The Unspeakable Theory Of Music Composition

9 February, 2023
A Theory of Music Composition must exist, but it does not yet exist in a form that can be spoken.

The Hypothesis

I will start with a simple hypothesis:

To compose music, it is necessary to have a Theory of Music Composition.

This hypothesis cannot be proved, but it is plausible.

The main alternative would be that music is, or can be, composed by a process of trial and error.

If you think such an alternative is plausible, I can only suggest that you go away, acquaint yourself with a piano or other suitable musical instrument, and play notes at random until a tune appears.

Possible Methods for Acquisition of a Theory of Music Composition

So, we have a hypothesis, that a Theory of Music Composition is required.

We know that music exists. And we know that it has been composed by various composers.

Our hypothesis tells us that all of these people, somehow, know a Theory of Music Composition.

But what form does this theory have?

Do all composers know the same theory?

And how have these composers learned the theory?

I will start by telling you two methods which cannot be used to acquire a useful Theory of Music Composition.

Indeed I will provide proof that these methods cannot be effective.

These two ineffective methods are:

  1. Verbal Transmission
  2. Generalisation from Existing Examples of Music

The Ineffectiveness of Verbal Transmission

If a Theory of Music Composition could be transmitted verbally, then it would be possible to learn it from anyone who was able and willing to tell the rest of us non-composers what the theory is.

If this was possible, it would already be happening, and Theories of Music Composition would be common knowledge shared by all those interested in making music.

Indeed, if it was possible to transmit such a Theory of Music Composition by verbal means, then it would be possible to write it down, and someone would have written it down, and everyone who wanted to would be able to read it.

But I am not aware of any such written Theory of Music Composition, and I think it is fairly safe to say that it does not exist.

(None of this is to deny the possibility that such a written Theory of Music Composition could exist. Very like, some day in the future, it will exist. But, that day has not yet come.)

The Ineffectiveness of Generalisation from Existing Examples of Music

In this case, the proof of the ineffectiveness is the existence of many musicians who have large repertoires of music that they can play competently, yet who are quite incapable of composing any new items of music with a quality matching that of the examples they already know.

If Generalisation from Examples was something that just happened in the case of music, then all of these expert musicians with large repertoires would automatically become great composers.

But this doesn't automatically happen.

There do seem to be many things where the human brain does efficiently generalise from examples, and indeed there are some things where the human brain is famously good at generalising from surprisingly small number of examples.

But music is not one of those things.

Location of the Theory of Music Composition in the Brain of the Composer

If there exists a Theory of Music Composition which guides the acts and intentions of the composer leading to the composition of music, then this Theory must be represented, somehow, in the brain of the composer.

And this representation must take some form which cannot easily be verbalised by that same composer.

Of course we should not be too surprised by this.

An Analogy, with Bicycle Riding

There are many types of information which can be represented within the human brain in a manner that facilitates the achievement of specific goals, and yet in a manner which cannot be easily verbalised.

For example, you may know how to ride a bicycle. There are many people in the world who know how to ride a bicycle.

Yet no one can learn to ride a bicycle just by being told how to do it.

Actually scientists have developed theories of how to ride a bicycle, and these theories can even be implemented by programming bicycle-riding robots.

But those scientists did not develop their theories just by asking expert bicycle riders how it's done.

These observations suggest a possible solution to the problem of how to acquire a Theory of Music Composition, by analogy with how people acquire a Theory of Bicycle Riding, which in the case of riding a bicycle consists mostly of getting on a bicycle and going through the motions of riding it until somehow one learns to do it without falling over.

However there does exist a certain complication in making such a comparison, which is that Music Composition is always about composing something original, whereas in the case of Bicycle Riding there is no requirement to do it differently each time, and if you happen to cycle from A to B on different occasions by making the exact same muscle motions on each occasion, then that would be considered a sufficient demonstration of Bicycle Riding ability. (Although in practice there is always variation in the movement of the bicycle such that the rider's Theory of Bicycle Riding will necessarily include the ability to adapt to such variations as they occur.)

Whereas, if the composer should compose exactly the same item of music twice, then the second time is not really an act of composition – it is just a second performance of the first item that was previously composed.

And in Conclusion ...

Where does this discussion leave us?

We can tentatively conclude that the ability to compose, as represented by the representation of a Theory of Music Composition in the brain of the composer, is probably acquired as a result of some kind of learning process, but we are not quite sure what that learning process might be.

Whatever it is, those who compose music have somehow engaged in this learning process – yet they may not be aware of which components of musical experience and practice contribute to such learning, and which components don't. The human brain is not necessarily aware of the details of all its own inner workings.

I now propose an additional tentative hypothesis, which is that the way to learn to compose music is to practice composing music.

Of course the act of composing music must consist of the act of composing specific items of music, and it follows that in order to compose a particular item of music, one must practice composing that particular item of music, which does not exist yet.

This strategy is somewhat circular, and it implies some kind of iterative learning process.

Another Analogy

One might compare the problem of practicing the composition of a musical item which does not yet exist to the problem of determining a square root by the process of long division.

In the case of calculating a square root by the application of the process of long division, the number being square-rooted is the dividend, and the main complication is that the divisor has to equal the answer, but you don't know what the answer is yet because you haven't divided the dividend by the divisor.

And with that analogy, I think it is time for me to stop. At least for the moment.