Explicit Musical Theory vs Implicit Musical Practice

In many practical disciplines, we often see a mismatch between two vital parts of the learning process; explicit theory and implicit practice. Let's look at a simple example and set the scene for the rest of this article:


  • Imagine following a recipe for heating a frozen supermarket lasagne. 
  • The lasagne is supposed to be cooked in the oven at 270 degrees. 
  • You know that your oven is significantly more powerful than a standard oven, and reckon you should probably cook it closer to 250 degrees. 


Herein lies the problem. The box explicitly states 270 degrees, but there is an understanding by the person cooking the lasagne that the instructions need to be tailored to their specific circumstance to produce the desired outcome, a delicious meal. In simple terms, if you were to follow the instructions explicitly, you would end up with a burnt dinner.


Let's look at what this means further in the context of music.

Explicit Musical Theory

When we talk about musical theory, we are usually referring to a range of notated tablatures, texts, and scales. For example, a scale is a clear example of musical theory. When you have a scale, you are telling the reader that the following are the core notes that underpin the music you are about to play. The reader is then aware that whenever they are playing a piece of music, that note should be played in that particular way. 

When we talk about musical theory, we are usually referring to a range of notated tablatures, texts, and scales.

We can look at this as having both advantages and disadvantages. Broadly, we could say that the advantage of musical theory is that it makes the whole discipline cleaner. By this, we mean that if there is a clear structure to follow, it reduces the room for error, and allows mistakes to be visible.

An advantage of Musical Theory is that it makes the whole discipline cleaner.

For example, for those musicians amongst you, if you heard someone play an F Sharp note in a C Minor piece, you'd know something was wrong! Why? Because F Sharp doesn't exist within the C Minor scale. If everyone knew that, you could easily say, "Stop that, it's not part of the scale!". 


The disadvantage of this is that it makes the whole discipline more rigid. In a field such as music, where self-expression is key, you don't want to be bound by the confines of rigidity, you want to be free to fly wherever the music takes you. 

A disadvantage of Musical Theory is that it makes the discipline more rigid.

In the same example of a scale, if for some reason an F Sharp actually worked really nicely in whatever song you were playing, it should be appropriate to play it, even though the scale is C Minor.  

Implicit Musical Practice

When we talk about Musical Practice, we believe we are talking about the spark of the musician, the spirit that brings the music alive, the soul of the music. In Arabic Music, we refer to this as the Ruh' (the soul) of the music. 

The spark of the musician brings music alive allowing the music to create it's own Ruh' (soul)

In the example of Arabic Music, we use various Maqamat (scales) to help understand the direction of the music. Now, in the 20th Century, there was a lot of influence from the Western world to "standardise" these Maqamat into structures that people would typically call scales, however, this poses a problem for the classical Arabic Music practitioner. 

In typical circumstances, we use Maqamat (scales) to standardise music. 

Since the Arabic Music practitioner defines a scale by it's Ruh', it's soul, a simple written notation is not sufficient to bring out the true beauty and colour of the music, and create Tarab (musical pleasure). Tarab is the way that the music moves the audience, how it makes us feel. If someone plays Maqam Ajam (what we'd refer to a happy or major scale in Western Music), and it doesn't feel like a happy song, the Ruh' is missing, and Tarab will not be created. The music makes sense on paper, but in reality, it doesn't sound like it's supposed to.

In the Arabic Music practitioners pursuit of Tarab (musical pleasure), he/she will transcend the boundaries of any scale or poetic meter. 

Note: A Maqam is a scale. Maqamat is the plural of Maqam, and therefore means scales. 


The problem is that in Arabic Music, we define something by it's Ruh', it's soul, the way it makes us feel, the way its inner beauty is brought out. A Maqam cannot just be watered down into a simple musical scale, it is in fact a whole way of being.

Arabic Maqamat facilitate this creation of Tarab by defining Maqamat by their Ruh', not just by simple notes. 

It is exactly this issue that creates difficulty for the classical Arabic Music practitioner when they are too reliant on explicit notation, they may lose the Ruh', the soul of the music, while they are trying to make sense of it on paper. 

As such, the Arabic Music practitioner cannot rely on notated scales too much, else they risk losing the Ruh' of their Maqam, and hence jeapordising Tarab

Bridging The Gap

Here we come to the true underlying issue of this matter:

Theory vs Practice

Now the answer is not straight forward, which makes the issue that much harder. Take the following examples (although they are a little outside the topic of Arabic Music)

  • On one hand, you have Bach, a German composer and musician extraordinaire. Each of his compositions can be analysed down to the Nth degree to reveal complete and utter mastery of Musical Theory. 
  • On the other hand, you have Jimmy Hendrix, American rock guitarist, singer and songwriter. Easily one of the most influential musicians of the 20th Century. His musical genius was unrivalled for his time, but, he couldn't even read music! 

What's going on here? We believe it comes back to the openness and vastness of the musical field. There are multiple paths to musical success and musical mastery. 

There are multiple paths to musical success and musical mastery. E.g. Bach's technical mastery vs Jimmy Hendrix's practical mastery. 

So which is better? The answer is not clear, and in some ways, it isn't important. In extreme circumstances, it might work out to specialise in one field in particular, but the case of most people, most casual musicians, a combination between the two is needed. 

In most cases, a combination between explicit theory and implicit practice is needed.

Bridging the Gap

Most musical schools around the world are now using a combination of theory and practice to teach music. On a broad level, we can think that learning theory is to use books, sheet music and other written structures to improve theoretical competency, and we can think that using teachers and mentors is to improve practical competency.

Most music schools nowadays use a combination of the two. Books and sheet music for Thoery and teachers for Practice. 

Books and sheet music are now more important than ever. With the Western musical world exerting a lot of pressure and influence on other musical disciplines, more and more traditional pieces are being transcribed into the Western way of writing music.

Books and sheet music are now more important than ever.

Furthermore, due to globalisation, more Eastern instruments, and Eastern musicians by extension, are now entering the world of Western music. For example, the Darbuka is often used in French music, due to the sheer number of Algerians living in France. It is natural that there is some overlap between the two disciplines, and sheet music is needed to allow all musicians to play together. 

Due to the modern day overlap between disciplines, sheet music is needed to allow musicians to play and perform together. 

Teachers and mentors are the keys to unlock true musical success. Music is a way to truly express yourself, and sometimes it's not possible to condense a musical masterpiece into a piece of paper. True musical genius lies in the hand of the master, who defies all laws and standards to create a mesmerising piece of music which creates Tarab (musical pleasure)

Teachers and mentors are the keys to unlock true musical success. 

And on a broad level, think about it this way: new pieces of music require the creativity, the genius of the musician to be created. So really we are always innovating beyond written music anyway. 

In order to actually create a new piece of music, the genius of the musician is a necessity. 


To conclude, we think it's fairly safe to say that both theory and practice are an important part of music, but we should always remember that they have their own places. Musical theory is important to allow us to standardise, to keep harmony amongst musicians. Musical Practice, on the other hand, that's where the magic is. And without magic, what is music?

We have some articles on musical theory that you may find interesting such as the following:

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