When we hear the term music theory, it can bring to mind a frazzled scientist working feverishly over bubbling beakers and piles of messy charts. Using the word theory is the culprit here, as it hints at scientific theory. While it’s true that musicians can look a bit like mad scientists when they’re explaining the intricacies of music theory to a non-musician or learning about it themselves, does that mean music theory is actually science?
Music theory is a science when it helps us understand how sounds work to become music, and when it tells us how composers of the past did it. But music theory is not a science, and more of an art, when musicians use it in new, creative ways to create something original.
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question. It’s a surprisingly heated debate that has gone on for centuries. There are great points on both sides of the argument, which makes it even tougher to decide. So, instead of a quick yes or no, let’s explore the topic in greater detail, and you, dear reader, can decide for yourself if you think music theory is a science or not.
What is Music Theory?
Figuring out whether music theory is a science or not requires knowing what both things are first. The easiest way to do that is to check their official definitions. While there isn’t an official definition for music theory in most dictionaries, we do have loose definitions to help people understand this complex idea in simpler terms. This Encyclopedia Britannica hub is a great place to see more details on many of music theory’s study points, but for now, here’s a short and sweet definition of music theory to get us started.
In a nutshell, music theory is the study of music. We use music theory to explain what’s going on when we hear sounds put together as music. Music theory looks at tone, tempo, dynamics, texture, pitch, and a huge variety of other aspects of music composition. Music theory helps us understand why music is doing a particular thing, and it helps us predict what might happen next, too. It also gives musicians and composers a basis for creating new and exciting sounds, patterns, and songs. Finally, music theory dips into the realm of physical and psychological responses in listeners and how musicians and composers might use those predictable reactions to create even more dynamic and moving experiences.
Now that we know what music theory is supposed to be, we can look to the question of science.
What is Science?
While music theory itself doesn’t have an official, simple definition, science does. According to the Collins Dictionary, science is:
- The systematic study of the nature and behavior of the material and physical universe, based on observation, experiment, and measurement, and the formulation of laws to describe these facts in general terms
We could stop here and easily say that music theory fits this description. However, as with most words, science has other definitions to consider. These can either make or break an answer to our burning question, so let’s have a look.
- The knowledge so obtained or the practice of obtaining it
- Any particular branch of this knowledge: the pure and applied sciences
- Any body of knowledge organized in a systematic manner
- Skill or technique
In this case, the additional definitions for “science” help to solidify the opinion that music theory is a science. The study of music in all its forms can be explained and covered by all five of the definitions above.
How is Music Theory a Science?
Using the definitions of music theory and science, it seems pretty logical to a lot of people that music theory is, in fact, a science. When pressed to explain how that’s possible, we can see many arguments that start with the math aspect of music.
The Science of Math in Music
Yes, music is math! Mathematics is 100% a science, pardon the nerd pun. We see obvious math in music when we look at time signature, the ratio of octaves, and counting rhythm, and that’s only naming a few. But math goes a whole lot deeper in music than these obvious bits. This video is a quick peek into the math end of the music pool to help bring this idea to life.
We know that music is made of soundwaves. Soundwaves are frequencies, and frequencies are math. More specifically, frequencies fall under the realm of physics, and physics can be measured using math. Arguably, music could be lumped into the science of physics in this sense.
We could go on, but we think you get the picture. We actually cover math and music in other articles here at School of Composition, so we won’t dive into the deep end of math right now.
Yes, there is a lot of math in music, and math is science, but math alone isn’t enough to satisfy most of the naysayers. The truth is, though, that music theory touches a lot of different science lines. What else do we have in our arsenal then?
The Science of Sound in Music
We touched briefly on the vibrations of music above, the frequencies explained by math, but sound is the main component of music, so it deserves its own section. Without vibrations—sound—there isn’t any music at all. So, to explain sound, we turn, once again, to our friend science.
The quality, tone, rhythm, and volume of vibrations are all explained by science. We can use math and other branches of science to map or experiment with vibrations; they are part of the physical world, after all, and that’s what science explores.
Beyond the math aspect and the overall physical presence of sound waves, we have the physical reactions in humans to the vibrations of music. That would be your eardrums transmitting signals to your brain about what you’re hearing. Or how about the way certain musical scores can make your skin erupt in waves of goosebumps? And of course, we have the measurable, calming, and healing response of soothing music. Just look at all the studies regarding the effect of music on blood pressure, anxiety, heart rate, and a host of other medical or mental health conditions.
This leads us to our next point…
The Physical Science of Music
Music as a concept may not be in the physical realm, but we know that soundwaves are, and we know that the physical responses humans have to music are, too. Beyond the soundwave argument and the argument of human responses to sounds, we have the instruments used to create music. The materials used to create instruments also play a huge part in the science of vibrations.
Remember, the first definition of science deals with the study and exploration of the physical world. Instruments and the materials used to make them are all part of the physical world. Someone had to sit down and experiment with all of these materials to see which ones work best for a particular sound goal. Experimentation and logging your findings are the core of science!
The Science of Psychology in Music
As we touched on above, there is a deep and largely untapped science behind the psychological effects of music. While studies have been done regarding the healing effect of music for mental health, there is so much more to learn.
We can see the effect of music on fussy babies, cranky people stuck in traffic, and uninspired or tired people getting pumped at the gym by listening to upbeat music. These real-life examples of the power of music are why psychologists—scientists of the mind—have such a deep interest in music therapy.
Psychology is science. Studying the effect of music on mood, mental state, depression, anxiety, and all aspects of the human condition all fall under the realm of scientific study. Knowing what kind of music, which sounds, which tempos, melodies, and combinations of notes will have a certain effect on people all depends on music theory.
Why Do Some People Think Music Theory Isn’t Science?
Humans like to argue. Who knows why we do it, but it’s a fact. Look at any social media and you’ll see examples of this tendency on every possible topic. It’s no surprise then that so many passionate musicians love to argue whether music theory is a science or not.
The problem with most of the arguments against the science side is that they’re too narrow, too focused. Music theory isn’t just one thing; it is a broad, far-reaching exploration of music on many complex levels. People trying to say music theory isn’t science make the mistake of keeping their arguments hyper-focused, and that makes each narrow argument lose power.
Even so, it’s worth looking at some of the most common arguments against music theory as a science.
The Language Argument
One of the biggest arguments against music theory being a science is that some people feel music is more like a language. While this is true—music is a language—we can also argue that the study of language—linguistics—is absolutely a science. And in that way, music theory, seen as a language, falls under the scientific field of linguistics. Ta-da! Science!
It’s a humorous point that arguing the semantics of the word science and whether or not music theory is science is literally using linguistics—a science—to argue that a language isn’t science. Ok, maybe word lovers are the only ones to find that funny, but we’re pretty amused by it.
Other people have argued that music theory is not a science because it is manmade. That’s a big stretch and pretty weird if you take a closer look at it. It implies that anything manmade is not science, and that simply isn’t true. Science itself is manmade, after all. While the focus of each science may be natural, the study and exploration (the science) of the topics is manmade.
Phew! Some of this can feel pretty convoluted when you pull apart the arguments against music theory being science. Hang in there, though. The end is in sight!
Mathematics and linguistics are technically constructs of man. Even though these things were manmade, they are absolutely sciences. That fact alone can derail this argument, but there’s more.
We had to use science to figure out how to make everything in our modern world, which then means everything is backed by science in one way or another. Music may be a construct of man in the opinion of some, but so are cars, and I don’t think anyone would argue that cars weren’t developed using science. The same can be said for everyday objects such as paper, lightbulbs, and the fabric used to make your underwear.
Maybe most importantly, music is not strictly a manmade thing though. We can hear music all around us in nature. Birdsong, crickets chirping, the babbling of a stream, even the wind itself can have musical properties. In fact, it’s not unheard of for musicians to use nature as inspiration for their compositions. Heck, many musicians even sample nature sounds and incorporate them into their creations.
And guess what, naysayers… you can use math to map out the music found in nature, just as you can use it to map out the sounds an instrument makes. As we’ve already covered, math is science!
The Cultural Argument
Another big, but narrow, argument involves the fact that music is cultural. You can see different music in all cultures, and each culture will have put their own spin on music theory in the process.
Arguing that music is cultural and not scientific is hugely flawed. Why? Because you can scientifically study cultures. It’s called anthropology, and I can’t imagine anyone trying to argue the scientific relevance of anthropology. Yes, music is cultural, but that adds to the science part more than takes from it.
Does It Matter If Music Theory is Science?
As a broad topic, no. It doesn’t really matter if someone thinks music theory is science or not. The bottom line in all of this is that music theory exists, and it is a flowing, evolving entity. Each culture has some kind of music theory, and each of those cultures adds and subtracts from music theory as their society ebbs and flows.
There is a lot of science involved in music itself, and curious people throughout history have worked tirelessly to study, explore, understand, and explain music in all of its forms. Why do certain vibrations make specific sounds? How do the materials you make instruments out of change the quality of sounds? Why do certain combinations of notes make your skin crawl while others can soothe you to sleep? The questions are endless, and music theory gives us some direction in answering each one.
We know that music is math, and we know that math is a major branch of science. We know that music is a language, and linguistics are a science, too. But none of that really matters in the bigger picture. What matters is that music theory is a tool for musicians and composers to create sounds that evoke emotions and feelings and physical responses in listeners.
Whether music theory is a science or not is irrelevant. What matters the most is that we have this complex, important tool at our disposal to create engaging, moving sounds that speak to some of the deepest parts of the human soul. When you wield the power of music theory and create something striking, you are putting a miracle or a wonder of science into the world that can make huge ripples in some very important ways.
So, maybe music theory isn’t a science at all; maybe it’s actually a super power or a gift from some deity. Either way, it’s pretty darn cool and music theory is worth the time and effort to learn.