Natalie Bloomfield

April 17, 2021

Music Theory is Dead.


Some people think we should mathematize the way we teach music. I think we should musicalize the way we teach mathematics— but before you jump to any conclusions, this is not about the math.

This is about the fundamental problems facing music education today— problems which are responsible for the reactionary schism between the music theory-initiated and self-taught musicians.

Whatever happened to music, the universal language?

Music is your birthright. To be able to hear it at the deepest level; to be conversant in it as a native language are not things which should be gatekept and obscured behind centuries-old formalisms.

Music has always been a part of the collective. I'll always remember the day that jazz ensemble came to my elementary school and performed for us in the auditorium. I was an autistic kindergartener, so I didn't have words for the experience— just a feeling of being included for the first time as part of a sonic village. When the upright bassist started to take his solo, I knew this is exactly what I wanted to do. But it hasn't been an easy ride.

It's been a battle over language from the start. That very day after school, I asked my mom if I could play the cello. Though not exactly what I had in mind, I would say the 9 years of classical training was definitely worth it.

One year after that formative experience in the auditorium, I found myself there once again. We were playing musical chairs— or as I thought, non-competetive dancing-and-sitting-down with the village. All of a sudden, the music turned off. As I sat down on the nearest chair, another villager's hips collided with mine, knocking me to the floor. The experience was jarring. I was the first and only one called out from the group to sit on the steps. I was crying. Nothing made sense.

Why does the language of competition take precedence over the language of music itself?

I inevitably rebelled. I picked up the guitar at the age of 14 and became a self-taught "shredder" for a number of years. Wanting to pursue a career in music, I eventually started exploring the world of formal lessons and music college prospects. I would eventually drop out of conservatory at age 23 with a growing body of scientific and computational music research, but an audience of one. Myself.

Having gone through the formal and self-taught schools of music, here are some things I learned along the way:

  • One bad teacher can traumatize you for life.
  • One good teacher can change you for life (thanks, Mimi!).
  • Music is still taught through the lens of outdated assumptions and mediums that date back to the medieval catholic church—  but there are people out there whose work has made music more visually accessible than ever (thanks, Miles!)
  • The music academy can be pretty inhospitable to people who aren't white neurotypical cisgender men (if this statement irks you, I welcome you to cry me a river).
  • There is a middle ground between the ivory tower and batting around in the dark looking for something tangible.

It would be misleading of me to say that it was the formal or theoretical aspects of my training that I benefited from the most. The harsh reality is, I've spent most of my musical career unlearning theoretical indoctrination and healing from educational trauma.

This process has led me to make the following assumptions:

  • Most humans are strongly biologically wired for pattern-recognition across the senses: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, even olfactory pattern detection is an innate ability!
  • There have been advances in our psycho-acoustic bodies of knowledge which music education stands to benefit from.
  • For better or for worse, the village is now online.

At the end of the day, I want to teach music the way I wish it was taught to me. Over the years I have honed my skills as a software engineer by prototyping new interfaces and algorithms for learning and creating music. These projects fall under the umbrella of chromascope.io.

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Have a question? Want to weigh in? Or maybe you just want to say hello.

Either way, send an email over to natalieb@hey.com for the chance to be featured on our first upcoming Q&A!

From the Bay with love,
Natalie

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