In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), Robert Pirsig articulates the Metaphysics of Quality, a move away from the dualistic (subject/object) Western view of reality towards a more experiential explanation. Pertinent to contemporary music is his central inquiry to how we feel and conceptualize the cognitive and physical sensations triggered by a song or melody.
What is it about a tune or even simple note that gives it good or bad quality–that indefinable feeling we sometimes spend hours trying to communicate to others, only to discover it repeatedly and evasively falls outside the bounds of language? Schools of musical thought operate by espousing a body of conceptual knowledge assembled as a way of describing music that was, by nature, created without such information. So, when we take in music theory we are essentially learning systematic ways to articulate the mystical work of our ancestors for the proffered task of communication and elitist appreciation. We convince ourselves that if we can learn from what the masters did, we will create as they did. But, is that true? Does a fundamental understanding of music theory guarantee that your piece of music will have high quality? Why do two versions of the same song sometimes have disparate level of quality despite being identical on “paper”?
The dangers of music theory lie in the unfortunate sway that it has on our ears when we are not mindful. Feelings of quality occur before our mind can make its own conditioned judgments. While vital for communication in most professional settings, it is equally important not to let a body of knowledge become a permanent replacement for direct experience.