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the Theory and practice of music

Here, The Muse Of Music explores music theory and the practice of music.


Music theory vs. music practice

What do musicians mean when they refer to the term, music theory? What do they theorize about when they interpret, hear, study, read, read about, discuss, or analyze music?

Music theory is a coherent group of general propositions used as principles to explain the sounds people hear when music is performed and what they intuitively understand from these sounds. It's the branch of music that deals with music's principles or methods. It's a conception or view of music and of the methods for composing or performing it. Most of all, it's a system of rules and principles for writing or playing music and a way of understanding how and why music "works."

What do musicians mean when they refer to the term, musical practice?

Pure and simple, they mean the performance of music in all its aspects, as distinguished from its theory. theyalso use the term practice to refer to the techniques, skills, and art employed when playing music.

A musician puts musical principles to work when he plays music but he does not consciously theorize about what he is playing; he puts theory behind. A musician theorizes about music when he consciously understands and analyzes what he may play, but he does not practice it.

Music theory and practice are inseparable, but different.

a few Key terms

  • What Is Music?

For The Muse Of Music's answer to this question, see the section titled What is Music—Redux at the page called The Muse Of Music Welcomes You: click here.

  • For The Muse Of Music's answer to the first question, see the section titled What is Music—Redux at the page called The Muse Of Music Welcomes You: click here.

What are musical theory and practice? Here are some of the things that go to make them up:

  • Theory

The aspect of music that deals with the principles or methods that govern music; generalizations that describe and define what music is, how it works, and how it should work. Musical theory dictates, prescribes, proscribes, and encompasses the practice of music.

  • Practice

Music practice is the action or process of producing or performing music by playing an instrument or singing.

  • Composition

Musical composition is the art of conceiving, creating, writing, or composing music in accordance with theory and in anticipation of practice. A specific musical composition is a piece of music, whether or not written on paper or heard.

A composition might be a lay passed on orally from one generation to the next by bards who do not know how to write music or do not have access to a notation system by which to write music; it might be a musical phrase that momentarily pops into someone's head and then is lost forever; it might be a melody written down on a napkin or printed in a songbook or musical score.

  • Technique

The manner or method with which a musician employs his or her technical playing skills to produce or perform music with the help of (through the medium of) an instrument.

  • Notation

Music notation is an important aspect of music theory and practice. Notation is:

  • A system of graphic symbols for writing music and directions for playing music.
  • A process or method of noting or writing music by means of a system of musical signs or symbols.
  • The act of noting, marking, or setting down music in writing.
  • A written system of symbols, words, and phrases that a composer uses to annotate (write) his intentions for how he wants his music to sound when it is played. He writes his directions in a musical language. The symbols and notations in a specific system comprise a music lexicon.
  • A specific musical note, collection of notes, or set of directions for musicians to follow when playing a particular piece of music; a indication of what music should sound like that is written in special musical symbols or words, or a combination thereof.
  • score

  • A musical score is a written record that contains musical notes and directions a musician follows when he plays a specific piece of music, that is, when he performs. Most musicians follow a score when they play, practice, or learn to play a piece of music; it shows them what music to play and how to play it; they use it as a guide, crutch, or aid. In effect, a musical score is the music.
  • Performance

To perform is to carry out or execute; to go through or execute in the proper, customary, or established manner; to carry into effect or fulfill. Performance is what musicians do when they play music. A musician performs by playing music, whether or not the music is written on a score or an audience is present.

  • Notes

A note is a sign, symbol, or character used to represent a single tone. It indicates a tone's position in a musical phrase (meter), pitch, and duration. Every system of musical notation will contain symbols that designate and define notes. Notes are what performers play.


about this feature

Many fine musicians—folk singers, amateurs, or bards of old, for example—do not find it necessary to study or master music theory in order to play, or even to play well. Woody Guthrie could not write or read a note of music, yet he could compose and play like an angel. Irving Berlin, one of the best song writers ever to have lived, could not read music and could barely pick out a tune on a piano; he hired a "secretary" trained in musical notation to write his musical compositions on paper because he couldn't. Both men were self-taught; they played by ear, as the saying goes.

Yet an overwhelming number of accomplished musicians, amateurs, or neophyte performers find it necessary to develop and perfect their compositional, performing, and interpretive skills by studying theory and practice. No matter how talented naturally, they find that understanding or mastering theory and practice helps them compose or perform better. A very successful George Gershwin, feeling that a lack of formal training was seriously hampering his career and creative growth, was just one of many professionals who studied musical composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris after WWI.

You don't have to play an instrument of be a music connoisseur to reap the benefits that come from an understanding of music theory. Knowledge of performing technique is not beneficial only to performers or other musical practitioners. Any listener who cares about music, whether or not able to play a note, can deepen his understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of music in proportion to what is learned about theory and practice.

These considerations have conditioned the scope and nature of The Muse's explorations...


begin Here

If you're a musical neophyte, you may be searching for a good place to start an exploration of musical theory and practice. The Muse Of Music suggests that a sound way to begin is first to become familiar with musical terminology generally, then go on to notation and practice. If you're already familiar with music, you may occasionally run into a musical term with which you are unfamiliar. In this case, you may be seeking access to source of musical terminology for reference purposes. In either case, getting your terms right is a first consideration.

Why is music terminology an appropriate propaedeutic and orientation to music theory and practice? This path to the subject is beneficial for several reasons:

  • The majority of the words used in music are straightforward and relatively easy to understand.
  • Notation is far more difficult to master than vocabulary.
  • Much can be learned about theory and practice by cultivating an understanding the terms employed in musical notation systems. A knowledge of musical vocabulary and a grounding in notation can help lay a foundation for understanding theory and practice.

As with sports, so with music: You can't read the score card without learning the words. As a step toward learning the words employed in music, The Muse invites you to explore the following pages at Electricka's web site:

  • Explore music terminology. Visit The Muse Of Music's page called Music Terminology: click here.
  • Investigate the Glossary Of Musical Terms: click here.
  • Look up musical terms in The Muse's glossary of musical terms. Visit The Muse Of Music's page called Musical Terms: click here.
  • Obtain an introduction and orientation to music notation at The Muse Of Music's page called Music Notation: click here.
  • Explore notation in Western music at the page called Welcome To Western Music Notation: click here.
  • Explore the role of scores in musical theory and practice at the page called Welcome To The Score In Western Music: click here.
  • Try your hand at reading a musical score at the page called The Score Of Waltzing Matilda: click here.


not a substitute for formal musical education

These pages are designed for the layman. Anyone who loves music and seeks to grow in this art form is welcome and hopefully will profit here, regardless of level of musical proficiency or formal training. Because these pages are a labor of love, readers with formal musical training may still find some of what they contain interesting and informative, even though they are written at an introductory level.

However, these pages come with an admonition. They are intended to inform but not to educate or train. As a consequence, anyone seeking an in-depth grounding or mastery in music theory, practice, history, or other related musical subjects is advised to seek formal musical instruction from a qualified source.


ETAF Recommends

Take a course on music theory and appreciation from one of the best. Professor Robert Greenberg's Teaching Company lecture course on Understanding the Fundamentals of Music compares favorably with most college-level introductory music appreciation courses and is taught with a unique approach and from a fresh perspective; it's unlike many of the dull, stuffy, plodding courses that are common among their breed.

Dr. Greenberg skips lightly over musical notationthe tough stuffand heads straight for the heart of what a beginner most wants to know about theory and practice. It's about all kinds of music, from classic to pop, but the emphasis and most of the examples are from classical music, Greenberg's forte.

Dr. Greenberg is, perhaps, most publicly renowned for the over 25 college-level courses and over 500 music lectures he has delivered for the Teaching Company on a wide range of classical music composers and classical music genres, on subjects ranging from the music of Mozart and Beethoven to operas by Mozart and Verdi.

The Muse Of Music recommends the DVD over other versions for two reasons: graphic displays are informative and will add to your viewing pleasure; Greenberg and his subject are much more amusing, entertaining, and stimulating when you can see him. He lights up your screen. However, the other versions are less expensive.

  • See Electricka's Resource Review of Dr. Greenberg: click here.
  • See Electricka's Resource Review of The Teaching Company: click here.

As the title indicates, Understanding the Fundamentals of Music is an easy going, basic, first-course, but highly worthwhile. There are no prerequisites except a love of music or a desire to know more. Order it from your library, purchase it from Amazon, or buy it directly from the Teaching Company.

  • Read a detailed review of this course and purchase it at The Teaching Company web site: click here.
  • Click below to purchase the audio version from Amazon. (NOTE: At last look, the DVD version was in short supply; it may not be available at Amazon when you go there to look for it.)

Numerous books and pamphlets are designed to introduce the newcomer to music theory and practice. Here are a few:

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