A music theory blog. Seriously.
This is a blog about the astonishing fact that someone can make you feel intense and specific emotions just by arranging sounds in a certain way.
I know how music does that. It’s the most interesting thing I know. The way into that knowledge is through music theory, something I used to teach. I want to talk about music again in the unique way music theory makes possible. So I’ll teach you some theory, then we can talk about the music you love and how it does what it does.
You don’t have to be a music major to do that. You just have to be a JET.
Be a JET
When I was 14, Carl Sagan taught me to love science. He did this by explaining just enough theoretical physics and astronomy so I could understand enough to be blown away without getting swamped and shutting down. The balance was perfect.
I’d like to do the same thing with music. Over time I’ll write about 12 posts explaining the basics — not a whole music theory course, but Just Enough Theory (JET) so you can see what’s under the hood. Once you have Just Enough Theory, you are then also called a JET for some reason, and you must renounce all other names. In exchange, you’ll be able to talk about music in a whole new way with other JETs. And once you have that ability, you’ll have it forever.
When you’re a JET, you stay a JET.
The sidebar will gradually fill up with those posts for later reference under the heading Just Enough Theory. Interspersed with the JET posts will be some blogging about actual music. You are invited to send suggestions of music for us to talk about. Then we’ll talk about one piece after another until the movie of the blog comes out, at which point I’ll forget about the little people.
The poet John Keats once said that Isaac Newton had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism. He even wafted poetic about the ways in which science (or philosophy, as he called it) ruins mystery and therefore wonder:
Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine –
Unweave a rainbow…
The idea that wonder and beauty depend on not knowing how something works is among the most wrongheaded of human tropes. Reality consistently outstrips even our shiniest fictions, and seeing it clearly tends to augment wonder, not diminish it.
I doubt Keats enjoyed the mystery surrounding the cause of tuberculosis in his time, a disease that killed his mother and brothers before killing Keats himself at 25. A “dull catalogue” that included streptomycin would have been a beautiful thing.
As for less practical wonders, I used to think a rainbow was lovely. But once I learned that it was a spectrum liberated from white light by diffraction, it got lovelier. I started seeing light itself as a tightly-wound rainbow, which it essentially is. Knowledge made both light and the rainbow much more astonishing to me. Years later, I had the same experience with music.
The biologist Richard Dawkins argued this point in his book Unweaving the Rainbow. This blog’s name is a hat-tip to that book and an affectionate nipple-twist to Keats.
Music theory levels
I was 3rd Place in Georgia in the Music Theory category on the QuizUp trivia app for June 2015. Yeah, that’s right. (Plus other stuff.)
Don’t let my status as QuizUp royalty intimidate you. This blog is meant for readers at any level. Once in a while a post or passage will include some music notation, but if you don’t read music, no worries. You can often suss it out or just skip it, and there’s no test. (If you’d like to learn the basics of reading music, here’s the best 5-minute intro ever.)
If you’re on the other end and know a lot of music theory, you still have to read everything to get full credit. I might even reveal some theory dirt, like V-I isn’t as perfect and authentic as we’ve been told. You can also help me show others how great music theory is by joining in the conversation after each post. Feel free to get into more advanced conversation there if you wish — I love that stuff. But when engaging with others, please try to avoid the violation known as Theorier Than Thou.
Applied theory posts are rated as follows:
Most readers will be able to follow and understand the post.
Every post is intended to open a topic, not exhaust it. The JET posts are meant to give a basic understanding and a little extra juice for interest. The posts analyzing a particular piece will usually include just a point or two about the music. That’s where you come in. Hit the comments to tell me what you hear and what you know, and feel free to run as far as you want.
So that’s the plan. If this sounds like fun to you, work your way through the 12 JET posts in the sidebar as they appear, then we’ll start talking. Thanks for being here!