For instance, you can always chop up notes into chord tones vs non-chord tones; and then separate non-chord tones into passing tones and neighbor tones. These are very much just classifications.

Thus, it seems that, to a large extent, music theory is only giving us a language to describe music. It doesn't seem to have significant "scientific content" in the sense that "music theory predicts what is good music". That is, it isn't true that "only music written according to XXX theory sounds good to an untrained ear". I emphasize "untrained" because people can be trained to prefer one style of music over another.

  • 1
    An excellent question, one that also has wider application in the distinction between "is" and "should". Sep 21, 2020 at 14:18
  • 2
    Perhaps unfortunately, a computer CAN take the rules of 'music theory' and output music that could be mistaken if not for Mozart certainly for one of his lesser imitators. A quick Google found this - from 9 years ago. It's come along since then. https://phys.org/news/2011-12-mozart-machine-software-music-classical.html
    – Laurence
    Sep 21, 2020 at 17:00
  • 2
    Define "good music". Sep 21, 2020 at 19:12
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    I wouldn’t put the word “only” in front of “giving us a language to describe music”. Any amount of language to describe music is something significant in my opinion. Sep 21, 2020 at 19:44
  • 2
    There is absolutely no requirement to predict what is good music in order for the theory to be scientific. No science predicts "good" versus "bad"
    – user50691
    Sep 22, 2020 at 15:50

14 Answers 14


It doesn't seem... that "music theory predicts what is good music"

I agree. And why would it? That's not what theories are there for at all. Like, the theory of Newtonian mechanics isn't there for judging what kind of behaviour of stuff in the real world is good behaviour or bad behaviour – that's not for physicists to judge, the world is just as it is. Likewise, music is just how it is, regardless of whether it conforms to some particular theoretical framework.

However, that's almost completely orthogonal to

It doesn't seem to have significant "scientific content"

Hardly anybody is going to dispute that Newtonian mechanics has significant scientific content. It is enormoursly valuable, even though it's not always right. Why? Because it

  • Is very simple, clear-cut, and therefore excellent for reuse. This goes both in a scientific sense: gives us a way to precisely tell when we're leaving the domain of Newtonian physics – and in an engineering sense: allows us to easily build all kinds of useful stuff and be confident that it'll actually work without the billions of trial&error iterations you'd need to cover the entire space of buildable machines.
  • Does apply to a quite big domain of physics: everything that's big or warm enough for quantum effects to decohere, and slow and light enough for relativity not to matter. Granted, that does exclude a vast amount of physics, but it happens to include lots of what we're actually dealing with day-to-day and is interesting/powerful/emergence-friendly enough to allow us to build anything from skyscrapers to mars rockets.

Newtonian theory is not “the” theory of physics, it is one physical theory. Unfortunately, by contrast, the term “music theory” is often used synonymously with common practice, or even “the harmonic style of 18th century european musicians”. That is a musical theory, one which I personally think is extremely useful much like Newtonian theory is a very useful physical theory, but it most definitely isn't the theory to end all theories.

In fact, right now there is a lot of discussion about this, captured in Adam Neely's excellent video:

The term music theory should really get divorced from its singular focus on common practice. But when people use this to argue that music theory as a whole is obselete, I have to disagree strongly. On the contrary, music theory is an amazing tool to guide us into future musical developments, we just need to use it as such. Not as a dogmatic law book to judge already written music against.

  • 1
    I think that the analogy can be taken a step further: theoretical physics can determine relationships, quantities, existences, or what-have-you that can be tested through application. Similarly, what we can discern from "theoretical music" can be tested by writing a new song. In both instances, if the experiment turns out in a different way than expected, theory can also help explain why that is.
    – John Doe
    Sep 21, 2020 at 18:25
  • 3
    I disagree with the "why would it?"-Part. You are right in that theories don't judge wether something's good or bad. But the biggest quality of a scientific theory is being able MAKE PREDICTIONS at all. Could you elaborate in your answer what predictional capabillities are in fact there? Sep 22, 2020 at 9:51
  • 2
    @Quantumwhisp music theory allows you to predict that something you compose according to its laws will sound in a way that doesn't feel out of place in the sound æsthetic of whatever style you're aiming at. Which is typically correlated with “sounding good” to you and/or your audience, but also allows putting more focus on exactly what parts are actually supposed to stick out. Sep 22, 2020 at 12:45
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    @ikegami yes, though FWIW I actually disagree with 12tone's take on the subject (as well as with Philip Ewell, who features in Adam Neely's video). Namely, Common Practice and Beethoven in particular really do deserve their “outstanding” status, IMO. Some of that is down to my personal taste and my feel that Beethoven's music should if anything be more preserved and passed on to new generations – music education does have a conservation role to play. ... Sep 22, 2020 at 20:39
  • 3
    ...By that same argument, it should also preserve and perpetuate other traditions; in particular I feel Arabic and Indian traditional music should be taught more in Europe, African traditional music more in the Americas. — But moreover, CP theory really does have some aspects that make it particularly suited as a first theory to learn, in a way that is quite analogous to Newtonian mechanics as the first physics theory to learn. And those are purely mathematical, not cultural features, for which it doesn't, shouldn't matter that they happen to have been developed first by white Europeans. Sep 22, 2020 at 20:40

You seem to take it for granted that we use twelve half-tones per octave, construct scales from seven of these half-tones, stack thirds into chords, arrange these chords into progressions, etc... and that all seems trivial to you.

It is not.

(Western) music theory describes how to pick a very small subset of all the frequencies you could generate on musical instruments, and how to combine these few frequencies into structures to achieve predictably consonant melodies with harmonic arrangements that match the melody and create a sense of motion, suspension or resolution... and how to move beyond the simplest combinations without getting lost in the wilderness of complete dissonance immediately. If you stick with the simplest guidelines of music theory, you are guaranteed to get something that probably sounds bland, but not dissonant, and that's not nothing, if you consider that very few cultures in the history of mankind ever developed a concept of chords.

  • 1
    This. To anti-paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, any sufficiently established technology won't be distinguished as technology at all. Sep 21, 2020 at 20:53
  • I agree. As I acknowledged in my response to the comment by @9072997, I think my question should be better worded as "which parts of music theory has predictive content". Some parts of it certainly does.
    – J Li
    Sep 23, 2020 at 22:07

It's a broad generalization that discussion of "music theory" usually refers to Common Practice Tonality, or related ideas of scales, chords, modes, and so forth. These ideas are primarily descriptive and often subjective in their application.

However, there are music theories currently being studied and developed that attempt more objective/mathematical descriptions of music. And if not predictive, they are at least more objective in their application and study.

For example, in Music Through Fourier Space: Discrete Fourier Transform in Music Theory, Emmanuel Amiot writes,

The cutting-edge research is currently focused on the other component of Fourier coefficients, their directions ... [which] appear to model some aspects of tonal music with unforeseen accuracy.

Authors such as Amiot, Guerino Mazzola, Moreno Andreatta, Jason Yust, Carlos Agon, and Dmitry Tymoczko have written extensively on this and related subjects using algebraic, set theoretic, group theoretic, and category theoretic techniques.

There is also much research in neuropsychological aspects of music perception. Diana Deutsch has published extensively, especially in the area of musical illusions and perfect (absolute) pitch. She also wrote the textbook "The Psychology of Music", currently in its third edition.

Daniel Levitin is another major researcher in the area of music perception and cognition. From his Wikipedia entry:

As a cognitive neuroscientist specializing in music perception and cognition, he is credited for fundamentally changing the way that scientists think about auditory memory, showing through the Levitin Effect, that long-term memory preserves many of the details of musical experience that previous theorists regarded as lost during the encoding process. He is also known for drawing attention to the role of cerebellum in music listening, including tracking the beat and distinguishing familiar from unfamiliar music.

  • Thanks Aaron. This is rather eye opening to me.
    – J Li
    Sep 23, 2020 at 22:09

The theory of music is a very wide subject, and most of it describes what happens rather than describes what must happen. It is a method of explanation that makes music make more sense (usually!).

There are certain aspects which must be adhered to - for example, in a piece in 4/4, each bar will contain the equivalent of 4 beats. Otherwise, it's not 4/4!

True, it does give us a language with which to describe music - which is very useful, and generally unequivocal, which should be the point of any language, for communication purposes.

As far as formulae for creating 'good' musc is concerned, theory can't do that. Music is far more an art than a science, so theory remains firmly theory, and won't become law. There are, however, well tried and tested ideas, which we can recreate, with subtle differences, that produce 'good' music.

Over periods of time, however, composers have eschewed the theory, to produce different music, some of which has found approval, despite 'not following the rules'.

  • Very much appreciate your answer, and also very much agree. There is one more thing lingering in my mind: it seems that the set of great composers and great music analyzers are different people. Of course, this could be a small sample issue, or it could be not even true (due to my limited knowledge of music). However, this observation prompts to me wonder whether analyzing music is a very different skill than creating music. Analyzing music is very analytical and a “left brain task”; creating music is very inspirational and a “right brain task”. To what extent do you agree?
    – J Li
    Sep 21, 2020 at 8:04
  • 1
    Analyzing music is very analytical and a “left brain task”; creating music is very inspirational and a “right brain task”. To what extent do you agree? This is another example of opinion based. I agree that analysis based on the structural terms is left brain job, but not the kind of Hoffmanntal’s analysis of Beethoven’s 5th. I agree composing is more right brain activity but lot of fugue writing or sonatas can be the work of left brain hemisphere, especially 12 tone and serial compositions. This point could even be proofed statistically. Sep 21, 2020 at 8:59
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    "Over periods of time, however, composers have eschewed the theory, to produce different music" And one reason music theory is similar to science is that these new musics eventually get their own music theories, because as long as music exists, people will want to understand it.
    – user45266
    Sep 21, 2020 at 18:40
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    At the risk of sounding more ignorant than insightful, music theory, inasfar as it's a "scientific discovery of why things sound good", is almost a psychological science. "This sounds good", after all, isn't a scientific fact, it's a psychological fact -- it sounds good to people in particular, and an alien species would not be able to discover the general statement "it sounds good", but they may be able to discover the statement, "it sounds good to people", or maybe more specifically "to this group of people". So to that extent, understanding music is as much about understanding ourselves.
    – TKoL
    Sep 22, 2020 at 16:07
  • @TKoL I think we are entirely on the same page here. By "this sounds good", I am restricting attention to homo sapiens. Snakes can also dance with music, but unfortunately we do not include them.
    – J Li
    Sep 23, 2020 at 23:47

It seems that, to a large extent, music theory is only giving us a language to describe music. It doesn't seem to have significant "scientific content" in the sense that "music theory predicts what is good music".

That is largely correct. There are some musicological studies that do attempt to examine and explain innate preferences, and the results of those studies are very relevant to music theory (and arguably form part of it) - but the enjoyment of music is largely subjective, and music theory cannot determine what is "good music". If you see any theory work saying that "A is better than B", you can take that as a shorthand for "audiences familiar with the genre of music we are writing about tend to prefer A to B".

  • I agree. If you know of any accessible materials (videos > books) on musicological studies that explore our innate preferences, I would love to learn!
    – J Li
    Sep 23, 2020 at 23:48

"For instance, you can always chop up notes into chord tones vs non-chord tones; and then separate non-chord tones into passing tones and neighbor tones. These are very much just classifications."

This is not a great example to start with, as it presumes that chord tones had meaning in the first place. A better example would be "why are chords generated from the pattern (1, 3, 5) to start". By they way, what's wrong with classifying things? The class division has meaning. Are you opposed to major versus minor?

There is a tremendous amount of information to unravel to get to an answer. Any fast and loose claims that it is or is not scientific are probably quite thoughtless.

There is great significance in the structure of the diatonic scale and the significance of the I, IV, and V chords within that scale. They are in fact related to the natural harmonics in a harmonic sequence. This is the type of sequence you get for a vibrating string or standing waves in an air column. In contrast the natural harmonics of plates and other vibrating system do NOT follow this sequence. Many musicians go through life thinking that all vibrating system obey f_n = n*f_1 but that is not the case. There are many exotic "overtone" sequences. So why then does most of Western music seem to gravitate towards the "harmonic sequence"? It could have something to do with biology and how we are constructed (by evolution). Our ears, and brain, are naturally tuned to this series of tones. The nerves in the ear will self excite in the harmonic sequence when a pure tone is introduced, this is called aural harmonics. The brain will think it hears a "fundamental" that is NOT present in the acoustic field that excites the ear due to a process called fundamental tracking. Both of these phenomenon seem to suggest that nature has favored the harmonic sequence above all others. Why? I really do not know but would guess that it has to do with our use of vocal calls to communicate and the fact that our throats (or throat + head + vocal_chord system) are approximately described by tubes, which obey this sequence.

If we had evolved differently we might actually detest harmonics and the natural sequence of tones produced by them, e.g. the (1, 3, 5) which is the foundation of the major triad and the diatonic scale.

Much of what the general population finds "pleasing" about music (or in contrast "unpleasant") is related to combinations of tones that have supporting harmonic structure. The German physicist Herman Helmholtz set out to provide a physics based explanation for the concepts of consonance and dissonance, as well as devices like authentic and plagal cadences. His thesis was that these things are not merely one of many choices but essentially mandated by physics. You can read about it in the text "On the Sensations of Tone" which is still in print today. This is the foundation of musical acoustics and psycho acoustics.

Based on his work it might seem that the rules of music theory are in fact grounded in real science and are the only rules any human would arrive at given enough time and opportunity to explore all possible avenues. However, I do not think this is true. For one thing Helmholtz started with the premise that Western music theory was in some sense superior to that of other cultures, if it even existed in other cultures. In other cultures, Indian music comes to mind, different scales are used that do not necessarily have tones related to the harmonic sequence. They also lack the use of multi voice harmony, which is really where the rubber meets the road with respect to true "theory", e.g. the rules of harmony. Harmony is what creates the opportunity to hear dissonance and the need to resolve it to consonance with a resolution.

I know this is not really what you are asking about but I do not think it is possible to completely separate these concepts. We need to correctly identify them to understand how they are related but we cannot divorce them from one another completely.

The specific ideal of chord tone versus non-chord tone is significant as much of music has developed over the centuries or millennia so that we tend to favor harmonizing melodies in such a way that the notes are a chord tone. That is rather than letting the melody move over a drone, if the notes leave the set of notes in one chord we move along with it by changing chords to support the melody. This type of process creates the feeling of movement. That does not mean that musicians MUST move with the melody by changing chords. The composer that holds a chord while the melody moves in and out of the chord tones is choosing to say something. They are creating a tonal landscape that may produce a feeling of conflict (that is not negative). Whereas the composer who move chords with the melody is creating a feeling of support. The fact the these two different approaches create different feelings in most listeners indicates the importance of having a language that helps us distinguish them.

The rules of Western music theory have evolved over time to reflect what might be considered best practices, those ideas that seem to work more often than not. That doesn't make a perfect system, and it needs to evolve as we learn and create more. But the fact is that it is a good starting point for developing musical ideas. Artists that go to university will learn about color, light, shadow, perspective, etc. And these are all very scientific. But they don't tell the painter how to paint. They merely provide the painter with a rubric for developing a visual piece that would indicate to the observer that there is a light source somewhere off in the distance, not seen in the painting. The painter is not saying "the rules of light and color tell me what and how to paint" but they are saying "if I want to convince a person that the following things are true here is the trick I need to play". That is how theory is used in the arts. If a painter wants to destroy the idea of perspective to make a political statement then they can choose not to use the mathematically precise techniques that create realistic perspective. Music theory works in much the same way. The rules as we know them have some grounding in physics but as artists we are fee to break the rules at any time. I might want to make the listener feel a sense of emptiness at the end of a song. To do this I might choose NOT to end on I, or I might end on a suspension. Music theory doesn't say "you must always end with a V7-->I with the I voiced in root position and Do in the melody" it does say "The aforementioned device creates the strongest sense of resolution from among all possible chord progressions". That last statement is on pretty firm ground (but perhaps still only in terms of a general consensus).

"Thus, it seems that, to a large extent, music theory is only giving us a language to describe music. It doesn't seem to have significant "scientific content" in the sense that "music theory predicts what is good music". That is, it isn't true that "only music written according to XXX theory sounds good to an untrained ear". I emphasize "untrained" because people can be trained to prefer one style of music over another."

So, first of all "... a language to describe..." is exactly what any theory does. I think you might be misusing these terms. The foundation of music theory is vocabulary. But that vocabulary is significant. Even before we had a false theory of gravity, replaced by another which is probably also false, we had a rubric for explaining planetary motion based on observation. Most of science is in fact "stamp collecting". We observe, take notes, and develop recipes for recreating things that work. Just because someone can come along and be contrary, stating "well I don't like what everyone else likes" doesn't mean that the rubric is useless.

Second, your use of "trained" versus "untrained" is deceptive. The whole point of music theory is to provide a set of practices for producing music that would appeal to widest audience. The greatest works of music throughout history were written for the masses (or masses, i.e. masses attending masses). These "rules" are not based on what one or two musicians thought was best but what gets the most people in the door to pay for your music.

  • I learned a lot from your answer and appreciate your patience. I think there is a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding, but that is largely due to my inaccurate wording of the question.
    – J Li
    Sep 23, 2020 at 23:55
  • Well I hope it helped somewhat.
    – user50691
    Sep 24, 2020 at 0:06

To paraphrase an old TV ad, "Music theory can't tell you why someone composed a piece, but it can tell you how it was done." This is more useful than it seems at first. If you hear something you like (or something close to what you like), you can learn how to get the same (and similar) effects. By studying lots of music, you can selectively choose the things you want to put together. Music theory can tell you how to assemble ideas musically (smoothly, roughly, lots of dissonance, very consonant, one melody, many melodies, voice, bassoon quartet, etc.). Whether it's good is subjective, music theory can tell you if you composed what you wanted, not if you like it.

Knowing lots of theory (and lots of music), one can tell if you have a new idea or are just copying something.

Whether or not something is "good" is not so simple. One can judge by cleverness of technique (objective), whether one enjoys listening (subjective, individually), or whether the music sells well (objective measure of collective subjectivity).

  • That's a nice way to look at it, music theory as a means to actually assemble musical ideas. Sep 21, 2020 at 14:38
  • Knowing lots of theory should lead one to the conclusion that everything is just a copy of the canonical form.
    – user50691
    Sep 21, 2020 at 18:46
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    Why? To paraphrase Dr Edward Hewitt, "It gives one a good set of values to rebel against." One cannot avoid the unknown, only the known.
    – ttw
    Sep 21, 2020 at 19:41
  • I appreciate the answer. Asking whether music theory has "predictive power as a scientific theory" isn't really questioning whether it is useful (which I think is obviously true). Scientific theories aren't all useful. Not all useful approaches are scientific.
    – J Li
    Sep 23, 2020 at 23:57

This is very similar to an aspect of English grammar. We talk about descriptive and prescriptive grammars. I'll briefly discuss grammar and then move on to music.

A descriptive grammar tells us how people talk

A large body of text/speech can be analysed and rules derived from it. Usually there is a distinction between so-called Standard English and various dialects.


Don't say anything (standard) and Don't say nothing (dialect)

A prescriptive grammar tells us how people should talk


Don't say anything (correct) and Don't say nothing (incorrect)

In music similar distinctions apply, however there are different genres of music.


In classical music theory, parallel fifths are prohibited, both in counterpoint and harmony.

In rock guitar, parallel fifths occur all the time, especially in power chords.

A classically-trained musician might classify power chords as incorrect. A rock musician would be lost without them.


In my opinion, musical theory can be either prescriptive or descriptive but you have to distinguish what theory you are talking about. There are different theories for different genres of music.

  • Parallel 5ths do occur in some classical harmony as we've had questions on the site in the past. It's really only disallowed in polyphony as seen in counterpoint to make the voices as independent as possible. This can be seen in modern music today and while it's not the typical goal it can happen.
    – Dom
    Sep 21, 2020 at 21:24
  • @Dom - Thanks for pointing that out. I was aware but didn't want to go down that rabbit-hole! In fact, when one learns classical theory at music school, one is usually prohibited from using parallel fifths in basic exercises. Of course this doesn't stop real composers from using them. I was generalising to some extent however, and there is a parallel with prescriptive English grammar where different grammarians disagree about what to prescribe. Sep 21, 2020 at 21:33

Excellent Question! This is is what confused me as I started music. A little background, I started with music at the (late) age of 24 years. I remember, I had no instrument at hand, and never played one before. So, the first thing that came to my mind: read about music theory, so that I have a good knowledge when it comes to the applied parts, i.e., playing an instrument. Bad idea, it was confusing, I could hardly make sense of it. I was a student of mathematics and computer science, so, acquiring knowledge "theoretically" seemed to be a natural approach. However, let me add, even in math you cannot approach a topic "purely" theoretical, you have to have some ideas about the concept that are described.

First, let us clarify what we mean by a theory. A theory should adequately describe a phenomenon, and should allow predictions and conclusions. However, as plausible as all this is, let us see what theory means in different branches of science.

  1. Formal Logic

A theory in this sense starts with axioms, involving primitive notions, and rules of inference. By this, you can derive new facts. Here, what a theory is, is fully formalized. The idea stems from geometry, back to the axioms stated by Euclid, and attempts to formalize mathematics in the 19th and 20th century.

  1. Natural, Social and Empirical Sciences

As already mentioned, Newtonian mechanics is a theory, for sure. I some sense, it could be understood in the first sense. But not every physical theory had been, and it is not clear if this is possible, formalized in the strict sense of logic mentioned before. However, every physical theory is formulated in the language of mathematics. But if we look at, for example, psychology, what makes a theory gets quite blurry. For example, Prototype theory, as least as presented in text books, is almost useless behind a basic level. For example, how to make predications based on these ideas in the same way as, for example, in Newtonian mechanics, or how to apply this theory, for example, in software engineering, either to predict how programmers form concepts of program code, or to model concepts in code? I do not see that it helps. I have a minor in psychology, and in my studies I have seen all kinds of theories of how the mind works, or certain things are processed when performing a task. Some of these theories are more predictive, for others it is not that clear what they predict. Other are very broad, for example, Chomsky's Generative Grammars. Anyway, psychologist are aware of these shortcoming, Behaviorism was once a way to deal with it, Mathematical psychology is the goal to formulate psychology like physics, or even more like an axiomatic systems as outlined above. You might also look up Cognitivim and Experimental Psychology.

  1. Music

I am really not an expert on music. But to make the connection to my initial thoughts: Music Theory is not a theory in all of the senses outlined above. First, you need to know music to apply music theory, there are no axioms, nor rules of derivation on its own. In this sense it is more descriptive. Not so much to predict things, I would not even say to make sense of music, but more to describe what is there, reveal structures and to have a language.

There are, however, attempts to derive music theory from physical principles. Guess everyone is aware of the overtone series and frequencies ratios, which somehow explain consonances and dissonances. This goes back to Pythagoras, but the first more serious and broad approach was undertaken by Hermann von Helmholtz. And psychologists later tried to link physical objects and sensory sensations to musical sensations, see for example Levelt & Plomp. I once wrote a little program to demonstrate how unpleasent certain close frequencies sound,

I think the analogy to grammars mentioned here works also quite well. A grammar, for example, for english, or german, is descriptive. However, as mentioned before, a universal grammars has been proposed in context of the nature vs nurture debate and cognitivism. Let me add that there were attempts to derive music theory from the idea of "a universal grammar in all of our heads", see A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, a somewhat different viewpoint than merely the physical one.


Music theory is a descriptive science of the psychology of hearing music. Music theory takes the evidence that we have (like the fact that the octave sounds like one note, or that a small second sounds dissonant), and builds a more or less coherent model that summarizes what we see into relatively few and easy-to-remember rules.

Note that while music theory really only cares about how we perceive music, quite a large fraction of it also has very strong connections to physics and mathematics. For instance, the fact that we use 12 semitones to split the octave is connected to the fact that 219 is almost the same as 312. The same mathematical coincidence is the reason why the fifth is so important for harmonics. I could go on like this for quite a while. The point is, that many of the rules that comprise music theory can be shown to derive directly from mathematical and physical facts. So, music theory is not just about psychology, it also has a basis in more rigorous sciences.

  • @leftaroundabout Thanks for the edit. I always forget which sites offer Latex formulas and which don't. Sep 22, 2020 at 14:22
  • I certainly agree that certain aspects of music theory -- such as what you have mentioned -- is very much science and is grounded in science. My question should be edited to ask "what parts of music theory has scientific content and what parts is purely arbitrary and/or specific to 18th century European music", I think.
    – J Li
    Sep 24, 2020 at 0:01
  • @JLi Well, you can count everything to do with rhythm and structure as being down to psychology. You can count pretty much everything to do with harmonics as somehow grounded in math/physics. But psychology permeates even these parts (there is no physical foundation for the notion of a leading tone, for example). The part that's pure physics is the different sounds of the different instruments. Like an electric guitar having a very different sound when played around the 12th fret, as compared to playing near the neck. Sep 24, 2020 at 0:18
  • I agree. By the way, I’m (somewhat) familiar with the “science” of harmonics, but not at all familiar with the science of rhythm and structure (connecting them to psychology). If you have any references I would really appreciate it.
    – J Li
    Sep 24, 2020 at 0:20
  • @JLi Sorry, no references. I'm a physics guy, and I know the limits to that discipline. And I believe that anything in music theory that cannot be explained with math/physics, must be down to either psychology or the biology of the ear and hearing nerve themselves. The processing of the sound signals in the hearing nerve is already bordering on psychology again, there is not really a sharp distinction. Sep 24, 2020 at 0:43

It seems like you are connecting "theory" to "science" but theories are not limit to science. There are theories in art too (color theory, poetics, etc.)

I think a general split you can make in music is "acoustics" for parts of music treated in a scientific way and "aesthetics" for music as art.

To some extent music theory is largely about giving names to musical elements. But in terms of theory this brings us into a philosophical realm of categorization. Certain aspects of music theory rely on careful categorization. For example, a basic harmony concept is chord roots move by descending fifths. Categories for chord types and non-chord tones are essential aspects of analyzing harmony and creating a theory of chord progression rather than mere objective labels.

That kind of music theory is historically from the time of the Enlightenment. Some is for even earlier times. That kind of philosophical thinking pre-dates our modern sense of science. To me it's more aligned with aesthetics than science.

"music theory predicts what is good music"

That's just flat out wrong. Theory doesn't do that.

Sure, music theory provides a kind of catalog of aesthetic ideas - things like: syncopated rhythms are... exciting, etc. - but that doesn't necessarily lead to "good music." Too many musical elements need to be integrated to make a final whole work and there is no theory for how to do that. An obvious pitfall in art that relies on such ideas at the risk of being cliche.

  • Theory, when connected with science, means something altogether more rigorous than theory used in any other way though. Then actually "Theory (by science)" IS limited to science and there are no theories in art. I think your answer would be improved by connecting it to a non-science version of the word - since I believe a part of the answer is that one should not assume music theory to have scientific properties. I find when people use "in theory..." to mean "I never tested this" to be a rather sad pervesion of the word, but language fortunately belongs to everyone, not only scientists ;-)
    – Stian
    Sep 22, 2020 at 11:14
  • 2
    For me "color theory" is the first thing that comes to mind in art. But "poetics" would be another example, theory in literature. Sep 22, 2020 at 19:36

Good question! That’s why I think it’s ridiculous to close here questions and criticizing answers as opinion based, except questions referring to historical theories related to their writers that can be proofed concerning their original content and concern.

All mathematical and physical fundamentals of course are scientific and proof able (measures, rhythm, waves, harmonics, even temperatures etc.)

Temperature is a good example: we can proof their basics, their historical development ... but not their psychological effects as e.g. the characteristics of the modes or keys. But we can discuss the discussions of their discussion. If we have our own meaning and make a statement about this theme it is called opinion based but if you cite a medieval monk - or pope! - you are scientific.


Music Theory is by all common sense is a way to describe and understand the mechanics of the numbers, harmonies, structures and ideas. Theory uncomplicates extended full jazz chords, time signatures and musical emotions that are created by the composer in order for Other musicians to get a fix on the piece. It IS by all accounts a language. If you know & comprehend music theory, you can hear a director say "Hey...That's a flat 5 on the Bass there".


"It doesn't seem to have significant "scientific content" in the sense that "music theory predicts what is good music"."

It has everything to do with it.

Octaves sound alike despite being double or half the frequency - the brain interprets dissonance/consonance as an integer multiple of ƒ.

What frequency (ƒ) between a note and its octave also sounds dissonant/consonant?... or rather the most dissonant/consonant?

It's the ƒ that is halfway - and that note is denoted as the fifth... it marks the harmonic increment of keys ... keys are to incrementing musical harmony as the number 1 is the numerical distance between adjacent integers.

The other notes between the octaves are fractions of fractions of distance between the octaves.

The reason the halfway note is denoted as the fifth is that the hand has four fingers. If each successive finger is allocated for one note then the fifth note would be starting over at finger #1 – the fifth note marking the beginning of the next key, the next harmonic increment.

In other words if we had 7 fingers there would be seven notes with fractional ƒ increments between the tonic and midway note (1.5x the ƒ of the octave).

  • To be fair and accurate there are humans who do NOT interpret octaves as the same note. This has been measured scientifically. It is a fairly recent discovery (last 5 years or so) and indicates that we may be culturally brain washed into accepting this.
    – user50691
    Sep 22, 2020 at 15:49
  • Yeah I was surprised
    – user50691
    Sep 22, 2020 at 19:27

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