Is There Such a Thing as Western Harmony?
Does anyone really own music theory, and who gets to decide?
Ugly battles on harmony repeatedly stir up academics in music schools—and their turf fighting would make a Mafia don proud. Nobody’s gotten whacked, at least not yet. But I don’t rule it out.
By any measure, the skirmishes have gone beyond mere disagreements. People can now get hired, fired, retired, and otherwise -ired as the result of the music theory wars.
There’s some heavy irony in the fact that the study of harmony—a word that literally means working together peaceably for the common good—should result in such disharmonious bickering. But such is life in the Ivory Tower.
I watch these battles from afar, but I’ve never written about this subject. And for a simple reason. I don’t understand the battle lines.
After all, how can anybody own harmony?
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I’m aware that much of our theorizing about harmony came out of Europe. But what does that really mean? European music itself originated from intense cultural intermixing—including elements from outside the Western world. I plan to write about that at some length in a future article, because it’s poorly understood.
I’ll even make a bigger statement: The birth of so-called Western culture is the ultimate case study in diversity.
It’s no coincidence that the Greeks named their musical modes after a range of ethnic and national groups—Lydians, Phrygians, Dorians, etc.—some of them disempowered and enslaved.
It’s no coincidence that the troubadour revolution originated in the far south of France, where it could draw on the musical contributions of Islamic Spain.
It’s no coincidence that one of the first great treatises on music (De Musica) was written by Augustine of Hippo. In case you don’t know it, Hippo was located in North Africa, where the author was born and died.
It’s no coincidence that the Western lyric originated on the island of Lesbos—the entry point into Europe for much of Asia and the Middle East.
Let’s look at that last example in some more detail.
Lesbos is the red dot on the map. If you think that’s the center of Europe, you need to brush up on your geography.
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