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Music Theory Is A Lie

Music theory... we toss this term around in the world of music, often without second thought of what it actually implies. We know what it means. It's simple, isn't it? Music theory explains how music works.

I think you can sense my sarcasm by now, and given the title of this piece, you can probably guess that I'm challenging the common understanding of what music theory actually means. Let's look at the word 'theory' for a moment. A quick Google search gives me this definition:

a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained.

Now that seems reasonable enough, I'm not arguing with the definition of theory. Instead, let's draw our attention to what we actually study in music theory, specifically, Western music theory.

Any good Western music theory textbook will usually have fundamentals such as:

  • Major scales are comprised of 7 notes

  • Triads are chords comprised of 3 notes, built up in thirds

  • The tonic chord I often moves to the sub-dominant chord IV, then to the dominant-7 chord V7, and resolves back to the tonic chord I

Now I could list many more examples but that would amount to writing a theory textbook, which is not my intention. Instead, let us look at what these three statements are actually telling us about music. Yes, these statements tell us how music is normally structured. We find countless examples of music using major scales comprised of 7 notes, triads built up in thirds, and the chord progression I-IV-V7-I. Music theory deconstructs and analyses existing musical material, allowing us to understand the composition process and enabling us to use these techniques for our own music-making.

But stop for a moment and think... do these statements actually explain anything, as the definition of 'theory' implies? No, they do not. These statements tell us how to do music, but not why music is done this way. Even if we take the last statement and add in detailed reasoning such as this:

  • Chord I is the tonic chord which feels most at 'home'. The following sub-dominant chord IV creates a sense of movement and preparation toward the dominant-7 chord V7. At chord V7, there is much tension which wants to resolve back to the tonic chord. This tension is caused by the 7th and 4th scale degrees wanting to resolve by semitone to the 1st and 3rd scale degrees respectively.

This information seeks to justify and validate the common chord progression I-IV-V7-I. But ultimately it's still just telling you how composers have been using the notes involved over centuries to create auditory sensations that sound approving to our ears. It tells us nothing about why chord I feels most at 'home', or why chord IV moves toward chord V, or why chord V7 has tension and why this tension must be resolved back to the tonic chord I.

Music theory as we understand it is really not music theory at all. Rather, it can be more accurately described as the 'Art of Composition', a field of study which tells us how composers have organised sounds to create approving aural sensations, and have done so consistently over a long period of time that these techniques have become accepted as the 'correct' way to create music.

Musical notes or pitches are simply created by regular vibrations in a medium, be it a guitar string, vocal folds, or a column of air. These vibrations are a natural phenomenon, meaning that a string vibrating 440 times per second (the note 'A' in modern Western music), will produce a sensation in our ears of that specific pitch, and this is a fact undiluted by man-made ideas and practice. It is simply how it is in nature, and we can't change that.

Now taking music as organised sound, music theory, if true to its definition, will seek to explain why composers have organised music the way they have based on theories of natural origin. That is to say, why the 3 pitches in a major triad (which are simply medium vibrating at 3 different frequencies) relate with one another to produce a sensation that our ears perceive as consonant or pleasing. Or why is a major scale constructed of 7 pitches, and why these 7 pitches out of the infinite possibilities of vibrating frequencies?

Now THAT is a difficult task...

...and one I am not going to tackle in this piece. But what I hope to have done is to challenge your assumptions, help you appreciate what you know and don't know, and excite your creativity as you continue your journey as a musician.

Modern Western music theory (in it's commonly understood definition), which includes major and minor scales, chords, keys, meter, chromatic and diatonic notes, all are derived from centuries of music practice that have culminated into the refined form it has taken today. But delve into a different musical culture, say Indian classical music, and you suddenly find the concept of harmony virtually non-existent, and 'scales' sound nothing like what you'd hear in Western music.

Yet the interval of an octave (of which the name is derived from Western music theory), is a natural phenomenon where a note bears remarkable similarity to another note double its frequency.

Rules in the art of composition are founded on aesthetic man-made principles, and this means they can be changed, challenged, and broken. Music theory founded on natural phenomenon cannot be refuted, because God created it that way and we have no power to change it. All we can do is understand and appreciate it through study and practice.

Written by Neil Chan

(This piece is inspired by 'The Philosophy of Music' by William Pole)

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