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When learning music theory, I always have wondered about the vocabulary words, and how weird some of them were. Who came up with the words?

Now, I'm just curious about not just the origins of the words, but the origin(s) of music theory itself.

Who came up with the rules of music? How was it developed (all at once, or over a period of time)? Who was in charge of music theory? When was music theory first being developed?

Or is music theory like math, where it always existed, but just needed to be discovered? If so, who discovered it?

By music theory, I mean the content in music theory textbooks or workbooks, or things like AP music theory or music theory classes. You can also treat it as music theory in general.

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closed as too broad by Pat Muchmore, Kevin, Bob Broadley, Grey, Matthew Read Jul 11 at 13:21

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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This might be akin to asking who invented the English language –  scrowler Jul 9 at 2:57
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Music terms become a lot less weird when you realize that most are Italian. –  Lee White Jul 9 at 7:04
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This contains several questions, all quite huge in scope. Ask one question instead, and try to narrow the scope. –  Meaningful Username Jul 9 at 8:07
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As long as there has been music, in every different culture in the world, there have been people trying to explain it. The earliest written treatise on music theory is from Pythagoras (500 BC), the Greek who also established geometry. Since then, everybody has been involved. Your question is like asking "Who is in charge of biology" or "who are the historians?" Music theory was written about throughout history, throughout all cultures. It is the way it is today because it has evolved from everything everybody has written on the subject since Pythagoras. –  Wheat Williams Jul 9 at 20:42
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I agree with @Meaningful Username. There are several valuable questions being asked here, and I think the OP would do well to break them up into multiple other questions. –  Kevin Jul 9 at 22:51

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Music Theory is an academic discipline that throughout history has been developed in order to better understand the music being written and played by composers and performers.

As such, it is also an incredibly useful tool in teaching all kinds of music to beginners. In many cases, the composers of the day were teaching students to follow rules that they themselves were breaking in their own music. Occasionally throughout history, composers who were "pushing the envelope" of their day would codify their own rules for writing and understanding their own music, but in other cases that job is left to future theorists.

Any rules set in place by music theory must be contextualized in the kinds of music they were developed to explain. History and theory go hand-in-hand, but they are not always taught at the same time in music school curricula--likely due to the difficultly in finding teachers that are sufficiently knowledgeable about both.

So, to present some examples of what I mean by all this:

  • Many of the words in music theory are Italian, owing to a large presence (and dominance, to a degree) of Italian composers in the 16th and early 17th centuries. The Italian musical world is also responsible for the development of opera.
  • Baroque and classical period music from the 17th through 19th centuries tended to follow a set of rules known as "common practice", which is a way to codify the kinds of harmonic progressions and melody/counterpoint that as educated listeners, we expect to hear. Musical innovation still occurred, just within these limits. Important to note that these rules were derived only by explaining music that had already been written.
  • In the mid-20th century, Arnold Schoenberg devised a type of serialism called the 12-tone system that he used to compose his own music, while simultaneously teaching it to his students. Present-day music students learn this system so they can understand Schoenberg and his students' music, but also to understand present-day music that borrows from the same system.
  • In the present-day, alternative systems of tuning are being developed and used, so music theory in many ways is transforming to generalize many of the terms it uses so they apply to a broader context. Even a piece of atonal noise music can still have motives, a development section, and a recapitulation.
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The question is so broad I don't think it can be answered accurately. In terms of melody and harmony, there is a basis in physics for the concept of the "octave", where doubling or halving a note's frequency of vibration will result in a note that sounds as though it has the same identity, despite being higher or lower. So that is the finite source of pitches which we work from. The division of that octave into sub-pitches, called "notes", also has a basis in physics which is the harmonic series. Any given pitch when sounded will include in its body a subtle series of sympathetic pitches arising from the first. These pitches exist in mathematical proportion to the first pitch, and much of harmony seems to stem directly from the consequences of this series. In other words, when adding a note to a given structure, the lowest note of that structure tends to be the anchor note and every note added tends to take a place in the structure that is consonant or dissonant, and the consonance of the note tends to be somewhat related to that note's position in the harmonic series of the anchor note and other notes.

The decision to divide the octave into 12 notes, and the rules (called temperament) deciding exactly how wide the intervals are between them and specifically what their relationship are, appear somewhat based on the harmonic series but also arbitrarily resting on the prevailing conventions of harmony at that time. In other words, certain chords and progressions of chords entered common use, and the 12-note scale tends to support those chords and is thus an invention of Western music but not the authoritative law of how the octave should be divided. Alternative systems exist, and today some composers are writing "microtonal" music that uses an octave divided into 19 or more parts.

Once the question of how to divide the octave is settled, there is a much more limited set of choices for creating harmony and melody. These notes will necessarily result in certain structures which are consonant and those which are dissonant; chord progressions which are release tension and those that do not. Western music theory, as based on a 12-note equal temperament scale, is then based on the hundreds of years of practice, performance and composition that ensued after the 12-note scale was devised, seeking to understand these relationships of consonance, dissonance, resolution and tension arising from the result of a harmony built on the 12-tone scale.

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