With a new crop of Music Theory students, as I began teaching this week, I generally try to give some indication of what music theory actually is. On Thursday, the first day of Theory I, my usual description expanded to include some philosophical ideas about music. One goal of the study of music theory should be for students to expand and solidify their personal philosophy of music. I gave as examples the following two ideas that have been kicking around this summer–one highly abstract and metaphysical, and one somewhat more moral in nature.
First, metaphysics. What is a musical composition? Where does the essence of a piece of music reside? For a listener in the 21st century, it may well seem that the actual music is contained in a recording, either in a physical medium or in the data that that medium contains. Most musicians, however, would disagree. For some, the written score would be the ultimate embodiment of a composition, but experience soon tells us that the score is no more a piece of music than a recipe is a meal. For other musicians, then, each and every performance is a separate and distinct musical item. This fails to explain how many separate renditions can be identified as the same piece of music. My experience as a composer is often akin to that of an author who feels the characters in her novel assuming their own destinies and “writing” the ending differently than the author initially imagined. It seems to me that my compositions, once begun with some initial inspiration, unfold in ways that surprise me. It makes little difference whether I begin with a detailed plan or not. Similarly, Michaelangelo claimed that his sculptures were already in the stone and he only had to chip away the excess.
To me, this suggests that before I even begin, the composition exists in the form of a Platonic ideal, independent of any work that I will do on it. It exists in an ideal form, and my training allows me to somehow reveal aspects of the ideal, although, because I am a finitely-abled human, I can’t hope to conform to the ideal. My free will as a composer is still there–I can make decisions that impact the way that I will write down the composition, and I can even choose to stop in the middle and leave my work incomplete. The piece exists whether I compose it or not, just as it exists if I write it down but no one performs it.
A more practical problem plagues the full-time musician. Our work may be spiritually uplifting to ourselves and others, but there are problems that music will not solve. Music will not stop global warming or end drug abuse, nor will it cure AIDS or keep children safe from abusive adults. Is there not a moral imperative for intelligent, talented humans to attempt to make the world a better place, to try to solve problems of injustice? Of course, there is. About ten years ago, I attended the Ohio Music Education Association’s annual conference in Columbus, Ohio, and on the last day, my father, who worked downtown, gave me a ride to and from the convention center. As I was waiting for him on High Street, I noticed that the banners for the next event at the convention center had already been put up. The group following the music teachers were reading-recovery specialists–people helping kids gain the skills they will need to survive rather than skills that will merely bring them a little pleasure and win the school a trophy or two. I had a blast of perspective that, I will admit, hurt a little bit. Knowing that there is such suffering in the world–and much worse–is it right that I have devoted my time and energy to music?
The result of these thoughts, for me, is yet another reason to be the best musician that I can. If I am to spend my life doing something other than solving problems that impact our entire species, then whatever I do–whatever we do–the least we can do is do it to the best of our abilities, treating it as if it were as important as the big problems. We may be wrong, but we must not be mediocre.