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Music Theory Trauma

After having several memory slips in my piano recitals, debilitating stage fright, and stressed to the point of not wanting to perform at all and on the verge of quitting, I decided that a deeper and more integrated understanding of patterns in music (arguably the main focus in music theory), would help me become a better pianist.

I was right.

Instagram @musictheoryshop, post 12/1/2023

So I was surprised to learn over the past decade of being a music theory professor, and especially in the past six years on Instagram and other social media platforms, that many folks have an adverse reaction to this kind of music learning. In fact, some do not see the value in it at all.

 

Instagram @musictheoryshop, post 12/1/2023

These responses and others are trauma responses. From Health. Wellness. Prevention., a trauma is "an emotional response to a distressing event or situation that breaks a sense of security. Traumatic events may be life threatening, yet any events that overwhelm or isolate can result in trauma." 

Trauma that has occurred in the past can be easily accessed and thrown instantly back into that emotional state by a trigger. A trigger is a reminder of the trauma initiating fight or flight emotions, sometimes subconsciously, and the trauma response is an emotional or heightened reaction in the present moment.

This is my first writing on music theory trauma, a term I am defining as (working definition), "any negative music learning experience associated with music theory, emotions of anxiety, fear, and insecurity formed while learning music theory in classes, lessons, or experienced in public performance, all contributing to varying degrees of a lower sense of self worth as a musician."

Instagram @musictheoryshop, post 12/3/2023

As with all online trolling and negative comments, these music theory reactions stem from wounds experienced earlier in some kind of music learning environment that created shame. While an endless number of factors could have influenced that sense of shame, the negative reaction (such as a public hate comment) is evidence that these wounds have not been healed. The comment has nothing to do with the original issue or event at hand. As someone who regularly witnesses deep-rooted negativity around my discipline, it has taken this point to really sink in and not take anything personally.

In this article, my goal is only to present the topic and how I came into this area of study in order to stimulate the writing process. Ultimately, this is the topic (or a large part of the topic) for my upcoming article in the journal, Music Theory Specturm (forthcoming 2024).

As I begin this research, I will be using my social media data (with four viral reels = 1-6 million views) and 10-years+ experience as a music theory professor at multiple institutions (with curriculum design experience and expertise in music theory pedagogy). I don't have all of the answers, but, every music educator I talk to about the topic of music theory trauma shares similar student experiences that are clearly the result of some form of shame experienced during the music learning journey. 

Instagram @musictheoryshop, post 12/3/2023

I do believe that there is collective healing of generational trauma from some of the dictatorial styles of classical music training of past decades. Many of those musicians, now educators, are breaking the cycle (some experienced very obvious forms of emotional abuse), and are empathetic enough to identify fear-based responses to music training in their own students. I will dedicate an entire article to proposing pedagogical approaches that alleviate trauma responses. 

In the past, I've joked about the music theory "haters" and didn't take the negativity too serious until recently, when I was creating my "Intro to Music School" online course and realized that I was still in the process of healing some of my own music theory trauma.

You can watch that lesson below:

A growing sampling of my questions thus far:

Experiencing trauma is part of being a human, so how is music theory trauma any different? 

Why does performing poorly in music theory classes or as being self taught, hurt so much more than performing poorly in math (or other non-art subject)?

Why is developing music literacy (the ability to read and notate music), a large part of music education, seem to be unduly criticized more than general language literacy?

Why is knowing scales, chords, modes and even the names of these elements (music fundamentals) considered an uninspired, non-artistic approach to music creation by some?

Some musicians are careful to not sound too "nerdy" or even request that their music lessons avoid music theory altogether. (Instagram @lessonswithlindyofficial, post 3/14/2024)

Instagram @musictheoryshop, post 12/1/2023

I do have a working theory on music theory trauma responses. Music is a highly emotional art form that merges with our identity, our culture, and our values, and that's true for non-musicians. Imagine how much more is at stake when you're actually a musician grappling with becoming proficient on an instrument(s), public performance, studying the mechanics of music (music theory), and artistic development (music maturation). Oh--and did I mention that most college/music school musicians connect academic performance in music school with their ability to create a livelihood in music? That is a lot of pressure, but it is only true to a point. 

The essence of the musical art form is inherently deeply personal and hits our emotional core, so it makes perfect sense that the folks creating this art form would judge their own learning journey as part of their value.

When I was completely defeated writing my Ph.D. dissertation, Dave Novak (Professor of Ethnomusicology at UC Santa Barbara), gave me a hugely healing thought to consider which relates to any challenging learning experience: "As babies learning to walk, did our parents judge all of the times we fell down? Did we judge ourselves when we kept falling because we just learning how to use our legs? No. We just got back up again and again until we could control our legs and footing."

So why is there so little self-empathy for the music learning journey? How is music theory trauma affecting the next generation of musicians? I have more questions than answers.

I'll end with the content that prompted the trauma responses throughout this writing. To give more context, the Instagram reel that I had posted was a scene from the tv show, Home Movies (2001-2004), where during Duane's guitar lesson, his teacher gives him a rapid-fire quiz on chords and modes (plus a funny joke).

Comments can be roughly categorized into three camps: (1) positive, encouraging reactions; (2) music theory trauma responses (AKA trolls); and (3) those wanting to publicly correct any errors in the music theory jargon. It's important to note that the Instagram algorithm will feature content with a lot of engagement, positive or negative, so this particular reel was viewed 2.2 million times with 118K likes and 1,012 comments.

Click below to watch.

Instagram @musictheoryshop, posted 12/1/2023

Your questions, comments, and suggestions are greatly appreciated. If you would like to share your own music theory trauma experience(s) for my research, I will have a form to share in the near future.

Please share literature that you think would help me in my research.👇

 

 


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