The bassline: Is music theory essential or antiquated?

A portrait of Mozart painted in blue with an orange galaxy background, styled after Chance The Rapper's "Coloring Book" album cover
Graphic by Elaine Yang

Music theory has declined in recent years as more and more pop artists write songs without knowing how to read musical notation, the visual representation of aural music through written symbols. They rely less on how the harmonies and melodies they use interact with each other and more on instinct. 

Learning music is akin to learning a language, so how can artists speak when they’ve never learned the syntax or grammar? 

Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Kanye West and many more have all defied the conventions of European classical music. They didn’t necessarily understand the mathematical reasoning behind the consonant and dissonant chords that make up their sounds. Yet they managed to discover new combinations that created beautiful melodies.

Artists without formal education or training use what they have, their ears, to practice and imitate their favorite resonating tunes. They played and played until their sounds hit a certain bone in our bodies — a visceral, physical jouissance that just doesn’t require explanation.  

The music resonates with a universal audience because the artists know as much about music theory as those listening to their music. The sequences of intervals and rhythms turn into magic in their simplicity. 

In ancient times and within indigenous cultures, musicians also played by ear, without the resources to study the rationality behind rhythm. Musical composition was an implicit understanding, passed down through generations of oral tradition. 

On the other hand, European societies and Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras took to researching theories behind harmony. Maybe that says something about the different ways cultures understand art. Some simply appreciate it through the pleasure and bonding it brings to a community and posterity, while others dive deep into its conceptual logic, feeling a need to explain and justify its attraction. 

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Today, artists that strip the walls of genre have returned to the idea of composing based on natural human instincts. The absence of music theory should not invalidate these artists’ work. 

Perhaps they understand it even more on a subconscious level than formalists. Can you hear it in the introduction to “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones? Can you feel it in the bass line in “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes? 

Music theory is not meant to enact strict rules in composition; instead, it allows us to explore and discover why certain melodies sound good to our ears.

There is a certain interval called the tritone (a diminished 5th) that the classicists nicknamed “The Devil’s Interval.” During the Renaissance, music’s purpose was to express the beauty and majesty of God, so the interval was essentially forbidden.

It sounded as if it were meant to reach a consonant tone but never fully arrived, and so it became the perdition of all who tried to grasp it. The dissonance disturbed any listener and quickly declined in conventional compositions. Today, we hear the tritone more often, as it’s used in contemporary genres to build tension and represent feelings such as forbidden love, longing or confrontation. 

There are certainly benefits to understanding music theory and the complexity behind the aural art, but not all are restricted to studying it in an academic lens. Artists are artists, and in any fashion, with or without comprehension, they still tend to follow the inkling of an infatuation, the rawness of an emotion and the instincts that translate sounds into our favorite feelings. 

Kyla Walker PO ’22 is TSL’s music columnist. She loves playing guitar, reading any and all fiction and probably belongs in the 1960s.

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