The History of Music Theory

by | Fundamentals, Music Theory

The History of Music Theory

The word theory has gotten a bad rap lately. Its meaning changes depending on the context and the word theory is often misunderstood.

In popular usage, a theory is a general idea or hypothesis. For example, I may have a theory that all the Pixar movies are in fact linked in some way, but I don’t have any proof.

When scientists talk about theory (like the Theory of Evolution or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity) they’re using its scientific definition: “a coherent group of general propositions, commonly regarded as correct.”

When we talk about music theory, the definition is different again. Here we are describing how music works — the principles or methods of the art form, including the musical alphabet, major scale, key signatures, etc. Students can start mastering these music theory fundamentals with MI Online’s Harmony and Theory Fundamentals and also develop basic skills to listen to music with a critical ear with Ear Training Fundamentals.

Has music theory always been the same?

No, music theory, like any other science or art, has developed throughout human history. Some of what we understand and use today as practicing musicians would seem strange to Mozart or Beethoven, and positively alien to musicians from the Renaissance! If we travel further back to the ancient cultures of Greece or Mesopotamia, their music systems seem to have very little in common with what we use in the present-day.

Today, we use a system of music staves made up of 5 lines and 4 spaces that serve as the canvas for musicians to notate both pitch and rhythm. This system was developed over hundreds of years and has evolved through many different stages.

Where did it all start?

The earliest known written manuscript comes from the 1st century CE and was discovered on a tombstone in southwestern Turkey. The Epitaph of Seikilos, a short poem set to music, is about the age-old concepts of death and the ravages of time.

The Seikilos “Score”

To hear how this “score” sounds (as best as historians can estimate), you can listen below:

We don’t see any similarities between the music theory above and the musical staves we use today. However, consider the melody. At first, it sounds strangely different compared to modern music, but I think you’ll find the melody does indeed remind you of some music we hear today.

Music in the Church

Picture Gregorian chant, and you’ll likely imagine scenes of robed monks droning long melodies in Latin. We all have likely seen this image in a movie or TV show. You may even recall hearing the Latin hymn Dies Irae. Dies Irae is a popular Gregorian chant that has been updated through many generations and still survives today in movie music, video game scores, and even pop songs.

The original manuscript from this famous chant, dated from around 1400 CE, looked something like the script below. You can see similarities with our modern 5-stave system, but this is a much earlier concept.

Also, check out this very entertaining video, that offers a timeline of this ancient piece from its creation, at least 1300 years ago:

The Beginning of Modern Music Theory

Chords as we know them today were a concept that didn’t come into focus until the early 1700’s. In 1722 the French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau wrote Treatise on Harmony, a world-changing book that shaped how we approach music theory today. Concepts such as the tonic and dominant chords came from Rameau, and his book quickly became the definitive text on music theory.

How music gets written down

Next, we’ll take a closer look at music transcription beginning with the Baroque era and ending with modern time. Take special note — all of the following examples show the same chord progression.

During the Baroque era of the early 1700’s(think Johann Sebastian Bach) there was a shorthand system for notating harmony called figured bass. Here’s an example of the notation:

The numbers tell a musician which notes to play above the bass note. Each number is the interval above the bass. Particular inversions of chords have specific number groupings.

If I put this on a bandstand today, I’d get a lot of confused stares, but keyboard players could read this notation easily. Figured bass is closely associated with improv and baroque players were considered to be excellent improvisers. Bach himself was able to improvise complex pieces on the organ from scratch.

Today, musicians communicate harmony by a shorthand system of chord symbols. Rock, folk, pop and jazz musicians all use this system to notate how chords will be played through a particular tune.

We write harmony like this:.

but often it’s easier to notate the names of the chords like this:

The shorthand system is used to tell a musician what the chord is without having to identify it by figuring out each stack of notes is below. Chord stacks are replaced by slashes denoting each beat the chord is played. Because the chord symbol tells us which chord to play, we no longer need the notes.

Chord symbols are a relatively modern invention, and it may surprise some musicians to know the system didn’t exist until the 20th century. While the history is a bit foggy, it is commonly thought that banjo players performing in dance bands used a shorthand system to notate chord symbols. These notations helped players read sheet music more quickly.

During the 1950’s, an alternative system of chord notation called the Nashville Number System was born. This was a simplified system using numbers to denote which chord in the scale should be played. In the C major scale, the notes C D E F G A B C would correspond to the numbers 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 and 8. In the example below, the C chord would be written as 1. The F chord is 4. If you want to tell the musician the F chord has a C bass note as in bar 3 F/C, you will write 4/1. For a minor chord you would use a minus sign such as 6- .

The advantage of the Nashville Number System is that it’s easy to transpose from one key to another. The example above is in the key of C but in the Nashville System it could be any key because it’s only the number in the scale that is identified. If you wanted to play the song in the key of G, the numbers would not change, you would start on a G chord and move to the Emi/G, A7, D7/C, C/G, and G. The numbers remain consistent for all keys. As long as you know what key the piece of music is in, you can convert the numbers to the key of the tune.

Today, studio musicians often write music using a computer and virtual instruments. In this case, the traditional 5 lines and 4 spaces are replaced by a MIDI roll. It’s basically a picture of a piano keyboard with the notes played and the length of their duration shown to the right.

When studying music theory, we see through a window and into a rich and long history of music spanning thousands of years. The more we learn about how music is structured and how we can best communicate our ideas to other musicians, the better musicians we become. My theory is that if you study your music theory, there’s no telling how far you can go.


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Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, Mark is an accomplished jazz guitarist, arranger, copyist, songwriter, and music educator. Mark cut his musical teeth playing with the Australian Show Band and The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He has since toured the world with Royal Crown Revue and has worked the soundstages of Hollywood with renowned composer, Tim Davies, producing numerous songs for film and video games.

With the band The Flying Neutrinos, Mark wrote one of the big swing hits of the late nineties, “Mr. Zoot Suit”, which featured in the movies “Blast from The Past” and “Three to Tango”, and in television series “Sex and the City.” Mark has also worked with the legendary Wayne Shorter and pianist Bill Cunliffe on many orchestral projects.

As one of the curricular authors of harmony and theory and ear training curriculum for Musician Institute, Mark’s career on stage and behind the scenes gives him a truly unique perspective to help contemporary musicians, songwriters, and producers.

Explore Mark’s new foundational music courses Ear Training Fundamentals, and Harmony & Theory Fundamentals on MI Online.

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