You know what drives me BONKERS?
When people say that music theory is about "right" and "wrong" answers.
"This is the correct way to notate that measure," they say.
"This is an incorrect voice-leading pattern," they insist.
To be fair, it's not just music theory. Grade-based education rewards this sort of gooked-up thinking, especially when standardized tests are involved.
No, my friends, music theory is NOT about "right" and "wrong" answers.
And when I taught music theory to Ivy League students at Brown University, I made this clear in every. single. class.
Music theory is subjective.
And that's INCREDIBLY important to understand.
Here's a perfect illustration of what I mean.
At the beginning of the semester, I gave my students a handout much like the one shown above. (I gave them "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," but since this is a blog about Disney music, I decided to use a more appropriate example for this blog post. :-))
And I asked them:
"Which notation do you like better? #1, #2, or #3? And more importantly, WHY?"
At this point in the semester, my students had learned only the very basics of musical staff notation. They hadn't yet learned about harmony or formal structures. They hadn't yet learned about key signatures, dynamics, or scales.
So, as it happens, they were very confused when I asked them which notation of this tune they liked best. They had no idea how to answer, or how to even begin to process the question. Especially when I told them that all three of these notations, when performed, sound the same; all that differs is how they're written down. (Note the tempo markings!)
But I pushed my students.
And for the next 45 minutes, we had a lively, fascinating, and engaging discussion about the subjectivity of musical notation.
Music is all about PATTERNS... which musical notation either clarifies or obscures.
Take a look at notation #1, shown above. What patterns do you notice?
Remember, my students had only just begun to learn the most basic of basics. But even with minimal knowledge, some patterns can be easily noticed.
For example, the first three measures all have the exact same rhythm.
They also have the exact same lyrics.
And, they also have the exact same melody... except that each measure starts a note higher than the measure before.
Essentially, this way of notating the music breaks up the melody into four chunks, each chunk confined to a single measure. This allows us to clearly see that, except for the ending, each chunk (measure) is virtually identical, with each successive chunk starting a step higher than the one before.
It's also a very compact notation: only four measures! That makes it relatively easy to read. On the flip side, the dotted 8ths and 16th notes can be very daunting for a beginner. So, from a practical perspective, there are reasons to both love and resent it.
Now let's move on to notation #2. What patterns do we see?
This one's twice as long as the first one: 8 measures rather than 4.
And unlike version #1, each measure does NOT have the same rhythm or melody.
Whereas the first version encased each sentence in a single measure (repeated thrice), this version spreads each sentence over two measures. In other words, instead of chunking up the music into four parts, with each part corresponding to a full sentence in the lyrics, this version chunks it up into EIGHT parts, each corresponding to half of a sentence in the lyrics.
In doing so, it obscures the 3-fold repetition that was so clear in version #1.
But also, in doing so, it reveals a new pattern that wasn't as clear before: every measure – that is, each half of the sentence "It's a small world | after all" – begins with a dotted rhythm.
Every measure – that is, each half of the sentence "It's a small world | after all" – begins and ends on a single pitch.
What we're getting now is a more nuanced picture of the music. If version 1 shows us patterns that can be seen with the naked eye, version 2 shows us patterns that are revealed by a magnifying glass.
From a practical perspective, it also has pluses and minuses. It's much longer than version 1, which a beginning student might find daunting. On the other hand, it's got much more manageable rhythmic values – no more 16th notes!
If version 1 shows us patterns that can be seen with the naked eye, and version 2 shows us patterns that are revealed by a magnifying glass, then version 3 is like looking through a microscope.
Each sentence is now spread out over four measures, allowing us to examine its finer patterns.
Each quarter of the four-measure sentence, as we now can clearly see, consists of two notes. But they alternate straight (half note + half note) and syncopated (dotted half + quarter) rhythms.
It's an interesting pattern, isn't it? Sure, we can certainly find that pattern in versions 1 and 2, but only in version 3 is it clear as day.
From a practical perspective, again, the beginning student might find this notation both a relief and an iron curtain. It consists entirely of (dotted) half and quarter notes. No 8ths! No 16ths! Easy-peasy, right? On the other hand, it's so "zoomed-in" that the much larger patterns revealed in versions 1 and 2 are totally obscured. So the overall structure and phrasing can seem very enigmatic.
Which version do you like better?
Now let's return to the original question: which version do you like better, and why?
Well, it all depends on what your SUBJECTIVE goals and preferences are.
Do you prefer a more compact notation (4 measures) or a more spread out notation (15 measures)?
Are you cool with 16th notes? Or would you rather stick with halves and quarters?
Are you interested in seeing the larger, overall patterns? Or, like a scientist examining a fossil under a microscope, do you prefer the tiny nuances?
Again, all three of these notations, when performed, sound virtually identical. (Yes, there are tiny differences with regard to metric pulse – which I made sure to discuss with my students – but otherwise they are the same.)
None of them is objectively "the correct one," and none of them is objectively "incorrect."
They are all equally valid, because at the end of the day, musical notation is a tool. We use it to reveal patterns that we're most interested in and to obscure those patterns that we deem unimportant. And since we all have different goals and preferences, so, too, will our notational decisions sometime differ.
And that's beautiful.
Sam Zerin is a PhD student in musicology at New York University and a former lecturer in music theory at NYU, Brown University, and the Borough of Manhattan Community College. He also runs Social Media Music Theory (@SocialMediaMus1)