Servant and master am I: servant of those dead, and master of those living. Through my spirit immortals speak the message that makes the world weep and laugh, and wonder, and love, and worship. I am Music. Anonymous
History is a vital part of music theory. So much of what we study in music theory comes from our study of history. Music theory looks to the past. All music theory examines music that has already been composed. It analyzes it, and tries to explain what it’s all about. It does not decide what music could be, it decides what it is.
One of the main elements of music theory is the study of how composers and musicians developed and continue to develop music. Almost all great composers looked to the past and studied the work of their predecessors to learn and to hone their craft. It is the same for us. For example, much of our study of harmony focuses on the Bach chorales, and we learn how to harmonize following his amazing examples and his brilliant technique of harmonization.
When I first started writing music theory books for children with the Elementary Music Theory series, I decided to include simple history lessons throughout the books. It's great to see that as a result, history is part of the theory curriculum at most levels now.
In my own piano studies as a child, history was never a big focus in my lessons. I have to confess, sometimes I barely new the name of the pieces I was playing, never mind anything else. Luckily as I continued on, I had some terrific teachers who painted incredible stories about the music and the composers I was studying. As I get older, my own teaching focuses much more on the history of each composer, the times they lived in, the form, and the origins and style of the pieces my students are playing. When learning a new work, I think it is so important for a student to think carefully about the music, when and why it was written, the composer, and the composer's life. I try to impress on them that this was or is a real person who created this music and they deserve attention and study...and it doesn't have to be a boring exercise in historical facts!
Whenever I teach a student their first Mozart piece, after explaining to them what an incredible musical genius Mozart was, I haul out the huge and very scholarly book Mozart A Life by Maynard Solomon. I read them a letter Mozart wrote to his mother (yes his mother!) in 1778 while he was traveling with his wife's parents the Webers:
At night of farts there is no lack, Which are let off, forsooth, with a powerful crack, The king of farts came yesterday. Whose farts smelt sweeter than the may...
Despite being one of the greatest composers to ever live, he was also, obviously, a really fun guy, with a crazy sense of humour. "You're about to play a great piece by a guy who also liked to joke about farts!"
If a student is studying Chopin, I relate the account of his work by his partner the writer Aurore Dudevant, also known as George Sand:
He would shut himself in his room for days, pacing up and down, breaking his pens, repeating and modifying one bar a hundred times.
I try to explain that if he went to that kind of trouble, maybe we should really think carefully about the character, mood, shapes, phrasing, articulation, etc. I mean, since he put in that much effort, we should honour this effort with care and thought...and the result will be beautiful.
A little focus on history, composers, and their works during the theory lesson can actually bring theory to life. When studying the augmented chord, it may sound dissonant, but if you hear augmented chords in the hands of Debussy, it's another ball game completely.
So much of theory can involve writing chords and scales and intervals, but in the long run it all comes down to sound, and how these chords, scales and intervals work together to create amazing music, especially in the hands of a great composer. The right combination of these elements of theory create incredible music that evokes feelings and emotions in people everywhere. You know what they say about soothing the savage beast...