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?”
-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!