There are many questions here concerning theory. Hardly surprising given the site's title!

What I'm trying to establish is where theory starts and possibly ends. For example, is just knowing a major scale part of theory; a start of theory?

Does history of performing artists come into theory - one exam board in UK thinks so, and includes questions about it in exams.

Is there a nice simple formulation of what constitutes music theory?

  • I don't think "thinking it's theory" is the reason that exam board has included dates and names in the theory paper; it's probably just for easier marking or some other meta reason and not because that's considered music theory.
    – wizzwizz4
    Oct 25, 2018 at 14:35
  • You have it backwards. The real meaning of a category word never prescribes the borders off a category, since membership in linguistic categories is gradual. You can certainly find definitions where a group of humans has agreed to erect an artificial boundary around a category, but this will never reflect the actual use of the category word outside of formal documents and processes authored by the defining group. Your "nice and simple formulation" of "where it ends" does not exist. The answerable part is "where it starts" if by this you mean the central elements of the cateogry.
    – rumtscho
    Oct 25, 2018 at 16:38
  • @rumtscho - you sound almost as pedantic as I am! It must have some sort of start point, but obviously no end point - except where it is now, which is tangible. I tried to be as open as I could, to encourage people to answer.
    – Tim
    Oct 25, 2018 at 16:42
  • Now I am confused by " except where it is now, which is tangible", could you explain what you mean before I start making wild assumptions?
    – rumtscho
    Oct 25, 2018 at 16:50
  • @rumtscho - looking for the edges of theory - the latest nuggets, the boundary pushing parts. Where it's gone so far. If I knew, I wouldn't be asking! Assuming isn't as good as some think...
    – Tim
    Oct 25, 2018 at 17:32

6 Answers 6


Music Theory, as opposed to Music Practice as a whole, is an abstraction. Music theory is applied in order to practice music.

Music theory, as a term, is similar to "mathematics". One applies mathematics to accomplish tasks, whereas the concepts behind it aren't related to the problem.

So, where does theory start, and where does it stop?

Theory starts with the theory of acoustics and physics, in my opinion. It begins with vibrations, definitions of frequency, ratios, and the like as related to the physical production of sound. Throughout history, civilizations have taken these concepts and turned them into art, creating some of our most basic units of music theory, ie. major scales, intervals, polyphony, and rhythms, and eventually progressing through time.

Theory, defined, ends when it gets into physical execution of that which it describes. The limits of theory are also limited by the latest developments in theory itself, but in general theory is defined against practice, and extends to conceptuallisations of sonic perception.

  • There is little about the acoustics and physics in most of the general theory books I've read.
    – Tim
    Oct 26, 2018 at 17:08

I'd suggest that music "theory" relates to identifying how various combinations of sound are likely to be perceived by a typical listener, and based upon that how one might arrange sounds so listeners perceive them in some desired fashion (pleasant or unpleasant, happy or sad, tense or relaxed, etc.) The study of how various composers have arranged sounds and how those composers' works are perceived is a key part of music theory, since it helps to identify what characteristics affect a listener's perceptions in various ways. What is most important to bear in mind about theory, however, is that it doesn't really classify things as "right" or "wrong". Instead, when theory suggests that a composer "should" do something, what that means is that violating such advice is likely to result in a piece of music being perceived as unpleasant. Such advice isn't infallible, however. Sometimes a piece of work will be perceived as pleasant even when music theory would predict the opposite.

  • I agree. There's no 'theory' to rhythm. There IS theory to harmony because it's the extension of intervals - how simultaneous intervals are interpreted. Diatonic is an example of a specific music theory ... a specific set of tones which give you a limited number of combinations with which to 'paint music'. Color theory is about the different ways to model, express, color which gives you options to get done the job that's needed to be done. So nomenclature isn't a theory any more than an english dictionary is 'English Theory'. Oct 25, 2018 at 17:35
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    @RandyZeitman: There is theory as to when listeners are going to expect certain things to happen based upon preceding rhythmic patterns. The fact that either a 6/8 or 3/4 measure will be precisely filled by a dotted half note, or a quarter note and four eigth notes, or notes with various other combinations of duration, is a matter of definition rather than theory, but much of what makes rhythm interesting is how listeners will perceive it. A listener's perception of a repeated rhytmic figure like (dotted-quarter eighth straight-quarter) will be very different if there are drum beats...
    – supercat
    Oct 25, 2018 at 18:16
  • 1
    ...marking 3/4-time straight quarter notes or 6/8-time dotted quarters. One must define nomenclature to perform music as well as to understand theory, but the reason nomenclature exists to indicate that performers should produce certain combinations of sounds is that such combinations have been found to achieve desirable perceptual effects.
    – supercat
    Oct 25, 2018 at 18:26
  • 2
    @RandyZeitman there is theory to rhythm. Ever head of rhythmic motifs, polymeter, and metric modulation? Even the concept of meter and syncpation show the theoretical study and application or rhythm.
    – Dom
    Oct 25, 2018 at 22:19
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    @RandyZeitman: If a composer wants to create an original drumbeat which makes the listener feel initially relaxed, but gradually feel increasing unease, how should that be accomplished? An understanding of rhythmic theory wouldn't just give one a fixed cookbook of rhythmic patterns, but would also allow one to predict how new original rhythms would be perceived, and thus build rhythms that would achieve the particular desired effect.
    – supercat
    Oct 26, 2018 at 15:42

What I'm trying to establish is where theory starts and possibly ends.

I'd say that music theory begins with Rhythm, Melody, and Harmony, which are the three basic components for every song that is composed. When a person starts to learn music theory, that's where they start. Even if someone starts playing an instrument (without learning theory), this is where they start as well! They learn theory into practice without even knowing it.

It ends .... nowhere. Basically people "invent new music" everyday, especially nowadays with all the technology they can use. So, there can be theory that explains that music.

So, learning the C major is scale I'd say is part of music theory; one of the very basics you'd need to know, but still part of it.

Does history of performing artists come into theory

I'd say yes and no. I find it important to know the history of the music, so that you can understand where the composers/performers came from. Why did Bach compose the way he did? Why was Stravinsky the way he was? etc.

The historical background of these composers played an important role on the way they composed and performed.

Is there a nice simple formulation of what constitutes music theory?

Simply, music theory is the way of explaining music; the way to understand music; the possibilities, the practices and generally what is going on on a song. Basically the grammatical rules of the written language of music. It explains what is going on when we listen to music.

Wikipedia provides a nice explanation from the The Oxford Companion to Music

The first is what is otherwise called 'rudiments', currently taught as the elements of notation, of key signatures, of time signatures, of rhythmic notation, and so on. [...] The second is the study of writings about music from ancient times onwards. [...] The third is an area of current musicological study that seeks to define processes and general principles in music — a sphere of research that can be distinguished from analysis in that it takes as its starting-point not the individual work or performance but the fundamental materials from which it is built.

The Oxford Companion to Music

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    Arbitrary isn't a synonym for theory. Diatonic, for example, is a theory about the structure of a scale. Lots of other theories out there. But what are the theories for rhythm and harmony? What is the 'explanation' they offer? Oct 25, 2018 at 17:28
  • @phoog There's nothing in the question about three elements of a song. Oct 25, 2018 at 21:23
  • @RandyZeitman that is precisely my point.
    – phoog
    Oct 25, 2018 at 21:26
  • ? Who is mentioning three elements? The question doesn't ... and then you say that's your point. Oct 26, 2018 at 0:50
  • @phoog - you may have downvoted the answer - and well done for the reason - but you have yet to downvote the question.
    – Tim
    Oct 26, 2018 at 17:06

OK, we know that 'theory' is used to describe everything from basic rudiments to Schenkerian analysis. So that's the question answered.

What SHOULD 'theory' mean?

I think we can usefully seperate it from rudiments, a knowledge of the language of music. It's hard to start on theory until you know the language...

I like the scientific definition of 'theory'. We observe, codify, make predictions - and when the predictions consistently work we've got a useful theory. But a basic scientific principle is that you don't fall in love with a theory. When there's the chance to look at something from a different angle - Einstein rather than Newton - we rejoice! If we want a satnav in our car, that needs Einstein. But Newton's still great on the football field. Can we mix the two? Sure. Sometimes. Where appropriate. And that's where 'art' takes over from 'theory' in music.

Thank you for listening. No-one really thought there'd be '...a nice simple formulation of what constitutes music theory?' that was any use, did they?

  • I actually like this post (being a physicist) insofar as the notion of a scientific theory is concerned. Why I nevertheless disagree with it as an answer: music isn't a scientific discipline. What you're talking about aren't musical theories but musicological theories. Musicology is indeed a science that studies the existing music that people have done in the past. But music is not a science but an art, and insofar music theory should be more something like mathematical theory – i.e. axiomatic constructions that come before the actual results (theorems / compositions, respectively). Oct 27, 2018 at 14:09
  • When the predictions consistently work, that theory becomes known as law. I agree that music theory comes after the event rather than before it - it's in reflection. But since the site has theory in its title, would it be fair that we have some agreement as to what it actually means..?
    – Tim
    Apr 5, 2019 at 9:44

I reckon when people talk about music theory they are generally talking about these three things:

Patterns and Practices - style-specific guidelines along the lines of "if you want to sound like this, follow these rules". (This may be where the history of performing artists, as mentioned in your question, has some relevance).

Notation and Terminology that help us communicate with others (at least, others who know the same notation and terminology!). The example in your question - knowing that a major scale is called a 'major scale' - is an example of this.

'Scientific stuff' - the areas of acoustics and psychology that help us understand why we percieve sound in certain ways.

Apart from the third element, I've always thought that music theory isn't really very 'theoretical' when compared with what passes for 'theory' in other fields! Music theory teaching often starts with areas of knowledge that are very closely related to playing an instrument; you often have to persist with your study a while before you get on to the more fundamental stuff. Another side effect of this is that a lot of what people learn early on in their theory education is somewhat specific to the music of a particular culture; often when people talk about 'music theory' they have Western music theory foremost in their thoughts.

  • 1
    I would be careful with just saying notation is part of music theory. While there is a lot of notation that is exclusive to music theory, the basic staff notation and note and rhythm names are not theoretical concepts. It's typically a prerequisite for theory but not a part of it.
    – Dom
    Oct 25, 2018 at 22:05
  • @Dom why would you say they are not theoretical concepts? Oct 25, 2018 at 22:35
  • Because it's not, they are just notation used to convey music ideas. You could know how to read music notation without a drop of theory knowledge. Looking at a G quarter note on the staff doesn't have any theoretical concepts alone. Theory studies the more in depth patterns typically conversed though the standard notation. The only reason basic notation is covered in theory is that it is used as a vehicle to a lot of music theory ideas. It would be next to impossible to teach concepts with voices. It's like saying a song recording is music theory. There's theory in there, but alone it's not.
    – Dom
    Oct 26, 2018 at 0:56
  • @Dom But notation is itself based on certain abstract concepts, such as the way pitch space and time should be divided when modelling a piece of music. These are rudimentary concepts, but I would still say they are rudiments of theory - which is incidentally also the position that The Oxford Companion to Music seems to take (see Shevliaskovic 's answer.) The difference between notation and a recording is that the recording does not suggest or imply any particular way to model or analyse the sound - it isn't based on the idea that a piece has 'notes', for example. Oct 26, 2018 at 6:31
  • like I keep saying this is tangled up with music theory because of the use music notation is critical in conveying examples. Notation itself is not an abstract concept. It is very mechanincal. The mapping of pitches is abstract, but only due to the fact that different instruments may map the pitches differently, but I would compare that mapping to the differences in bases in our typical numbering system. 10 may be 2 if you are looking at base2.
    – Dom
    Oct 26, 2018 at 12:39

You should notice the distiction made by Guido Adler between systematic and historical music theory: Systematic music theory is concerned with the laws that governs music for all people at all times. Historical music theory is concerned with the laws that govern the music for a given historical period and within a given historical context.

  • 1
    Got it. One is independent (scientific) and the other dependent (subjective). Upvote from me. People are jerks for downvoting a perfectly useful answer as this is. Oct 26, 2018 at 17:20

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