Kpopalypse’s music theory class for dumbass k-pop fans: part 1 – what is music theory?

Kpopalypse is back with a new series for 2019!  Read all about it in this post!

Music theory posts are one of the most highly-requested types of content from Kpopalypse readers.  This probably stems from the fact that I am (amongst other things) a qualified professional music teacher and audio engineer with over 15 years experience in teaching, and this is where I make the bulk of my music-related income.  As a result, Kpopalypse is committing to an entire series explaining music theory to k-pop fans interested in this topic (and whoever else may be reading, I pity you).  However, what exactly is music theory anyway?

People who play musical instruments and have had formal tuition in these instruments, tend to separate musical activity into two camps:

  1.  The fun stuff (playing your instrument – music in practice)
  2.  The boring stuff (learning how to read music – music in theory)

However this isn’t quite accurate.  While music reading is certainly part of music theory, not all music theory is music reading.  Music theory isn’t actually just about a bunch of rules for reading and writing music.  While there certainly are a whole bunch of music theory conventions and rules, it’s entirely possible to write out music while ignoring almost all of these conventions and rules and inventing a bunch of new ones instead.  Various styles of tablature or “tabs” are a good example of “music writing without music theory”, and anyone who has ever shown up to formal music class with tablature systems for any instrument with know the eye-rolls this generates from music teachers who claims that their students are “cheating” or doing it “the easy way” (because how dare you make something easier for yourself to learn instead of forcing yourself to do it the way your grumpy teachers had to).

It’s also true that one of the secrets of the evolution of “classical” or “art” music, is that many of the revered “great composers” (sheesh) actually did not study music theory formally, but just arrived at certain conclusions about the sounds of their pieces through using their ear.  Indeed some of them were even born blind and wouldn’t have been able to read or write music anyway, but obviously they had to develop some kind of system that worked, for them to be composers.  Also, music written hundreds of years ago using the “formal notation” of the day actually looks very little like music written today, and it wasn’t until recently when a generally agreed-upon formalised structure for music writing was set in stone.  For instance, Bach wrote all of his pieces with no strict tempo markings, and since Bach predates music recording technology no original recordings exist so there’s debate between music scholars to this day on exactly how Bach intended his own pieces to be played.

The original western music theory conventions were partly laid down so people could write and read music, but it was also a way for people engaging in composition to understand how pieces worked, so they could then do their own copycat versions.  Mozart was essentially the Jimi Hendrix of his day, a freakishly talented kid who pushed boundaries while making everything look easy and spent most of his short adult life living like GG Allin instead of practicing, so music theory was a way for composers without his talent to be able to understand through study the ideas that Mozart and others arrived at more intuitively through experimentation.  He wasn’t the only one, and this is actually a pattern that we see with almost all of the old composers that are highly revered today.  Beethoven wrote a lot of his own rules, Brahms also enjoyed fucking with the rulebook, and that’s why the music of those guys sounded more distinctive than the thousands of other composers from around that time who have since been forgotten.  These guys weren’t writing “the correct way” for the time, and the music theory concepts that are in common use today mostly came after these classical era composers, initially as a way to understand why they did what they did.  My point is that it’s important to remember that music theory conventions aren’t “sacred texts” to be studied just for their own sake and adhered to as gospel for OCD nerds, but are in fact a means to an end, which is as a tool for practical understanding and application.  As music changes, therefore the theory also has to change – for instance several harmony rules that were commonly held as gospel in certain eras of the past can be broken more freely now.  When given the choice, I’ll also pick the “route to clearer understanding” over the “most correct route” when describing and applying terminology.

In light of the above, Kpopalypse is going to define “music theory” quite broadly during this series, with a very “holistic” approach.  Anything and everything that enables a person to write, read, create and understand music is therefore “music theory” for the purposes of this series.  This includes:

  • Music writing and reading (formal notation)
  • Music tablature (“cheat” notation)
  • Audio engineering (music technology)
  • Production practices (why are certain types of music made to sound a certain way)
  • Composition and arrangement (who decides when to play what, and why)
  • Mechanical aspects (how do certain instruments work, low-tech and hi-tech)
  • Sound physics (music on a molecular level)
  • Ethnomusicology (music through the lens of culture)
  • Psychoacoustics (how music works inside the mind and body)
  • Practical aspects (dealing with writers block, stage nerves, low quality drugs etc)
  • Study of the great composers FUCK THOSE OLD CLOWNS we will study your k-pop faves

What won’t be covered:

  • How to sing (there’s enough of this bullshit online already, learning how to use Autotune and do overdubs is more relevant to k-pop lol)
  • How to play an instrument (I’m open to offers to teach caonimas, but practical lessons won’t be part of this series)
  • Crappy music styles nobody cares about (like opera)
  • History of music theory (I’ll cover some stuff that’s still relevant now, but you don’t need to know what some Greek guy had for breakfast 2500 years ago)
  • Quality assessments of various k-pop (no musictheoryfagging about your faves)

The last point especially needs clarification – just because a song that you like might appear in one of the posts in this series as a “study example” doesn’t mean that it’s a “better song”.  If I pick a k-pop example, it’s just because I found that particular song to be a really good example of a concept that I’m trying to demonstrate, and this isn’t necessarily an indicator of the song being good (or bad).  It’s probably more likely to be a song that I like, simply because I’m more familiar with songs that I like because I listen to them more and thus I probably find aspects of them easier to recall for demonstration purposes, plus it makes writing the posts a bit more pleasant for myself if I can actually stand the song, but this may not always be the case.  Sometimes it’s a more valuable lesson to look at a “failure” in order to better understand what not to do, and this is something that even the most up-the-ass analysis-based sites often refuse to do simply because they’re either analysing the song purely for the purpose of generating a “receipt” to convince others of how great it is, or they’re just scared of upsetting people.

These posts will generally be slightly shorter than the average Kpopalypse post just for ease of indexing, so if you want to look up a specific aspect of something you can use the search bar and it’ll be right there in the heading.  However there will be a lot of posts in the series.  There’ll be a couple cases where content may be a double-up of other content that I’ve already written about.  When this happens, rather than just link to it, I’ll do a copy-and-paste job so that all the theory stuff is in one place and easier to read.

Hopefully you enjoy this series and I’ll do my best to make it all as relevant to k-pop as I can, as well as write it in my usual cunty writing style so even if you don’t give a shit about any of the topics presented, you can still draw some vague entertainment (or annoyance) from the posts.  I’m sure some whiners will say stuff like “your posts would be actually academically useful if you could only tidy up your language” but there’s literally thousands of other theory texts out there with “correct” language in them and nobody reads them because they all read dry and dull as shit, so why should I add to that particular pile, no fucking thank you!  I write for my own entertainment and I need to stay the fuck awake while writing this shit, if you want a dry and dull theory textbook go and buy one and then put it in your bookshelf and probably never read it after the first week of struggling through their boring text you cheapskate.

These posts will be published periodically, but will be on no specific timescale.  However the next part in this series will appear quite quickly!  Expect it fondly!

4 thoughts on “Kpopalypse’s music theory class for dumbass k-pop fans: part 1 – what is music theory?

  1. looking forward to your music theory series and the analysis of certain songs.. coming from the DJing side of the music(retired) i don’t know very much music theory.. but do understand what will work and what wont (coming from the days when you had to buy records and actually predict if a track will be successful or not (yeah im that fucking old)

  2. On notation: I legit play a drum that you can write down the beats and which hand each beat is played on, but for a lot of it each person has their own way of noting it down so you wouldn’t quite know how to play music that somebody else had written. It’s so fucked up but there’s no global or national standard so that’s how it is

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