The Necessity of Theory

Like all areas of society the world of music is filled with recurring controversies and tensions. One of the most interesting and long-winded debates is that between the champions of theoretical education and those who elevate feeling and imagination as the sole criteria for creating music. It is my contention that this distinction between theory and feeling is altogether false.

Imaginatively profound music, the kind that touches people at the level of universality, is inextricably bound up with theory as a modality of thought. First, I think I should say a word about 'theory' because knowing what theory is may clear up a lot of confusion and set aside some preconceived notions.

The word theory sounds imposing. But 'theory' just means two things: in its simplest form, theory is the relationship between two or more concepts and the critical relationship between these concepts and empirical reality or the concrete world. This empirical reality includes the objective products of social interaction and consciousness including music. Sometimes, people talk about theory as a process whereby precise and sometimes exaggerated models are constructed allowing us to see, anew, things we were unable to grasp before; here, ‘theory’ is just the shape or form of thought in contrast to the content. Theory or form without content is sterile but content without form is ‘nothing’ but random accumulation of elements. The juxtaposition or gap between theory and action-in-reality is important. Theory allows us to clarify to ourselves how we should act and helps to minimize the quantity of blind action, or movement without regard for reflection and comprehension for consequences. The gap between the model and its corresponding action-in-reality, that which the model attempts to clarify, is also what separates 'theory' proper from common sense or stereotypes.

I think it is important for us to leave behind stereotypes and common sense just as it is important to escape from musical cliché. ‘Pragmatic’ people celebrate common sense in our culture but rest assured, in the end, and like common sense philosophy itself, it falls apart precisely when insight is needed most.

Rather than being an activity strictly for professional philosophers we all possess the capacity to theorize and sometimes we do. Unfortunately, most of us are able to navigate through the day relying upon old stocks of knowledge, stereotypes, and preconceived notions in short, we have a 'feel for the game’ that works most of the time as long as we move along familiar territory or engage in routine activities. Consequently, life can be fairly unproblematic but we miss opportunities to confront things that negate our old ways of thinking and expand intellectually. Likewise, when we play guitar, we fall into routines, utilize old licks, and take comfort in preconceived notions regarding what is 'good' or acceptable. And, just like in any other context, we fail to advance even though we may have a 'feel for the game.’

This debate between thinking and feeling or theory and intuition, however you want to label it, is an old one and was most famously addressed by the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel in his devastating critique of 19th century romanticism.

Hegel was the champion of reason and conceptual thought in a world struggling to emerge from irrationality. He saw, correctly in my view, that romanticism and its emphasis on feeling was regressive because it amounted to an abandonment of conceptual thought and reason. His criticism of the romantics applies equally well to the anti-theoretical guitar player. In his monumental Phenomenology of Spirit he stated that the abandonment of the concept by the high priests of 'feeling' resulted in nothing more than a 'rapturous haziness.'

'This prophetic talk', continued Hegel, 'supposes that it is staying right in the center and in the depths, looks disdainfully at determinateness and deliberately holds aloof from concept and necessity as products of that reflection which is at home only in the finite. But just as there is an empty breadth, so too there is an empty depth; and just as there is an extension of substance that pours forth as a finite multiplicity without the force to hold the multiplicity together, so there is an intensity without content, one that holds itself in as a sheer force without spread, and this is in no way distinguishable from superficiality. The power of Spirit is only as great as its expression, its depth only as deep as it dares to spread out and lose itself in its exposition. More over, when this non-conceptual, substantial knowledge professes to have sunk the idiosyncrasy of the self in essential being, and to philosophize in a true and holy manner, it hides the truth from itself.'

Hegel's mode of expression is admittedly torturous but what he is saying is profound: to spurn theory is foolish because it will doom you to superficiality, cliché, and the reinvention of the wheel. More importantly, abandoning theory will result in (i) a general inability to penetrate the depths of any particular body of knowledge, or, here, any form of music and (ii) an inability to participate in the life of music as a universal human product.

The most profound musicians have been and will continue to be theoretically inclined and sophisticated. There is simply no way around this. The possession of a theoretical imagination is what separates the entertainer or interpreter of a musical form from the creator. The imagination, emotion, feeling, and power that we experience in great music does not come easily. Coltrane did not possess an antenna behind his ear providing him access to a mystical world of universal truth. Rather, his innovations were made possible through the possession of reason and conceptual insight. But most importantly, the greatest musicians all share another characteristic: they were the masters of theory; this refers back to my point about the gap between theory and action-in-reality. One will never become a musical giant while confined by the dictates of theory.

Theory is not the product of some deity hidden behind the world and it is not a body of eternal and natural laws (so don't approach it on bended knee). Theory is the product of human beings and, as such, capable of being consciously transformed. But you will never be able to move beyond the given until you comprehend it. If for no other reason than this, theory should be a central concern in your musical life because it is a form of knowledge and knowledge is, as we all know, power. Essentially, neglecting theory is, as Nietzsche would say, the self-willing of a slave mentality.

To the extent that you are ignorant of theory the more you are hobbled by blind action. And, of course, if you want to innovate and create something new (deconstruct the Master’s house) you have to have some idea of how the Master’s house is constructed. Blunt attacks from without are seldom successful whereas the creeping and silent erosion of tradition from within, along the foundations as it were, by intelligent troublemakers, often leads to lasting revolutionary changes.

In short, there can be no great accomplishments in thought and practice without great content but there can be no great content that at the same time fails to assume some kind of form. No form, no content. No relational-conceptual knowledge leads to random groping and waste of time and energy.