Obfuscation through Pedanticism











Ever find yourself in a conversation with some people who suddenly switch to another language to talk to each other? While certainly a bit rude, there are a couple reasons why they might have done this: They may be more fluent in that language, perhaps needing to get to the point quickly, or were at a loss for words in English, but more likely, they didn’t want you to know what they were saying. This is the same reason parents “spell” words around their toddlers: “Do you think we could get some I.C.E. C.R.E.A.M after dinner?”

For some reason, when people become “educated” in a field, they often start throwing around arcane terminology, often to the confusion of the uninitiated. Even better, they use Latin or Greek words for this purpose, adding a patina of classicism and importance to what they are saying, no matter how mundane it really is, and of course, keeping things to themselves.

McCoy: “Can’t you see this man has a case of post-prandial abdominal distention?”

Kirk: “What did you tell them he has?”

McCoy: “Cramps.”

-Star Trek IV, the Voyage Home

Of course, McCoy’s burst of medical Latin was befuddling enough to extricate Chekov from the inept 20th-Century doctors, illustrating one purpose of needless jargon: to confuse.

Now, I don’t have anything against Latin, Greek or any other historical language, and the use of Latin in science and other fields is well-established. It also crosses boundaries of culture when used in this standard way. The problem, quite evident in music, is the need to make things more difficult and less accessible to the student by the incessant “naming of things” in such an opaque way. Put more simply:

Knowing the name of something, even in Latin, does not mean you understand it. Nor does it admit you to any special, private society.

Let’s look at some examples in the dreaded Music Theory field. At some point, we were learning about degrees of the scale:

Teacher: “The root of the scale is called the tonic, and the second is the supertonic, since it’s above the tonic.”

Student: “I see. What is the name of the fifth?

Teacher: “Dominant. The fourth is the subdominant, meaning ‘below the dominant.’  The third is the mediant; meaning ‘in the middle.'”

Student: “In the middle of what?”

Teacher: “The tonic and the dominant.

Student: “So, the sixth is the superdominant?”

Teacher: “No, it’s the submediant.”

Student: “But it’s above the dominant, not below the mediant.”

Teacher: “It’s in the middle between the subdominant and the tonic.”

Student: “So the seventh is the subtonic?”

Teacher: “No, it’s the leading tone.”

Student: “Can we just use numbers?”

At the end, the student may be more confused than before, not because they don’t understand, but because of the jargon, some of which serves little purpose. Music, like many fields, is awash in this kind of terminology.

Of course, we jazzers and contemporary composers aren’t innocent of this, either; witness the silly multiple names of the various “jazz” modes, such as “Altered” “Diminished Whole-Tone,” Super-Locrian” and others (all meaning the same thing) the myriad ill-named “Hungarian” or “Gypsy” scales, or terms like “Infra-inter-ultrapolation.”

The issue here is that things that are not that hard to understand are being made harder. Imagine my surprise when I found out a German augmented sixth was just a dominant 7 chord in disguise. (yes, it’s spelled and resolves differently, but why wasn’t that explained sooner?)

As a young student, I was often intimidated and felt excluded because of this kind of teaching. I never felt like I really “belonged” in the academic world. Possibly as a compensation, I learned as much as possible about music theory in order to try to “own” it, and ironically ended up as a music theory teacher, trying to simplify, rather than complicate.

I have nothing against nomenclature and tradition; they are important to a field, and give “handles” to things. However, putting the priority on giving things names, especially obscure ones, makes the teacher look good without really helping anybody understand anything. Try not to let the fancy words bother you; it’s simpler than you think!

In other words: Illegitimi_non_carborundum!



  • Paul Miles

    I think a good analogy is that naming all he muscles in the face is not necessarily a good way of mapping the feelings evoked by a musical expression. AND my style of playing employs my own rule anyways, but ultimately the breaking of the rules is often the most profound expression.

  • Roza Akmalova

    While I agree that one should speak to the listener in a language they understand, I disagree with devaluating the importance of using terminology. This is NOT about the tradition, it’s about the meaning a term carries, that meaning implies a lot more that what simplified substitute words are capable of carrying.
    For example, “leading tone” makes much more sense than “7th”, as it explains the function and tendencies of the 7th. Surely, one shouldn’t talk about “the leading tone” if the listener hasn’t been introduced to the term, in that case one should introduce them first.
    Terms are especially important in critical fields such as physics and medicine. “Cramps” may mean a lot of medical conditions in different parts of the body and for different reasons, this word is useless when the doctor wants to be more specific and presise when talking to another medical professional. And in medicine, any possibility of misunderstanding has to be avoided.
    Using Latin terms allows to avoid any kind of misunderstanding – precisely because the language is not used by wide public, and is therefore not prone to development of slang meanings due to regional, professional, ethnic or other kinds of exposure.
    It is helpful to non-professionals too. For example, when I search for a medical condition or for a botanic name in the internet, I may find twenty terms in Russian and then another forty in English, some of them meaning the same, some having slight nuances, and some made up by folks out of pure confusion.
    Only the Latin term will allow me to distinguish and find precisely what I want.
    I agree that terms can be misleading when someone uses it without understanding the meaning, but it’s not worth dumping terms just for this reason.

    And yes, we should only use the language listeners understand when educating them.

    • randyhoexter

      Thank you for your very thoughtful comment. (which may actually exceed the word-count of the original post!) :-)

      I really don’t disagree with you, but my article was certainly not about “dumping” terms at all. I did state that Latin and other technical language is necessary and crosses cultural boundaries.

      What I was trying to put across, especially with music theory, was the use of “this is known as” teaching. Yes, terms are important, but not at the expense of clarity and directness. I was exposed to enormous amounts of this type of vocabulary-based instruction; this sort of thing is everywhere, and I think it is off-putting, and pedagogically lazy.

      Music theory, in particular, has little use unless applied and made personal for the student. Anything that serves to make it less “exclusive” I consider a move forward. I believe in teaching ideas first, then terms.

      Nice to hear from you, Roza!

      • Roza Akmalova

        Totally agree. And thanks for your articles, Randy!