Thinking Music: Global Sources for the History of Music Theory

Editors: Thomas Christensen, Lester Hu, and Carmel Raz

Music-making is a ubiquitous human activity. But so too is the urge to understand music. Across countless geographically and temporally distinct cultures, people have developed accounts of musical materials and techniques: what they believe music is, what it is made of, and how. People have also marveled at—and sought to comprehend—music’s mysterious power to affect us: to induce trance states, provoke religious epiphanies, heal physical, psychic or social ills, inflame or quiet the passions, or enhance social bonds and group identity. The insights afforded by musical experience and intuition crucially shape religion, ethics, cosmology, and metaphysics, support or contest regimes of governance, and influence the formation of scientific disciplines.

At the same time, cultures around the globe have developed various practical methods to teach music by helping musicians understand its empirical elements, thereby reifying systems of pitch relationships, timbres, rhythmic patterns, and so on. This can involve constructs such as notes, intervals, modes, mensuration signs, meters, and claves. These elements are then transformed into skills by regimes of practical training in which students learn to perform, compose, or improvise music by incorporating these abstracted materials. Much of this pedagogy, we should note, is orally transmitted, with no textual basis. An extension of this pedagogical regime might be the analysis of musical works or performances that the student might undertake in order to learn composition or performance, or maybe simply gain greater understanding and appreciation.

All these many activities—speculative, practical, and analytic—constitute the expansive global field of endeavor that we can call “music theory” (Dahlhaus, 1980). It is thus surprising that until recently, Western scholars of historical music theory have largely restricted themselves to a narrow geographical range of textual traditions and institutions. The field’s two most authoritative reference works, for instance, the Cambridge History of Western Music Theory (2002) and the 15-volume Geschichte der Musiktheorie (1984–2022), make little mention of theoretical traditions outside the North-Atlantic sphere (Christensen 2002, Christensen 2003/2005, Zaminer et al. 1984–2022; see also Eggebrecht 1972). The result is the effective exclusion of many of the world’s other great traditions of musical thought—Arabic, Persian, Indian, or Chinese to name just a few. Whether this parochialism is simply a consequence of the field’s having been cultivated chiefly by scholars associated with various European and North American academic institutions, or more invidiously, a legacy of imperial and colonial mentalities (Christensen 2019, Irvine 2020) are questions to be pondered. In any case, the time has clearly come to question the prestige automatically accorded to European sources, to dismantle the boundaries that elevate these sources above all others, and to expand the field’s purview to recognize and appreciate music-theorizing wherever, and in whatever form, it occurs.

Thinking Music: Global Sources for the History of Music Theory aims to capture the range and variety of human music theorizing by offering excerpts (with commentary) of more than three hundred documents selected from across the world’s musical traditions. Supported by a team of over thirty scholars, the volume presents a multitude of perspectives on the discipline of music theory, its concepts, and its practices. The documentary material included will range broadly from both textual as well as non-discursive sources. All sources will be introduced and contextualized, including with suggestions for further study. By filling this acute gap, the Global Anthology of Sources in the History of Music Theory will provide a valuable resource for several overlapping scholarly communities: music theorists, graduate students in music studies, and musicians, but also ethnologists, anthropologists, and sociologists.  It should be emphasized that our anthology is not—and obviously could never be—a comprehensive anthology of music theory across all peoples and places over human history. Instead, we aim to offer a selective, carefully curated anthology of textual excerpts and documents that together illustrate the multiple and varied ways music theory has been represented and practiced over global history.