible small theories. For example, a (quite useless) theory for all diatonic pieces in any major key would prove that every note is from mode in some key or prove otherwise. A slightly more complex theory might add dominant cadences and so on.

Are there formal, consistent theories that would would not reject successful music but reject almost all randomly generated notes?

I know there is some work in this field, take Emily for example, a software that can generate music. If generated music is lacking or not interesting, I imagine that a simpler goal would be to not reject good music.

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possible duplicate of A reliable foundation from which to understand what "key" really means –  Kevin Mar 17 '14 at 3:25
There aren't any approaches to music theory as you described it. Fundamentally, physics and math are objective, but music is subjective. –  Kevin Mar 17 '14 at 3:26
The music theory is more like a physical theory than a mathematical theory. It primarily tries to explain phenomena that are out there, rather than build a self-sufficient formal system. –  n.m. Mar 17 '14 at 8:26
I think you might also be asking about algorithmic composition. Google it. There are commercial and open-source music applications that employ heuristic routines to facilitate composing music. –  Wheat Williams Mar 17 '14 at 23:34

4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

You've asked a very broad question that is difficult to answer succinctly.

The maxim "Theory follows practice" is apt here.

For centuries, musicians have simply been composing music. From time to time, academic musicians have examined the way that music has been written in order to elucidate principles and rules about how the most enduringly popular and influential music is created. They have written down these principles, which are effectively applied mathematics and physics related to pitches and rhythms and the overall structure of whole pieces of music.

Musicians writing music may or may not be aware of the underlying mathematics and physics, to varying degrees. But many people who learn to be musicians find it very helpful to study music theory so that they can better understand how to compose their own music, or how to better read and interpret the music that other people have written which they wish to perform.

For all students who pursue a bachelor's degree in music performance, music theory is a two-year curriculum. Students who pursue a degree in what is called "theory and composition" study the subject of music theory for much longer than that.

It is not necessary to learn the subject of music theory thoroughly in order to be a successful performing musician, or a successful songwriter. However, all musicians, whether they read music or have formal training or not, pick up some music theory along the way, whether they are very aware of it or not.

Get a college textbook on the subject of music theory, and read through its table of contents. You will see the various range of topics that are taught. If you are curious, you can read a great deal on the subject.

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Wait. Is this common misconception that math-spoiled folks have when being introduced to the subject? I have never thought about that. Since it also applies to so called 'serious' music I thought it would be like what is 'formal' in math. –  Rumca Mar 17 '14 at 19:06
+1 for the penultimate paragraph, at least ! –  Tim Mar 18 '14 at 8:55

Yes, this kind of axiomatic theorizing is the domain of PhDs in Music Theory. Check out the articles in academic journals like: The Journal of Music Theory, Music Theory Online, and Perspectives of New Music.

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What kind of questions does theory of music try to answer?

It is simple Music Theory investigates the phenomena of what makes good music. It really is that simple. Music Theorist realized in some point in the past that certain chord progressions worked well together and eventually this realization became widespread and it became a rule.

The thing is that the rules of music theory are just ways in which musicians of the past have used to make good music. It is not arbitrary rules meant to stifle creativity but more like guidelines to help the creation of beautiful music.

I was amazed when I first started doing harmony at the fact that as I learned more about the tradition and rules of music the writing of my harmony exercises actually became music. Eventually it actually became pretty. Almost something that you could call music.

This was a real eye opener. I was not just doing leg work for a diploma anymore I was actually learning how to make music. Needless to say I looked differently at the proposition of learning theory and realised why it was such an important part of doing music.

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Music theory is meant to answer many answers when it comes to music. There are way too many to list, but here is a taste of what question are answered every day by music theory:

  • How do I write a melody over this progression?
  • How can I get from this passage to a completely different one?
  • How do I make multiple melodies stand out?
  • What harmony makes sense over this melody?

Music theory in the simplest is the study of what works and what doesn't in music. So while there is a formal path for studying the subject, simple things like someone listening to a song and figuring out what they like and what they don't is also music theory. Typically, when one does this they are aligning with typical music theory whether it finding standard progressions or using typical chords.

That being said since music is in the ears of the beholder and what you may find pleasing and what I may find pleasing may be two different things, but studying music theory will give you all the tools you could ever want to understand what you like and why.

In the intro music theory courses you'll typically study music theory from the classical common practice period as it is the base building block of today's music. In these classes you'll learn ways to analyse, construct, and understand music in the context of the classical common practice period. and As you learn more and more, you'll start learning different ways and methods of looking a the same progressions and how to change the context that you look at them in. Some of them may clash with each other for example, if you are writing any thing that is atonal, you'll be at ends with the theories of the classical common practice period.

Anyone who studies music theory to the point you mentioned will be trying to find new ways to analyse, construct, and understand music. Music theory is already used extensively to generate music and Wolfram Alpha even has an algorithm to generate different kinds of music based on style.. Music theory is the basis of algorithms like this and will create more as time goes on.

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