I am literally a full-time music theorist. Ask me anything.

  1. Yes, they are rare but they do exist. They are typically math geeks who are interested in things like mathematical models of scale structure/pitch space/atonal theory rather than the more practical matters like composition, form, harmony.

  2. You hit the nail on the head here. MT teaches micro level or macro level, but not much in the middle, which is often where the "magic" happens.

  3. I think this mindset is paralleled in performance as well. I remember the lightbulb coming on when in high school someone said something along the lines of, "You did a great job shaping that 8 bar phrase, and you have a good idea for the feel of the whole piece, but think about what direction you want these 16 bars to go."

  4. Lol I think I can guess what prestigious conservatory you're at based on your username. If so, give my regards to Robert Morris! His book was a big influence on the way I look at form.

  5. I took a year of atonal theory with him. He's absolutely brilliant. One of my colleagues in the class used to joke, "If Morris told you that you were an asshole, you'd agree completely and wonder why you didn't figure that out earlier!"

  6. That really depends. What are your goals? There are classical theory TBs (how to analyze classical music, how to do classical-style partwriting), jazz theory TBs (things like harmonic analysis of chains of ii-V-I, types of jazz scales, types of chord voicings, etc.), practical manuals for the public (I.e. books designed for songwriters, books for computer musicians using a specific DAW, etc.)..

  7. Dont assume you have much of a theory foundation just because you could read notation a play the notes on the page. I was in band all through school. My high school band played at a very high level and was award winning. I didn't learn any theory until years later and I'm sure my classmates were the same.

  8. No questions here, just wanted to say thanks for the thread! Music theory is super cool and we need more people spreading the word of how cool it is!

  9. Do you know a good way to find recordings/faithful recreations of traditional, non-Western pieces of music? Searching for traditional Japanese/Chinese/Native American/Mesoamerican (...) music often leads to (Western) movie soundtracks or "Westernized" versions of the pieces. Wikipedia is not a big help either.

  10. Not OP (though this is more of a musicological question, and I am one of those), but I'd suggest educating yourself about the music you're interest in first, and then searching from there. Let's say I wanted to listen to some kind of east Asian flute music, but don't know how to find that. I might search "chinese instruments wiki" and go down a little rabbit hole of stuff related to what I'm interested in. Oh, turns out there's a wiki article on traditional Chinese instruments. Wow, looks like one popular type of Chinese flute is called the dizi -- sure enough, "traditional dizi" on youtube brings up lots of authentic (at first blush, at least) examples of recordings, both solo dizi and with Chinese orchestra. Rinse and repeat for other cultures.

  11. do you think a strong grasp of music theory is needed to write "good" music, or is music just great because someone knows what they are doing and it sounds good? Edit:asking from the mindset of a full time musician, I guess this is more of an opinion question

  12. It's not needed at all. You can write a great novel without knowing what a verb is; you can write a great piece without knowing what a triad is.

  13. So while Collier has a lot of cool things to say, I'm not super impressed with the negative harmony concept. This is an old concept in post-tonal theory, and found in composers like Bartok: making music that is symmetrical around a certain axis.

  14. TBH that's not something I've heard about / doesn't come up between music theorists at the water cooler. Will look into it and get back to you.

  15. Have you ever encountered alternate dominants? I recognize that V and viio are the general consensus, but I’ve noticed that certain chords can produce the same effect. For example, say in the key of E, a chord consisting of E A D# (Venetian Trichord or set 016) that resolves to either E or to C#m. In my experience, I’ve usually seen one or more of those chord tones used as embellishment, but I recall trying to use it in a dominant context and it seemed to work pretty well. I’d have to look up my old projects to find the specific example, though.

  16. I studied for many years. Music theory was always math to me. Like the math of the universe. I had a teacher in Toronto for jazz that told me there was never a note you played that you couldn't resolve. Thoughts?

  17. in a typical scale, if you're not playing a note that's in the chord of the moment, you're only only a half step or a whole step from any given chord tone, so... :)

  18. What is it about music theory specifically that made you want to pursue your PhD? This has always kinda blown my mind. I have always seen it as more of a means to an end in my education and theory courses have always been a drag compared to basically everything else. What is it about the science behind the music that attracts you more than, say, performance or more generalized music education?

  19. Can you be more specific? Is this for studying, making, listening? Are you looking for avant-garde classical, jazz, non-Western?

  20. I used to know music theory like a decade ago. I forgot most of it, but I can read music still. Question: when you're trying to figure out what key a beat is in while you are composing what is the easiest and fastest way ? Would referring to the circle of fifths be the way to go?

  21. This is an interesting question. What do you mean "what key a beat is in", or rather what is your reason for wanting to know what key the beat is in? Can you send a musical example/image?

  22. What I do is I hum what sounds like home, and then look for that note on an instrument. That's good for listening.

  23. Great question. Of course we can't really know that, because just when we think we've learned everything, a new breakthrough comes.

  24. There are two musicians, A and B. A spends 10 years studying composition and is able to compose highly complex and sophisticated music. B spends 10 years learning to improvise, and can produce sophisticated and interesting music to a high degree on the fly.

  25. I would definitely rather be B. B can always go back and slow down their improvs in their head, or record them and transcribe them, or input into a DAW.

  26. What books / articles / ideas / theories do you think it would be useful for a working orchestral musician to encounter as a sort of continuing education?

  27. Great question. I would seek analyses of pieces you are working on/know/love. These will be in journals or book chapters. If you are engaged with the piece, you'll be much more willing to grapple with the analysis because there's a payoff at the end. Doing so will teach you more about the interesting features of the piece which will inform your performance, and will also be a primer on MT in general.

  28. Be patient with yourself. It takes years and years to build MT chops. Learn keyboard if you haven't. It's the best MT instrument because all the notes are laid out in semitones from left to right, and the white-black key distinction is helpful too. Tinker at the piano. Mess around. Notice what works and what doesn't. Try to see what patterns emerge (do particular notes go well together? chances are there's a name for that chord. does a particular bass line sound good? chances are there's a reason.) Consult more learned musicians than yourself. MT is actually very difficult to learn without human help, despite the plethora of internet resources.

  29. Learn where all the notes are on your instrument, learn basic chords, keep learning songs, every time a song does something that makes you perk up write it down and find out what they were doing.

  30. What kind of music excites the ears of a full time music theorist like yourself? Anyone we might not expect? And what are the types of things that you look for in a piece of music?

  31. It’s totally variable based on the theorist. I specialize in pop music and timbre so that’s almost always what I listen to. There’s a lot more to music than harmony imo!

  32. I have a whole mental list of favorite techniques/turn-ons but won't bore you with them here, as I'm sure we all do (if not consciously).

  33. Hi, I think music is cool and I’m not trying to ask this question sarcastically. I’ve taken some music history, theory I and II, jazz improv, played guitar in big band for years etc. and I think theory provides great systems to think about things that sound cool.

  34. This is actually a very interesting question that I think about all the time and something that I've never heard MT people talk about.

  35. With music like noise rock, analyses would probably focus on timbre as a structuring force for demarcing formal sections and, as otherdaniel says, gesture. I think the way music like this works/finds coherence would be through the way form is marked by timbre, mostly.

  36. I’m a first year Master’s student in Music Theory. What should I do between now and PhD applications to make myself a strong candidate for the top Music Theory programs?

  37. What is the best (or set of best) general MT textbooks you recommend? Also any for specifically jazz. And also any for specifically guitar.

  38. I'm self-taught at jazz, so can't name a TB. I would say the best way to learn jazz (IMHO) is through transcription and analysis and improv. I detail many aspects of those throughout this thread.

  39. I can answer some of this from my limited study of sitar. First - drop all notions of western harmony and form. A raga is technically a set of notes, usually played in a certain order and at a certain time of day/year. It's not quite a scale, not quite a song, but some kind of primitive to both. There are also thaats which are very similar to scales that the raag's are based on, but again I'm using my western brain to describe concepts that are really non-western.

  40. Other folks gave some nice answers to your Q. I'll just add that one thing that really helps me is conducting. Learning to conduct not just 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, but also 5/4, 7/4.

  41. Most of the books and journal articles out there are impossibly complicated and inaccessible. If you've never studied p-t, try the post-tonal section of Musician's Guide to Music Theory. Do the exercises in the workbook and analyze the pieces. If you want more in-depth, try Straus' post-tonal book.

  42. What part of music theory would you reccomend I try and learn to be able to come up with original riffs and solos on electric guitar? I'm that kid who mindlessly practices his instrument and can't read music. I'm pretty darn good at learning songs by ear and playing them, but if you have any tips that could help me start learning to write my own music, they would be much appreciated.

  43. Not quite theory, but do you think that the relationship between musicianship and instrumental proficiency is overstated in the music world (especially academia)?

  44. Right now musicianship as taught by MT departments focuses more on dictation and sight-singing, which builds understanding of tonality, more of a cognitive/hearing exercise rather than building "chops".

  45. How do you, or anyone, if anyone?, approach music like Cage's? He always did use specific techniques which of course don't really match conventional theory but those could be explored anyway. Or perhaps a more philosophical approach?

  46. A lot of people take a philosophical approach, yes. It's hard to come at some of his music analytically because the structure is essentially random. Yes, the elements were constrained by some system (eg. rolling dice), but the final output is essentially random.

  47. What's the best way to approach a modal sound when improvising in jazz? I play guitar, for context. Scales versus arpeggios with flavor notes?

  48. I have a question regaridng Schoenberg. In his Op. 19 he ties enharmonic notes together. For example, in the third bar of the first piece, bottom staff, he ties A# to Bb. Would you know why he did this? This happens again in this opus and probably in other works as well. Thanks in advance!

  49. Not OP here, but I know this piece well (I play it, have studied it). I think he's just being super exact about spelling the chords. He's building the chords tertiary wise (B-D-A#), so when the note changes meaning in the next tertian chord (C-E-Bb), he spells that chord correctly, and ties the common enharmonic tone. He does the same thing in 4th to last measure in left hand (G#-Ab). It's like him to be exact about this regardless of notation convenience and convention. Also, engraving 3rds is easier than engraving augmented seconds! And the precisely spelled tertial chords...maybe his way of saying goodbye to the triad!

  50. My hunch is that whatever the reason, it probably wasn't an accident: Schoenberg was a MT himself (made some prominent contributions to the field).

  51. Can you list the parts of theory in order that you think would be most beneficial to learn/play/songwrite with?

  52. Learn keyboard if you don't already. It's the best MT tool because the pitches are all laid out chromatically left to right.

  53. I've been getting into chord voicings and chord substitutions to jazz up my playing. Could you ELI5 how to conjure up substitute chords and fitting them?

  54. i know a lot of it is instrumentation and timbre, but what’s the theory behind 50s style vocal harmonies? i find them very recognizable and i love their sound but i don’t know how they’re composed.

  55. Within each voice, the notes move as smoothly as possible. Often they sing in thirds or sixths underneath the melody. Beyond that, it has to do with the particular chord voicings, like using certain types of dominant 7th voicings or dissonant non-chord tones. If you link me to an example I can add more detail.

  56. In what order should a self-taught student learn theory if the final goal is to able to improvise? Could you just list the most essential topics? Perhaps one shoud go in chronological order, or study jazz theory, counterpoint and romantic music simultaneously to see how they relate? I am on my way, but I suffer greatly from lack of structure in my studies. Also, any simple insights that took you long time to get? For example, although it is fairly basic, learning that they are just three chord functions helped me a lot to navigate among all the dozens of chord types there are. Thanks.

  57. If you're talking about improvising a melody line, the best bang for your buck will be to internalize scale-degrees. This will make you a solid improviser in all styles of tonally centric music (aka 99% of the world's music).

  58. *Age 8: Playing all white keys or all black keys sounds nice. Mixing white and black is confusing and I don't know how to make it sound good.

  59. In your experience, does music theory essentially relate to note theory? My point being, so much time is caught up analyzing notes, melodies, harmonies, etc. when there are countless elements of music never really taught in school: Rhythm, articulation, dynamics, etc. Would you say that is accurate?

  60. Trusting your ears is good, but as a shortcut/when lacking inspiration: to write a nice melody, start with a simple step-wise line (eg. G-F-E-D-C), then add neighbor tones, passing tones, and arpeggiations to embellish it.

  61. I'm about to attend a conservatorium for classical piano in February, and heading into it I want to maintain the mindset of become a great musician in every sense of the word, especially, as you put it, by learning beyond just the mindless practice I'm going to be expected to do.

  62. Honestly, I would simply ask the prof in advance what the textbook/readings/HWK are. You will get the most out of MT if you really grasp and have facility of the concepts, and this takes practice (more practice than the undergrad curriculum allows). It's a trick called "pre-reading" I learned from Hermione :)

  63. Is there an online course that you recommend? Goal would be to learn about any and all music theory to apply to listening and deconstructing songs, as well as songwriting (in general, no style in particular).

  64. I'm not aware of one, but I'm sure they are out there. Probably not all of them are created equal, but honestly any exposure to MT and building note fluency and hearing is better than nothing. It's really a skill and way of thinking more than a body of knowledge. So the best would be to take several courses, to fill in the gaps.

  65. There's whole careers spent trying to answer this question. The famous one is Cage's liberal definition, something like "music is whatever I choose to listen to as music". For him, this includes listening to waves on the beach, or birds.

  66. Hm, not off-hand. Can you give some more context or name specific artists who you admire that use polytonality, as there are different types of polytonality?

  67. What kind of chords (triads) can be made using a 12 tone row? Is it possible to get all minor chords?

  68. Great question. First off, a 12-tone row only has 12 notes and you can't revisit a note until you finish the row. But playing 12 minor triads involves more than 12 notes. So we know right off the bat that we won't be able to use all 12 minor triads in a single row.

  69. Full time Music Theorist?! Sounds like a dream. Any career advice for a recent grad with a BA in Music Composition of Film Scores & New Media, minor in Mathematics & Finance?

  70. I don't want to give away my thesis as I don't want to be identified online (I've already exposed myself too much on this thread). But if you PM me we can talk more.

  71. That's an impossible Q to answer with certainty, but some people have opinions. Schenker writes about how he believes the history/development of Western tonal music reflects the harmonic series. Bernstein also takes this sort of approach in his Harvard 70s lectures.

  72. That depends on your goals. If you can be more specific about what you are hoping to get out of this (composing, understanding, listening, playing, improvising, analyzing) I can tell you more.

  73. I'm not up on recent orchestral music, sadly, so I don't feel qualified to answer that one. I would say there's a lack of jazz influence in modern POP music though..

  74. Fundamentals can be really hard to teach. Like defining scales, circle of fifths, and chromatic vs diatonic for people. Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to explain. I still haven't found a foolproof solution for explaining these things to total beginners, especially ones who don't read music. But I also don't teach fundamentals in the classroom, so I've never been really pressured to hone those skills.

  75. A lot of people seem to conceptualize diatonic scales as being consecutive stacks of perfect fifths over a fundamental. (Pythagorean tuning)

  76. Not OP, but Pythagorean tuning was very convenient in ancient times. Using 12 equal temperament needs taking square roots twice and cube roots once. For complexity, Pythagorean

  77. How do you name a song? Honestly I’ve had so many times when coming up with the title of a song is harder than actually writing the piece. Do you decide on a title and work your emotions into the song accordingly? It’s personal, but also seems like an important step towards professionalism.

  78. The title always comes last for me. It's different for everyone, though. I tend to think of what title would best communicate the song to the audience and grab their attention.

  79. Fiddling around at the piano making my own music and playing pop songs, procrastinating not practicing my piano lessons. Discovering there's a pattern to the progressions.

  80. What’s happening in this song? Tips for making a song with the same chaotic feeling/context like this without ripping off the song itself?

  81. What is the MT breakthrough that everybody is talking about? The one plebes like me haven’t heard about yet?

  82. I wish I had a super cool answer for you, but I honestly don't know. I think everything folks are doing is interesting and valid. There's papers on pretty much every approach and every type of music these days.

  83. Hi, I'm currently a music therapy undergrad and after I clinically practice for a few years, I would like to go back to school and pursue a career liks your's, teach music theory at the collegiate level. My question is, what do you recommend are the best steps for me to take to get there?

  84. Hi, thanks for your question. I’ve answered a similar question elsewhere in this thread, so take a look. If you still have further questions, feel free to PM me. Hope this helps.

  85. I have an assignment in my theory class to write an impressionist piece, a la Debussy. Do you have any recommendations on making the whole tone scale sound good? Everything I write with it sounds like a three year old banging on a piano.

  86. Have you gotten into timbre theory at all? I have little formal training, but I was taught piano at a young age. I've since "taught myself" (coughyoutube*) guitar and drums and basic music theory (with additional help from a few college courses during my physics degree) over the last two decades.

  87. Do you produce or write any music yourself? What kinds of music do you like to listen to in your spare time?

  88. I'm not sure whether to continue music into year 12. I don't play an instrument too well but I just play keyboard for my solos. I don't want a career in music when I'm older and there just isn't much that it is useful for. I'm enjoying music at the moment but I'm not sure whether it is the best option to continue it. What's your opinion?

  89. So I am not sure if this is a appropriate question to ask you, but how would you go about learning how to play piano? I am sorry if this is a awful question to ask you.

  90. No, you can't learn truly perfect pitch (i.e. effortlessly ID and generate notes of a given name) past age 7 or so, sorry :(

  91. First, if you haven't yet, contact the people overseeing the ensemble audition and ask them what tasks will be given/what you will be tested on. Second, find students already in the program, who play the same instrument as you, and send them an email explaining your question. You'll be surprised how willing to help people can be.

  92. What does research in music theory consist of? Like are you coming up with different ways to analyze music? or analyzing stuff in a bunch of different ways?

  93. Broadly, there are three types of contributions: new ways of analyzing previously analyzed music; new music that's never been analyzed; or contributions to abstract theory (like scale theory or pitch space) rather than any piece of music in particular.

  94. Hi, Mr. Pro! I have a question. For the last 6 or 7 years I've been making music in FL Studio, the problem is, I cannot play any instruments, and I don't know anything about MT. Now, I can make melodies, and I can remake some simple melodies just by hearing them, and when I make melodies I can often feel that something is wrong, but I cannot pinpoint what exactly, or which chord should I use next, etc, it's really frustrating.

  95. Sounds like you're hitting a wall and will benefit from some MT, so you can fix your melodies and chords. Definitely pick keyboard as your instrument as this is the best instrument for MT, as well as for MIDI input. Go get a cheap MIDI controller instead of inputting by mouse into piano roll. Start by learning how to play a few major and minor triads, major and minor seventh chords, and what they feel and sound like. Learn a few scales and try writing melodies to match the chords.

  96. Have you been interested in music theory of microtonal music? I would love to know more about 19 tone equal temperment and ways to write for it. I know there are some books about it referenced in the wikipedia article and xenharmonic wiki, but I am not sure where to start.

  97. Hi! Where should I start learning music theory? I’m producing on my pc and have produced for 2 years without any music theory

  98. By how little I know and how poor a musician I am. It's like, objectively I get better each day, but it FEELS like I get worse each day because I become more aware of how much better than me the great musicians and theorists are.

  99. Hey , i've composed music for about 10 years without studying any music theory (just by ear) , but i've decided something like 3 years ago to start learning MT , now the problem is i have absolutely no idea what i should learn next . My end goal is to learn jazz theory , i know my basic major minor scale , chords(triad 7th 9th 11th 13th), understand the circle of fifths , i can determine the key of a song almost instantly , and play along a melody i've never listened to before very quickly(many times at the first try) .. i need someone to give me a roadmap of what i need to learn,any help would be very much appreciated

  100. For jazz theory, the next step for you is transcribing solos, and being fluent with playing through and understanding charts. Then comes reharmonization. I’ve answered questions re: both elsewhere in this thread, so take a look. If you still have further questions, feel free to PM me. Hope this helps.

  101. As someone who’s fascinated with market trends and theory (ie. what makes this song a ‘hit’ or not), what are some other careers for us that love to deconstruct and put a microscope to music? I started as a tool for my own song-writing but I really enjoy looking at all the components of hits!

  102. What's the best instrument to pick up if I'm more interested in music theory than practice? I basically want something I can try out concepts on and possibly compose with

  103. Not OP but piano hands down. As OP has said in a previous answer, the notes are laid out chromatically from left to right, making the cognitive overhead very low for exploring musical ideas

  104. Also not OP, but an isometric keyboard. Quicker to learn than a piano, and you won't have to waste time learning fingerings that are specific to certain keys. Also better for microtonal, if you want to explore that. The only problems are (1)

  105. I just finished theory 4 at my college and am wondering if I decide to take grad classes for theory what that would entail. What can I expect to be covered and what would workload be like? Thanks!

  106. If you have been shadowing this sub, why not just answer the questions in the other threads? There are knowledgeable people already answering questions, why start this thread?

  107. Hi. It is good to have you here! I have a basic question. Can you look at this picture that I prepared (

  108. How do you feel about the job market for DMAs at large? What do you plan to do with a doctorate in music theory? I'm in the second year of my MFA program and I'm considering the doctoral route but I really question its merits in today's world of looking at things purely as explicit costs and gains.

  109. Are you literally going literally straight from literally studying to teaching literally? Sad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may have missed