How Much Is Enough? — On Music Theory

As an education grad student at Goddard College, one of my objectives was to design a college level course focusing on the pop album as a unified long form work akin to a novel. This literature review was part of that process. I’m posting it because among other things, I reviewed  my favorite Beatles book ever, Ian MacDonald’s “Revolution In The Head.”

The first “essential question” I wanted to answer this semester was a practical concern: “What understanding of music theory and musicology is necessary for me as an educator teaching this course, and, in turn, what understanding must I impart to my students so that they understand the material, without making either my course of study or the course I am designing either a music theory or a musicology course?”

I picked out a number of theory and musicology books in an effort to get at the answer to this question, but, as I probably could have expected, I didn’t find a direct answer in those texts. Rather, I found the answer through other oblique, seemingly peripheral readings and through my listening. And, also as I probably could have expected, those readings and that music not only gave me unexpected answers, but raised other questions.

Of the theory and musicology texts I either read or skimmed, What Makes Music Work, Edly’s Music Theory for Practical People, and the pamphlet A Primer On Music for Non-musician Educators came closest to answering my question. Not directly, though; rather, for instance, the latter booklet gave me an understanding and a reminder of how music can fit into a student’s (or anyone’s) life, and how a teacher can enhance a person’s enjoyment and understanding of music. The message in the brief Primer was “Yes, this is important and worth pursuing. Students need this.” It was the first text I read, and it was an encouraging place to start.

Meanwhile, the other two books served not only as reminders of some of the theory I’d forgotten, but also struck me as good, easy-to-understand, starting-from-ground-zero theory surveys that could serve as introductions to theory and musicology for my course. The books start with the basics (note values, bass and treble clef, notation, scales) and move into more complicated concepts fairly quickly and deftly. A student could very easily grasp the essentials of song structure and composition from either of these books, and do so much more quickly than in a traditional theory class.

But that doesn’t answer the question, really. How much theory and musical knowledge is enough? As I wrote above, I found the answers in two non-theory books, and I think it’s fitting that those two books are surveys of my two favorite pop/rock artists: the Beatles and the Beach Boys. The books were Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, and Philip Lambert’s Inside the Music of Brian Wilson.

MacDonald’s book is a chronological, song-by-song survey of the 250-some commercially released recordings by the Beatles. MacDonald doesn’t limit himself to discussion of song structure, production, arrangement or other musical elements. Rather, those musical elements are the hub around which the other non-musical considerations revolve. Unlike the “-ologists” in Simon Frith’s book, MacDonald doesn’t treat the peripheral concerns as the point; he always brings the discussion back to the music and the recordings. His analysis of the group’s song “Tomorrow Never Knows” might be the best piece of pop music writing I’ve ever read for those reasons, which I’ll outline further below.

MacDonald’s book is opinionated, and, as I wrote in my journal, I don’t always necessarily agree with his opinions, but I respect them because they’re based on the music.

The best thing about Revolution In The Head is that, while he doesn’t ignore the “-ologies” that swirled around the Beatles and their music (it’s almost impossible to!), he doesn’t let those matters become the conclusion. Rather, they serve as means to his end, which is to impart understanding, knowledge, and (hence) enjoyment of the music. Therefore, in the aforementioned essay on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” he starts by putting the song’s genesis in the context of the group’s history, in Lennon’s discovery of LSD, and an analysis of the “acid subculture” (or, in the UK, the lack thereof) which colored the music of the period. LSD, it seems, was everywhere in rock and roll in 1965 and 1966 (even as innocuous a song as “California Girls” was, according to its composer, Brian Wilson, written during an acid trip) and, in MacDonald’s words, the “manual to mind expansion” through LSD and other chemicals was Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert’s The Psychedelic Experience, a book which attempted to tie the use of LSD to Eastern philosophies advocating “abandonment of the self” (most notably The Tibetan Book of the Dead).

These connections have been made and expounded on before in other Beatles, pop music, and pop culture books, I’m sure, but I doubt that any writer has ever deconstructed and rendered impotent the Leary-Alpert acid mythology in quite the way that MacDonald does in his “Tomorrow Never Knows” analysis.

Leary and Alpert, according to MacDonald, “believed LSD to be a ‘sacramental chemical’ capable of inducing spiritual revelations;” this belief was based in part on conversations that Leary had with writer Aldous Huxley (“another Lennon fancy,” MacDonald notes). But, says MacDonald, Leary had “vulgarized” Huxley’s thinking “by speaking of self-transcendence and LSD as if they were the same thing, thereby turning a chemical process into an end in itself.”

The indulgent self-gratification this implied had no religious connotations at all. In fact, the religious camoflage disguising Leary’s psychedelic ideology concealed a hidden agenda which would have been sinister if it hadn’t been motivated chiefly by arrogant naivety… Mystics usually work within systems of controlled development through meditation… By contrast, the LSD trip, while steerable to a limited extent, is produced by an invasive force interacting at unpredictable strengths with the body’s own fluctuating chemistry. The drug, not the subject, is in control. That LSD was Russian roulette played with one’s mind must have been clear to Leary, yet so excited was he by its revolutionary potential that he… advocat(ed) it as a social cure-all… All that is certain  is that if you exhort people to sacrifice their sense of self to a drug, the chances of disaster are high… A trail of “acid casualties” followed in (the drug’s) wake… John Lennon nearly became one of them. (p. 185-188)

From this background, MacDonald presents an account of the genesis of a song that Lennon conceived while following Leary/Alpert’s advice and taking an acid trip while playing a tape recording of a reading from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. “The result was spectacular, and he hastened to capture it in song.” That song, with lyrics drawn from Leary and Alpert’s book, was originally entitled “The Void” and was retitled “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and became “one of the most socially influential records the Beatles ever made.”

It is at this point that many pop music scholars would expand on those social effects, but, instead, MacDonald delves deeper into the music, including an analysis of the melody: “Typically horizontal, Lennon’s lazy mixolydian melody rises and falls over a C drone on bass, tambura and sitar.  The influence of Indian music is obvious, but there is precedent for both the high-lying one-note bass and the track’s broken drum pattern: ‘Ticket To Ride.'” What follows is a description and account of the track’s production (ironically, for a song that is so closely affiliated in most peoples’ minds with Lennon, it was actually Paul McCartney who conceived and recorded the tape loops that were mixed together to create the bizarre and distinctive backing track) and then a brief account of the song’s impact: “As a pure sound-event, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ remains exhilarating–yet it is easy, thirty years later, to underestimate its original cultural impact.” Another window of opportunity to expand on peripherals– in this case, the “cultural impact”– but again, MacDonald keeps his focus on the music.

Through all of this, you’ll note, MacDonald not only stays centered on the music, but he never veers so deeply into theoretical terminology or jargon that a novice feels lost. If you are at all like me, the word “mixolydian” in the previous paragraph probably served as a speed bump, but even when MacDonald tosses in words like that, he never gets too far from lay terms. Certainly a review and grasp of the basic concepts presented in, for instance, What Makes Music Work, would render MacDonald’s musical analyses comprehensible… and for readers like me who hit a speed bump on a word like “mixolydian,” MacDonald includes, in the back of the book, a nine-page glossary of musical terms (a glossary to which even Lennon himself probably would have referred: in response to a famous 1963 London Times review in which writer William Mann noted the “Aeolian Cadences” in the Beatles’ “Not A Second Time,” Lennon admitted he had no idea what Aeolian Cadences were. “They still sound to me like exotic birds,” he said in 1980.)

MacDonald also does a great job of linking the musical elements to the group’s personalities. In what might be the most astute observation I ever read about the Beatles’ musical personalities, MacDonald writes that while Lennon and McCartney were in many instances a working partnership, “the differences in their musical styles were, from the beginning, quite distinct:”

Reflecting his sedentary, ironic personality, Lennon’s melodies tend to move up and down the scale as little as possible… Basically a realist, he instinctively kept his melodies close to the rhythms of speech, colouring his lyrics with bluesy tone and harmony rather than creating tunes that made striking shapes of their own. McCartney’s melodies, by contrast, display his extrovert energy and optimism, ranging freely across the stave in scalar steps and wide intervals, often encompassing more than an octave… In other words… McCartney’s method is, in terms of intervals, “vertical” (melodic, consonant) and Lennon’s “horizontal” (harmonic, dissonant). In a less narrowly structural sense, the two represented a classic clash between truth and beauty. Seeing music as a vehicle of thought and feeling, Lennon stressed expression at the expense of formal elegance… On the other hand, McCartney produced technically “finished” work almost entirely by instinct (but) could, entranced by his own fluency, all too easily be distracted from meaning, producing glib prettiness, vague exercises in style, and excruciating lapses of taste. (p. 12-13).

This amazing passage points to just how much theory and musical understanding is enough. While terms like “harmonic,” “consonant,” “dissonant,” and even “scalar” might send students flipping back to the glossary for help, one doesn’t need a degree in theory (or, in fact, even a passing grade in Theory 101) to understand the feeling of a “vertical” or “horizontal” melody, especially given MacDonald’s astute assignation of the traits to Lennon and McCartney. Further, the passage makes you notice things you hadn’t heard before in the music… at least it did for me: for days afterward, I found myself noticing the melodic lines of not just the Beatles’, but other performers’ songs, and how they reflected not only the mood of the piece, but perhaps the mental state, if not personality, of the composer.

The lesson in MacDonald’s book as it relates to my question is that complicated and important (if not essential) musical ideas can be communicated to “musical laypeople” very easily without getting lost in jargon. What is essential, of course, is first that the instructor understands these ideas and concepts, and then that he realizes that there is a way to describe and communicate those ideas in plain and simple language, without being condescending. As is the case with MacDonald’s “Lennon lazy and melodies move very little, McCartney energetic and melodies move freely” analogy, the more descriptive in non-musical terms, the more easily understood.

Which brings me to the other book: Philip Lambert’s Inside The Music of Brian Wilson. Lambert’s book attempts many of the same things that MacDonald’s book does, but with less clear success. Part of this may be because of MacDonald’s background: he was a songwriter, record producer, and (most telling) an assistant editor of the New Musical Express. His experience, in other words, was in creating and producing music (which gave him insight into the creative process and the disparate variables which “feed” a song) and then in writing about it for a mass audience (which had to have made him cognizant of writing to the limits of “lay understanding”).

Lambert, by contrast, is a musicologist, a professor of music who, according to the back cover blurb, “has published widely… in the fields of music theory and musicology,” and whose “previous work is The Music of Charles Ives.” Touting these credentials was, I feel, strategically astute in a way. The Beach Boys’ music has traditionally not been taken as seriously as the Beatles’ music, and in fact has often been dismissed by critics and scholars, who choose to be deceived by the music’s surface simplicity (e.g., the thematic content of the lyrics) rather than taking the extra step and delving into the complicated musical elements below that surface. Inside the Music of Brian Wilson is, therefore, presented as a serious musical study, and while such a study is long overdue, I feel that therein lies its flaw as far as accessibility.

As could be expected from his credentials, Lambert delves deeply into the theoretical and structural elements of Wilson’s songs, including diagrams of lyrics and melodic phrases and lines. He also goes deeply into the origins of the songs: in his analysis of “The Surfer Moon,” for instance (a song that Wilson wrote and produced for the duo Bob and Sheri before cutting it with the Beach Boys. Try finding a copy of that 45!), Lambert traces the inspiration for the song not only to well-known pop records like the McGuire Sisters’ “Goodnight My Love” and the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me,” but to a lesser-known vocal record cut by an acquaintance of Wilson’s: the Jaguars’ “Don’t Go Home.” Lambert diagrams and compares the two songs, noting that “the bridges of both move the tonality up in thirds,” and concluding that “The Surfer Moon”s “key mobility” is “perfect” for a song that “rhapsodizes about incoming tide and surging waves.”

Even for someone like me, who has not only a theoretical understanding but also a working knowledge of “key mobility” and “thirds” (meaning I can not only tell you what the terms mean, but I can sit at the piano and play you what they mean), I found myself having to re-read this and other similar passages before I understood them. Like MacDonald’s mixolydian melodies, the terms are a speed bump, and in Lambert’s book, they occur much more frequently than in MacDonald’s. In a book like Lambert’s, which lacks the sharp edge and humor of MacDonald’s, it made for difficult reading.

But if the ideas that Lambert presents are indeed important, then the question for an educator becomes one of translating and communicating those ideas to a class. I have already seen from experience that such passages are rendered infinitely more comprehensible when accompanied by listening exercises, and Lambert acknowledges this obliquely: in his prologue, he writes that “the discussions (in the book) aspire to tell a story of musical development and ambition that a reader who knows the music and who is able to dial up tunes on a disc or MP3 player can easily follow.” Using the book as a “road map” while listening to the tracks in question, I found his text much easier to follow; in fact, this was an advantage that Lambert’s text had over MacDonald’s, which seemed in most instances to presume such a familiarity with the Beatles’ repertoire that listening to the tracks would be superfluous!

This, I feel, also ties into the “proclamations of taste” that pepper MacDonald’s text: as I wrote before, MacDonald is opinionated about the music, and sometimes dismissive of what he feels are the group’s “lesser” efforts. Lambert’s approach, on the other hand, seems to be to describe the qualities of the music without value judgment, and to guide the listener to discover through his own listening what he hears or doesn’t hear. In this sense, Lambert fulfills the role of a music critic as stated in one of my favorite passages by any critic: B.H. Haggin, in his Listener’s Companion and Record Guide:

…Criticism does not, as some people think it must, offer the one possible and correct opinion, arrived at by measuring the piece of music with a set of established caliper-like esthetic principles for determining the good and beautiful. The piece of music is a special kind of communication; the critic reports the effect of that communication on a mind operating not with impersonal esthetic principles but with personal sensitiveness, perception and taste; and the communication may impress different minds differently. The critic, then, reports not what is true, but what is true for him, and what becomes true also for the reader who finds it to be so when he listens to the piece… In sum: I am bound to report what I hear; and the reader then is free to find what I say to be true or not true for him That is our relation.
(Haggin, p. 4-5)

In summary, I think that both books will function well as texts and guides to the music; I think that MacDonald’s book will prove to be more engaging and will draw students in and make them want to listen further; by contrast, Lambert’s book probably will not make any students want to listen to music they don’t already know, but will prove a valuable guide to that music once the students actually ARE listening.

So… what is enough theory? What is too much? The answer I’ve come up with thus far is that it’s not really a question of “how much” or “how little” theory or musicology is “enough,” but, rather, how those concepts are communicated. A discussion of the comparative melodic qualities of Lennon’s and McCartney’s contributions to the Beatles could include as many “exotic birds” as one wished to place in the proverbial tree, but MacDonald’s analogy of the duo’s “vertical/horizontal” melody lines is comprehensible to nearly anyone with ears to hear. That analogy is instructive. A teacher needs to meet his students where they are and bring them to deeper understanding. This does not mean that there will not be a place for Mixolydian scales and Aeolian cadences in my courses. Probably the best approach would be to use such terms instructively instead of descriptively (e.g., “Did you hear what the melody did at the end of the phrase? That’s an Aeolian cadence”). I am thinking that the music itself can be used to introduce more complicated theoretical terms, so that a student isn’t presented with a bookful of theory and then expected to recognize complicated patterns in the listening exercises, but rather is using the listening exercises in part to develop that recognition. I’m sure that this isn’t a new idea for music educators.

Or maybe it is: one assumption I’ve run into repeatedly with “casual listeners,” one that gets reinforced by DJs, critics, and music writers, is a belief that in order to “understand” classical music or “get” jazz, a listener has to first have a certain grasp of theory, harmony, scales, chord progressions and other concepts. I’ve heard this belief expressed repeatedly by people who say that they “don’t know enough about music” to “understand” jazz or classical. It definitely intimidates a lot of listeners and prevents them from exploring music that they have been wrongly led to believe is beyond their grasp.

Instead, why not use the music to introduce those concepts? That’s one of the questions that these readings have raised. There are other deeper questions that I’ll address elsewhere as the semester progresses, but for now, the answer to the question “How much theory is enough?” is that the key is not just my knowledge or understanding, but my communication of that knowledge and understanding. Using the music as a tool for my students’ understanding of complicated musical concepts will be one of the pleasant advantages of this course.

Haggin, B.H. (1978). The new listener’s companion and record guide, fifth edition. New York: Horizon.

Lambert, P. (2007). Inside the music of Brian Wilson. New York: Continuum.

MacDonald, I. (2007). Revolution in the head: the Beatles’ records and the sixties. Chicago: A Capella.

Merrion, M. and M. Vincent. (1988). A primer on music for non-musician educators. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.

Roseman, E. (2005). Edly’s Music Theory for Practical People. (No publication city cited): Musical Edventures.

Seyer, P., A. Novick, and P. Harmon. (1982). What Makes Music Work. Burlingame, CA: Seyer Associates.


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