New Voices and Old Theory

Irving Godt
1984 The Journal of musicology (St. Joseph, Mich.)  
Theory follows practice," we commonly say, ignoring the grain of contradiction implicit in that popular saw. In truth, the priority we like to accord to musical practice may be no more assured than that of the chicken over the egg. Musical theory and musical practice are not as weakly linked as popular wisdom would lead us to believe. If theory does in fact "follow" practice, then the "prior" existence of that new musical practice must testify to the concurrent operation of some new kind of
more » ... ome new kind of musical understanding to which theory later merely gives formal expression. If some purely speculative theories may have held sway from time to time, the truly influential theories of the past were the more practical ones. These usually came into existence as descriptive systems, matured into prescriptive doctrines, and finally fell into disuse when they began to lag too far behind contemporary practice. Only after becoming outmoded, did they begin to look ever more speculative to a posterity that had forgotten their practical applications. Medieval theorists wrote endlessly on the numerical proportions between the notes of an interval. While those ratios may seem practical enough if we think of them as guides for tuning musical instruments, that does not seem to have been their main purpose. The writers who discussed them so tirelessly were also choirmasters writing about singing and the teaching of song. What can all that arithmetic have had to do with the actual day-today singing of plainchant? A great deal. Today, the instructive example of a new breed of singers allows us to perceive that, contrary to popular opinion, those numerical preoccupations were rooted in the practical concerns of singing. Perhaps the most momentous single development in the whole history of Western musical culture began when Carolingian and post-Carolingian musicians-in obedience to the command of their illiterate emperor-began to make music conceptually visible through the psychological association of melodic progress with sign-placement on a page (up-down, left-right).' It is essential to understand that, before the great innovation, music was invisible to the minds of musicians, philosophers and laymen alike. Music invited explanation because it exercised a power over their work, play, entertainment, worship, and magic. Because music was not to be had with-'For a discussion of the influence of Charlemagne on his musicians, see: Leo Treitler, 'Homer and Gregory: The Transmission of Epic Poetry and Plainchant," The Musical Quarterly LX (1974), pp. 333-72. 312
doi:10.2307/763819 fatcat:zlwkqg6eyfd2jmxb4toxqyfxai