In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Music Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographic Resources
  • Anthologies and Collections of Theoretical Writings
  • Online Editions
  • Terminology and Concepts
  • Journals
  • General Surveys
  • Selected Thematic Volumes
  • Topics and Genres
  • Non-Western Music Theory

Music History of Music Theory
Thomas Christensen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0199


The field of music theory encompasses a broad range of thought and activities that have varied widely over time. Thus any history of music theory—and by consequence, any bibliography of historical music theory—needs to reflect this diversity. It is a formidable challenge, since topics that at one point have been deemed fundamental to notions of music theory have often receded in importance, while other topics have emerged in the discipline that would not have been understood as belonging within the older paradigm. As an example of the former, we might include classical writings on the harmony of the spheres or of numerical speculation that today might seem overly abstract, and even bordering on the occult. On the other hand, propaedeutic topics that today might seem fundamental to music theory, such as pedagogies of harmony and counterpoint or even music analysis, were at one point considered to fall outside the bounds of the true science of musica theorica. It is not surprising, in this regard, that the very term music theory (derived from the Greek term for observation or contemplation, θεωρία) was rarely used by scholars until the 16th century, and then with a far more restricted notion of the term. A bibliography of historical music theory needs to be flexible, one in which the ever-changing subject matter and historically shifting boundaries of the discipline can be accommodated.

General Overviews

As noted in the introduction to this article, music theory has been historically understood in differing ways. Dahlhaus 1985 analyzes these disciplinary peregrinations more thoroughly than any other volume, while in Dahlhaus 1984 the author explores many of the fundamental themes, metaphors, and models that still underlie much music theory in the modern era. Christensen 2002 offers reflections on the challenges of defining and coordinating the divisions of historical theory. The hermeneutic challenge of interpreting historical texts of music theory is one of the themes of Christensen 1993 and Bent 1992.

  • Bent, Ian. “History of Music Theory: Margin or Center?” Theoria 6 (1992): 1–21.

    A thoughtful meditation on the fragile place of historical music theory lying precariously between the more established academic disciplines of music history and music theory.

  • Christensen, Thomas. “Music Theory and Its Histories.” In Music Theory and the Exploration of the Past. Edited by David Bernstein and Christopher Hatch, 23–51. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

    Christensen considers the epistemological tensions in analyzing historical music theories from either a historical or a contemporaneous perspective, and argues for a hermeneutic reconciliation of the two poles.

  • Christensen, Thomas. “Introduction.” In The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory. Edited by Thomas Christensen, 1–23. Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521623711.002

    Following the model proposed in Dahlhaus 1985, the author attempts a compressed narrative of Western music theory along with a number of historiographical reflections about the challenges of writing a historical account of music theory.

  • Dahlhaus, Carl. Die Musiktheorie im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert: Grundzüge einer Systematik. Edited by Frieder Zaminer. Geschichte der Musiktheorie 10. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1984.

    A brilliant (if difficult) monograph evaluating some of the major themes and tensions of music theory during the 18th and 19th centuries, with numerous sage observations concerning the unstable identity and content of music theory as an intellectual and practical discipline.

  • Dahlhaus, Carl. “Was heisst ‘Geschichte der Musiktheorie’?” In Ideen zu einer Geschichte der Musiktheorie. Edited by Frieder Zaminer, 8–39. Geschichte der Musiktheorie 1. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1985.

    A fundamental essay in which the author argues for the recognition of three broad historical “paradigms” of music theory: speculative, regulative, and descriptive.

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