The Theory of Music: A Personal Arc (II)

In the first part of this personal arc, I basically explored what theory of music had become for me at the time: a personal project – something to set my mind to. I wrote that post in the first week of March, having just completed my ABRSM Grade 5 Music Theory exam – at a point where I didn’t worry too much about the result at all. Truth be told, I frankly didn’t think about the results past that first week. Too much has happened in the world generally, and to me, personally, since. The events of that week, and of that day feel like a blur in my memory, since most of my time went in preparing.

My results came in this morning, and I was elated to discover I had passed.

I was thrilled. Of course, some portion of this joy came out of passing the exam and not having to think about that Grade anymore. A larger portion, however, stemmed out of the fact that I had accomplished these results by self-studying. Mind you, these are not excellent results – I achieved a Pass. However, the satisfaction of seeing my own effort bear fruit and reflect well according to the yardstick to which I prepared is not something I’ve experienced to often before. Large swathes of material have been taught to me, or I’ve been fortunate to have good teachers for. With the ABRSM exam, I had access to the same resources everyone preparing for the examination did: the standard examination content. It felt nice to look at today’s result, and say – hey, I did that!

About 15 minutes in, after telling my parents, I had some time to step away from things and look at these results a little more carefully. Yes, I had done that. I had actually put in the effort to prepare according to the curriculum designed, and actually learn everything I was interested in learning for the exam. It was uncanny, therefore, to think about the role the Universe had played in all of this. What prompted me to look up music theory, when I was at home in December – when I could have chosen any project at all? How great was it that an exam was available in March, giving me precisely the right window of opportunity to prepare? How fortuitous was I to be able to study for that exam – and write it, exactly 7 days before the number of coronavirus cases in India began to rise?

I looked at the results a little differently. They felt blessed – like some conspiracy had worked in my favour, and I felt more grateful – not just for all of this, but for the background I had in classical music that allowed me to tap into a reservoir of knowledge while preparing for the examination. For the network that enabled me to ask my friends doubts where I had them, and for the means to afford the preparatory material and the examination itself.

When I looked beyond the results, I thought about how much this examination gave me. It gave me a chance to study and drive myself toward an objective of mine, and an opportunity to rediscover classical music in a way I had only shallow knowledge of before. I am no expert on theory today, but I loved learning all the information I picked up during the examination, and I’m eager to see how much more I can learn. It rekindled and reactivated a part of my brain I had put to ‘sleep’ mode for 6 years, since Grade 11 and my antics on FL Studio.

Aside from all of this, it got me to think closely about why I gravitated toward theory. Why does theory fascinate me? Why do I enjoy studying theory? Of course, the easy answer lay bare in front of me – these were the only examinations I was confident of preparing for without guidance. Other optional answers also felt easily accessible – that the theory examination is a prerequisite to the practical examinations with the ABRSM at higher grades, and that they help with a holistic understanding of the music we are training to play, and all sorts of things.

My love affair with the theory of music, however, pointed me to something very fundamental about the way I approach things. I thought back to Grade 11, and why I struggled with Physics the first time around. The theoretical foundations we had built in the subject at the IGCSE were toppled on their heads, and with poor guidance, coping with that change felt seismic. I thought back to things like fractions: the easy stuff that people understood in Mathematics because they could envision fractions as practical problems, but I found ridiculously difficult because they felt so abstract. I struggle with videogames that don’t have explanations for actions: which is why I couldn’t play Ratchet & Clank well, ever, but I could play Runescape reasonably okay.

It pointed me to how I prefer understanding and studying things – from the ground-up. Theoretical information somehow feels like it brings a sense of order and stability to the practical. Even if as an afterthought, or an aberration that helps to elucidate a creative passion, the theory underlying artistic license fascinates me because it suggests that things in this world as explicable. That fundamentally appeals to me, and the fact that there is a dynamism to this explanation owing to varying perspectives and schools is something I find most enjoyable.

So yes, I passed my theory of music exam, and the theory of music has become a part of my daily life. Along the way though, I had the chance to think about theories generally – and I liked that very much too.

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