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Music Theory and I

by Steven Utley

As a music lover, I have often wished that I could read music notation, so as to be able, simply by looking at sheet music by Mozart, to hear the tune in my head, rather than going to all the trouble to play a recording which I could hear only in my ears.

Something in my eye clouds over, however, whenever I contemplate sheet music; undoubtedly something in my brain is impervious to music theory, which, as any schoolchild can tell you — or Wikipedia, for that matter — is that field of study that investigates the nature and mechanics of music. It often involves identifying patterns that govern composers’ techniques. In a more general sense, music theory also often distills and analyzes the elements of music — rhythm, harmony, melody, structure, and texture. People who study these properties are known as music theorists.

Music has been “susceptible to analysis by mathematics,” Wikipedia continues, “ever since Pythagoras noticed the relationships between the frequencies of different pitches.” It figures that the impervious part of my brain would be the part that houses my mathematical skills, which are not hugely better than a chimpanzee’s.

Nevertheless, if I can, despite poor math ability, sort of kind of grasp the uncertainty principle and other fascinating intricacies of quantum physics, surely I needn’t permit myself to be deterred from theorizing about music by something as trifling as an inability to fathom 12-tone and set theory, musical semiotics, and the like. In fact, I already know enough about the subject to have a music theory or two of my own.

Fundamental to any music theory is music notation, which is written on a stave, and not just any stave, either, but the Great Stave itself. This consists of eleven horizontal lines and the ten spaces separating them, starting at G and finishing at F (but leaving out H through Z) — the supposed range of the human voice. The Great Stave comes festooned with such symbols as the ones for eighth notes and beamed eighth notes, which serve to keep musicians mindful of what they are about, much as the symbols spades, clubs, hearts and diamonds serve card-sharps.

The top five lines of the Great Stave are the Treble, the bottom five are the Bass, and smack in the middle is “normal” C. “Normal” C (and don’t ask me why there are quotation marks around the adjective) can be sounded by all human voices, generally.

Ah hah! cries the alert reader. That phrase, “all human voices, generally” is the tip-off that there must be more here than meets the ear. Trust me, there is. The quality of much popular music, and of nearly all unpopular music, such as karaoke singing, has led me to postulate the existence of a whole other stave smack in the middle of “normal” C. Probably we don’t hear about it because people who really know and love music are ashamed to talk about it, and who can blame them? It sort of swims along with the Great Stave the way a remora swims along with a shark, subsisting on the odd bits the shark doesn’t want.

This bastard stave comprises an indeterminate of spaces (possibly just spaces, no lines, or perhaps vice versa, all lines and no spaces) manned by what, for want of a better term, we shall simply call “abnormal” C. This is the sound generated by particularly unlovely voices trying to sound “normal” C. Whereas the Great Stave is an up-and-down-the-scale sort of thing, the Not-So-Great Stave goes mainly from side to side, after the manner of a diesel truck hauling double trailers.

Anyway, that’s the gist of my theory. If you don’t like it, feel free to concoct one of your own. Ignorance is a bar only to the insufficiently motivated.

Copyright © 2007 by Steven Utley

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