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Music Theory for the Twenty-first Century

(I wrote this blog post during the SOPA/PIPA internet blackout, and, WordPress being out, I couldn’t post it till later. Along with millions of others, I oppose those bills.)

The main exposition of James Tenney’s theory occurs in Meta-Hodos. The title is as daunting as the prose is dense, but the ideas it contains are deeply insightful.

On Tuesday, I presented a paper at BYU’s composition seminar about James Tenney and the theoretical system he developed. Without getting into its specifics (which manage to be both simple and complicated), suffice it to say that Tenney presents a highly flexible analytical system that enables its users to gain insight in practically any style of music. After describing its workings to the seminar, someone raised the criticism that the system is mostly descriptive and didn’t reflect what the composers were thinking, two criteria he hoped to see in a “music theory for the twenty-first century,” which claim I made for Tenney’s theory.

While I can see the value of his second point (after all, it is one of the major aims of musicology), I disagree with the first and maintain that Tenney’s theory is the kind of thing that twenty-first century musicians need. When I look at the way that I and many of my contemporaries listen to music, some things stand out. We listen to, and love without shame, a wide range of music that is eclectic not only because of its diverse sounds but also because of its varied reception among different social spheres. In other words, when we listen to music, what its creator intended and its circumstances of creation are largely irrelevant: everything gets thrown together into a decontextualized mix, the only common thread of which—electronic recording—further decontextualizes the pre-twentieth-century repertoire.

We really don’t experience music the way Beethoven intended. Beethoven didn’t compose a microphone part or a post-production mix for the Eroica. Even our acoustic performances will be different because our ears live in a foreign world. Beethoven’s performers couldn’t even imagine Coldplay, Miles Davis, or Claude Debussy, let alone the sounds of airplanes and refrigerators. While Beethoven’s intent is nice to know, that’s a job for musicologists and HIP-sters, not composers and theorists. Composers and theorists are responsible to address their needs of their age rather than the concerns of ages past.

Which leads me to the first criticism, of Tenney’s theory being merely descriptive. I question the very premise of this criticism: namely the distinction between description and evaluation. The use of any descriptive lens is itself an evaluation, declaring what is and isn’t worth examining. After that choice, the evaluation is limited based on what the model can describe. Theories can only effectively evaluative material within the descriptive framework they establish.

From a twenty-first century perspective, the failure of most analytical systems is that their descriptive focus comes laden with stylistic assumptions. For instance, traditional common-practice theory does a great job of describing and evaluate part-writing in that style, but grows progressively useless the more sound- or rhythm-based a repertoire is.

In contrast, Tenney’s theory enables you to look at music relative to itself rather than imposing outside criteria. It has equal power to reveal the organizing factors in Beethoven, Boulez, and the Beatles. Such eclecticism is the reality of our cultural situation. Because Tenney’s theory reflects this and enables us to make sense of our times’ stylistic catholicism, it warrants the moniker I gave it, as the music theory for the twenty-first century.

(For those interested in learning more, I’ve uploaded my term paper about it, which is probably the best place to start, considering the density of the primary sources.)