I have been studying music theory for some time now and I have become genuinely interested in the genealogy of music theory. I keep asking why when I study even the most basic of theories. For example, only to give a naive example, why is the major mode constructed in the way it is? Why do we have seven notes and why haven't we moved beyond twelve-tone equal temperament?

Is there a source/book/article that addresses such questions in depth?

My view might be flawed, but I truly believe a person such as Iannis Xenakis who writes a book called Formalized Music must have an impeccable understanding of such concepts.

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    If you're asking us to recommend books or resources for this, then that question is off topic. Some of your why questions may already be answered here, so you might search this site for those. Others you can ask one at a time and we might be able to answer them. Some "why" questions might not have answers that are known to modern musicologists. – Todd Wilcox Jun 14 '18 at 18:50
  • This might be a better fit on meta where there are already questions about where to ask things that are off-topic here. – luser droog Jun 14 '18 at 23:22
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because the help center states that questions should not be about "requesting external resources (questions should be specific and answerable on this site; external links are for references and supporting material)." – jdcode Jun 15 '18 at 3:44
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    I honestly think this site is the best easily accessible resource I know for asking these types of questions.... – topo Reinstate Monica Jun 15 '18 at 10:44
  • To answer your example, it's because: 1) Physics (waves act logarithmically) so you have to pick the best, few, points to place frets which lends itself to a perfect fifth and fourth. 2) Fingers (an open string and four more notes up to the fifth equating to the next string. 3) Simplicity - Making music simpler makes it marketable (guitars, mandolins, etc.). Seven note diatonic scales (whole note on each end) gives you major and minor 3rd triads which, when expanded to four note/finger chords give an large number of options and expanded with chord substitution. Seven is optimal. – Randy Zeitman Jun 15 '18 at 17:09

Music theory is mostly descriptive rather than prescriptive. It's more like taxonomy than genetics. So one should not expect much about "why" which in itself may be more part of psychology than about music. There's a lot written about music semiotics. To some extent, the extra-music meaning of a piece may be learned rather than derived from first principles.


I found some answers to my whys in Sound and Symbol by Viktor Zuckerkandl. It's part of the Bollingen Series of books on the Jungian side of the sciences. He takes a few musical passages and deeply dissects them piece by piece with meticulous perspicacity that is a sheer delight to read.

For topics like "why 7 notes", a good source might be The Pythagorean Sourcebook or The Harmony of the Spheres: The Pythagorean Tradition in Music.

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