A theory about theory

As you may have heard, the legendary blues guitarist BB King died recently. Following this though, there were some comments on the internet that got me thinking. Intermingled with the usual condolences and such, a few commenters were critical towards him because of the fact that he did not have a strong understanding of music theory. Their argument seemed to be that his lack of theoretical knowledge about what he was playing somehow diminished his achievements. He is not the first, nor last musician to be subject to this critique.

And this stance is not confined to music. It penetrates many areas of society. No matter how much is accomplished, people seem to ignore the output in favour of some imaginary standard or requirement.


What seems to be going on here is a sense of elitism, borne out of a need for people to have jumped through an objective hoop in order to be accepted as a part of a club. How many times have you seen a job advertised that you have the ability to perform, but would not even be considered because you lacked some qualification? Going back to BB King, he may not have known the names of the scales he was playing, but if he could instinctively understand the sounds in order to make great music, why should this fact be a concern by anyone?

“Why do we even need theory then?”

This is a natural question to ask given the previous discussion. My thoughts on the matter are the following. Human civilisation, over its history, has managed to make many discoveries and understand the world better. Most of these probably first arose by accident, or by deliberate experimentation. Once enough of these discoveries have been made in a particular area, they can often be linked together. A system or process is hypothesised. Given enough sophistication, this will give rise to a theory on how the system works.

The beauty of this is that, now, for those who are uninitiated and have no prior experience with the subject, it allows for a degree of understanding without having to go through the time consuming and laborious experimentation phase that may have taken generations to accomplish. However (and here’s the kicker), this does not mean that one cannot possibly understand the subject without the theory. If you spend your childhood messing around with a guitar, and eventually start to innately understand patterns and rules to a degree that enables you to achieve your goals, then you may not need to resort to the theory.

The theory is a means to an end – a shortcut to understanding that allows you to achieve your goal. There may be interest in developing the theory and improving upon it – this is important indeed, but not of primary importance to a practitioner of a field. Theory is merely a tool along the path to help you solve a problem or accomplish something as effectively as possible. If your goal is to paint rooms, you don’t have to show people that you own a hammer.

Experimentation and Learning

I think this idea is particularly important when it comes to teaching and learning. Often, what tends to happen in academic subjects is that people are shown textbook theories for months and expected to understand them, whilst being completely detached from the thing the theory is trying to explain. This seems to lead to two potential dangers:

  1. People lose interest in the subject because they cannot experience the object.
  2. People get entrenched in the theory, master it, but see it as a self-standing entity rather than as a stepping stone for understanding something else.

The former reason is probably why many kids become disillusioned in schools – no opportunity for experimentation, failure, self-discovery. The latter may lead to the form of intellectual elitism I described earlier.

I think it’s important for people to understand that, as humans, we are all trying to achieve something. We have devised many tools for that purpose, in order to get there more efficiently. However, since we are all different, we don’t all need to use exactly the same tools to achieve those goals. If the fence is painted perfectly, who cares whether I used a spray can or a paintbrush?

We should be careful, I think, not to put theoretical or ‘specialist’ knowledge on a pedestal. Not only would this allow people the freedom to achieve something in their own way more easily, I believe it would also put more fun back into subjects (e.g. mathematics) where theory has sapped all the experimentation and turned it into a set of automated rules to be learnt and respected.

One thought on A theory about theory

  1. I agree totally. It’s all about what goal is trying to be accomplished and by whom (as that will influence what tool is best for the job). In other words, theory is for theory problems/theory people and doing is for doing problems/doing people. And yay that we have both to utilize!

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