This is a pretty general and long-winded question: Having grown up around music training, I realize that many very good musicians can't tell you much about the history of temperament or recent developments in Neo-Riemannian analysis, nor does a sharpshooter necessarily know how to perform ballistic calculus. Some do, some don't. Musicians probably have a better feel than most for what makes up a good progression, though, and can see its intricacies. What's bad, though, is that all musicians seem to think that they know the theory, because it's only slight exaggeration to say that standing in front of every deeper explanation is a simple but not very revealing answer. (For instance, 'stacked thirds' is an explanation for harmonics 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8; and one even sees such things in the work of otherwise accomplished composers, such as problematic transformations between pitch and rhythm, or crude-but-useful geometric representations of harmony.)

I have only been on this SE for a couple of days, but I seem to see the same divide happen here, and I'm afraid that the democratic approach seems to fail too often. Take here where I clearly cite a description of the progression mentioned as typical. There is no comment explaining what is wrong with this answer, and it falls to the bottom, below a reply that calls the progression a 'fantasia', and an upvoted comment 'Everything can't be explained by theory, since most music isn't written with an explicit reference to theory'. (Sincerely no offense is meant here, and I am not claiming my answer is necessarily correct; I am just taking these examples as a sort of microcosm.) How is a chord progression with G#, D#m, F and G possible?

I don't think this happens so often on other SE sites, that answers are given that just say theory is not applicable and upvotes ensue. I realize something similar happened in the study of language grammar after the dethroning of Latin-based analysis. Still, though, I don't think you'll find many serious practitioners of logic or language who would say there are no good explanations. Instead, the field has been enriched with higher-level concepts, deeper analyses, corrections, etc., to account for as much as possible. Understanding what is understandable takes nothing away from real poetics. Similar improvements have taken place in music theory. In another parallel to grammar splitting between the philosophical, the computer-based, the speech-act, etc., musical analysis has divided into many different sorts. The serialists have their atonal number sets. The popular harmonic analysis is intended for performers. (They need to be able to read on-the-fly, and so I feel it is not best-suited to a forum like SE. Still, it is the most popular, and I don't intend to change that.)

I know that many of the top-rated contributors on this site understand musical theory and the history of theory well, as I have seen. Therefore, are there general guidelines you could give a newcomer with a somewhat-rigorous, somewhat-half-baked understanding of music, who wants to fit in here, and wants to give and get the best response?


Ignoring voting, I think the realizations that I'm groping for are these:

(1) Prematurely answering that theory does not help to provide an explanation is likely to keep an explanation from being found or provided, at least in the timely manner required by SE. Theories and practices have been developed over thousands of years all over the world. Evidencing how the disconnect seems to occur with common theories and practices may help lead to a better explanation, however, and is to be encouraged; it may save someone effort or confusion, and also may be falsified.

(2) I suppose it is the burden of the answerer to support in detail why their explanation is to be considered 'better' than the possible alternatives, in the order that the answers are provided.

  • 2
    There's probably something to this. The most technical answers from the most knowledgeable are the least likely to be widely understood. I would hope that people would refrain from downvoting for that reason, but they also can't blindly upvote.
    – user28
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 9:38
  • 2
    The question is a bit long-winded. My summary would be "How do we raise the level of theoretical knowledge on this SE, in order for correct answers to be upvoted?". Or alternatively "How to formulate answers so less theoretically savvy people understand that they are correct?". Neither version is easy to answer. If I've misunderstood, please provide a clarification what is requested... Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 17:44
  • I read as far as this: "I'm afraid that the democratic approach seems to fail too often" and decided to leave the comment that if you are not happy with the democratic approach then you will not be happy with Stack Exchange. It's your fellow users on Music.SE who are deciding what constitutes a good answer or a bad answer. If you don't agree with the masses, on the whole, then this site has little to offer you. Commented Feb 10, 2016 at 17:43
  • I find many good points in this question. It could be mine! But I don't think the point of voting is an important one, this site would function fine as well without this game. I have more problems with some comments of admins who say: you don't answer at all OP's question! Or: this question is off topic or it is opinion based. This implies that they have the authority of interpretation of a question or an answer, while I found: Probably they didn't understand it. (This could also be the reason of some downvotes - but this is not my problem.) I estimate very higly the comments above here too! Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 11:17

1 Answer 1


I understand where you are coming from, but after reading this it feels more like "Why didn't I get an upvote?" as there are no down votes to your example. Also at the time of this post it only has been 12 hours since you posted your answer which means it hasn't had much time for people to read it. Another thing to note is the comment of one person on a post does not reflect the site as a whole.

Part of what you are saying is true. Personally as a user of this site feel like my top voted answers aren't the best and I have lower voted answered that are much better but you also have to remember that:

  • There are people with varying levels of music education and background so not everyone will understand and/or be able to vote on every topic.
  • The users of the site aren't on at all times to read everything so it depending on when you post and how much traffic there is people may not see it.
  • Most voting happens when the question is "new". At the time of your post one post already had a clear majority and most people won't vote alternative answers unless they are really adding a lot of new information.

As for your last paragraph just participate. Everyone has a slightly different approach to how to answer questions and the best way to approach answering a question varies from question to question. Formatting and examples typically help get the point of an answer across, but how you approach them is up to you.

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