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Where Does "Music Theory" Come From?

Module by: David Wiley. E-mail the author

Summary: This module describes why music theory exists and connects the idea of music theory to students' existing knowledge so they have a frame of reference for understanding the purpose of music theory.

The Hero's Journey

Many stories and movies follow a pattern called "the hero's journey."

The hero begins in the ordinary world, and receives a call to enter an unknown world of strange powers and events. The hero who accepts the call to enter this strange world must face tasks and trials, either alone or with assistance. In the most intense versions of the narrative, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help. If the hero survives, the hero may achieve a great gift or "boon." The hero must then decide whether to return to the ordinary world with this boon. If the hero does decide to return, he or she often faces challenges on the return journey. If the hero returns successfully, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world. The stories of Osiris, Prometheus, Moses, Buddha, for example, follow this structure closely. (
Luke Skywalker, Neo, and Harry Potter also follow this structure closely.

Music follows this structure as well - a piece of music starts in a "place," moves away from that "place" and has some adventures, and finally returns "home." Music by Bach, Mozart, the Beatles, Taylor Swift, and Lady Gaga follow this structure. Music theory is the language people have developed to talk in detail about musical places and musical adventures.

Musical Places

The "home" of a piece of music is the place where the music starts, and to which it ultimately returns after its adventures. We call this place the "tonal center." Think about "do-re-mi." The full scale is "do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do" (you know the song, right?) As the simplest example of the hero's journey in music, notice how the scale starts at "do" and returns to "do" in the end. Try singing the "do-re-mi" song out loud without the last note - "do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti." Many people find this agonizing and will sing the last "do" for you if you don't. Why do you feel that strong emotional pull to get to the final "do?" Because everyone wants to go home. The name we use in music theory to describe home (the "do" in "do-re-mi") is the tonal center. It is also called the tonic. For example, music in the key of C major almost always ends on a C major chord, the chord built on the note C. The music often begins on that chord and returns to that chord often, featuring a melody and a bass line that also return to the note C often enough that listeners will know where the tonal center of the music is (the way our hero fondly remembers home while he's away). (For more information about the tonic chord and its relationship to other chords in a key, please see Beginning Harmonic Analysis.)

Listen to these examples. There's a pause just before the song ends, but you'll be able to hum the last note before it's played. Why? Because after just a few seconds of listening you can already hear where "home" is, and you know it's where you're going to end. Can you hear that the samples don't feel "done" until you make it back to the tonal center when the final tonic is played?

Musical Adventures

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This module includes material from Major Keys and Scales by Catherine Schmidt-Jones

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