Music Theory - is there ever a point where you have everything in your composition under control?

Discussion in 'Composition, Orchestration & Technique' started by ein fisch, May 15, 2019.

  1. Montisquirrel

    Montisquirrel Active Member

    Jul 10, 2012
    It depends on what you want to do. Music Theory is a way to describe what you hear with words. There maybe parts in this theroy which will help you alot, there will be parts, which you think sound aweful and are useless.

    For me, it is really helpful now, after many years of "just doing it". It is not necessary for doing a good job or making music which you like. For example, when I did my first feature lenght film, I used just a very common 4-chord-progression in A-minor over the whole film, and you now what? People loved it. I didn't even think about it, didn't even knew the word "chord-progression". I just let the pictures and the emotions lead me to decide, which instruments, which tempi, etc... (And now when I think about it, I also didn't even used a reverb-plugin).
    It took me a very long time to finish that job and I was full of self-doubt and I was never sure, if the music is good or not.

    So, No, you don't need any theory.


    After all this years, I love digging deep into theory right now. I really enjoy it. It is fun to learn some tricks which other composers before you found out about. I am still at the very beginning, but it definetly helps with composing (of course).

    An Example: I am sitting on a job right now. It is a very short film (3min) which had a dramatic change in the middle, and because learning about modulations technics in the last weeks I was able to write something satisfiying in a few minutes, without self-doubt, because I know it will work. Some theory-knowledge is so powerfull. This job will not give me any awards and it will maybe only be seen/heard by a very few people, but it feeds my family.

    And never learn theory without doing it. Don't read a 500 pages theory book without practising each page of it.
    Last edited: May 16, 2019
    jonathanparham and JohnG like this.
  2. Illico

    Illico Samuel Le Tonquèze

    With Theory, you'll stay in standard but confortable and faster highway of composition.
    With Try and Fail, sometime you'll find a beautifull land with valley of emotions.
  3. mikeh-375

    mikeh-375 old school

    Feb 8, 2016
    but @Illico, technique and beauty also can go hand in hand as evidenced by the greatest pieces of music in the concert world (and films for that matter). True enough though that beauty isn't the exclusive domain of training.

    @Montisquirrel says it in the last line of his post above. Practise the way you would scales and you will get to know your inner voice because in the doing of it, you will come to see what feels right for you and what isn' becomes a bespoke path to achieving your full potential, based on your own instincts, for which it will then hone.
    Last edited: May 16, 2019

    DANIELE Active Member

    I found myself to be a "composer" many years ago (I think 18 actually), I started composing only with my ears, trying to reverse engineering the music I liked. I started with electronic music, dance music, house music but after some years I started to feel the need for orchestral music.
    After some other years of progresses I began to feel stuck, I was no more able to reach higher steps. I started to do some piano lessons and after some piano practice I asked my master for a theory course instead of a piano one. In the mean time I was studying engineering at university and I graduated two times, once for the three years study path and once for the two year one.
    Theory is a great thing, some times I feel blocked from it, some other I feel lifted.

    Sometime it is useful to limit yourself with some rules because it teach you how to achieve the maximum by using only few rules (for example first species counterpoint with classical rules, then the practical one and so on).

    I still feel divided between practice and theory. When I try to write something I start with all good intentions and I often end with using my ear more than rules. Some basic rules anyway are part of my process by now and I use them without thinking about.

    I don't have time, I work all day long and I desperately need for all the rules to be part of my automatic process but the only think I could do it is to try and try again until I reach what I want. There's no worst thing than having a lot of ideas and not being able to write them.
    Try to approach the theory with a practical point of view, then you'll be able to get what rules sounds good and what are more rules than music, and then where breaking them it results in something great.
  5. JohnG

    JohnG Senior Member

    Nov 13, 2007
    Well, that is the slow path. It can work. But why not buy a few scores by people who really know how to drive the orchestra and learn from them? Puccini, Wagner, Strauss, etc. plus some of the film scores you can get. Alan Silvestri, John Williams -- those guys.

    They know what they are doing; consequently, you can use their register choices, chord voicings and balances with some degree of confidence. They also offer a window to just how far you can push professional players -- quite far!
    Parsifal666 and Sean like this.
  6. Parsifal666

    Parsifal666 I don't even own a DAW, I'm just a troll.

    Sep 7, 2015
    E. YeeHaw, Indiana
    Goldsmith's fabulous Total Recall is available in full score, which is about as vanguard and relevant today as it was nearly three decades ago. His blending of orchestral and electronic was simply masterful: forward-looking, and sensationally inspiring.
  7. Saxer

    Saxer Senior Member

    Mar 30, 2008
    I think this "theory thing" is often misunderstood. It's not a formula of what to do next or what is allowed or right or wrong. It's more or less a description and analysis of what happens. If you hear a part and think 'wow, that sounds great' you can transcribe it and and add exactly this part to your arsenal. Done. That's practical experience. If you go into this same part and look what happens you can separate it into single steps. Rhythmic structure, harmonic structure, melodic structure, instrumentation, style, historic background, sound, room, mix... and you can play with this elements. What if I use the same harmonic structure on another scale? What if I use the same orchestration with different rhythms? What if I replace the instrumentation? If you understand the single elements you have a lot more layers to play with. I you want to build intensity you have all this elements to choose from. Dynamic, modulation, rhythmic compression, ranges, instrumentation, playing styles, stretching intervals... and a lot of possibilities how to get 'from here to there'.
    Alex Fraser, wolf, 0cme and 3 others like this.
  8. ed buller

    ed buller Senior Member

    you are sorta describing a trick. A cool trick...but a trick. 18 years ago a wrote a little piano piece and played it for my teacher as he sat on the coach out of view of the piano . He got up after i was finished. Sat at the piano and played it back, note for note whilst explaining why he liked it. ! Now it was impressive don't get me wrong but...I'd come up with the piece myself. Without a lot of training.

    So my take away is this. Training can be like having soooooooooo many options. I can go here...or this...or that....but ultimately it's up to you to make it work !

    even tiger Woods has a shit round now and again right ?


    jonathanparham likes this.
  9. eph221

    eph221 Member

    Feb 12, 2019

    Also, for the more abstract thinkers and composers: A lot of compositional work deals with things like delayed gratification and the playing with the listeners expectations. It's important to know what those expectations might be. I imagine this can be done through a lot of listening and intuition but it's HOAL easier with theory. D:D
    Last edited: May 17, 2019
  10. VinRice

    VinRice ... i am a robot ...

    May 20, 2017
    The UK of Englandshire
    Yes, you need to learn theory. It's not a set of rules, it's hundreds of years of real-world experience as to what works, distilled. When you are creating a melody, theme, line, texture or whatever you can forget about it. When you noodle a section that you really like you are able to analyse and understand why it works. Then you can expand it horizontally and vertically with relative ease and speed. As you internalise more and more theory it starts to remove the fear of where the hell do I go now? Songwriting and composing are much more about craft than art - as are all creative professions.
    Montisquirrel and Parsifal666 like this.
  11. robgb

    robgb I was young once

    Apr 6, 2016
    Theory may help you or it may hurt you. Some people thrive on "rules," while others don't care about them or find them restrictive—just like any other creative endeavor. It really depends on the individual. There is no right or wrong path to making music. There are brilliant composers who know theory backwards and forwards and there are brilliant composers who can't read a note of music. All that matters is the final product.
    Dave Connor likes this.
  12. Eric

    Eric Member

    Jan 16, 2013
    What genre of music would you like to learn the theory behind?

    When I took “classical” music theory in college, some of it was great (like studying Bach’s works), and some seemed incredibly dated (figured bass seems only practical for improvising baroque musicians). No practical knowledge of modern popular chords was taught at all.

    Then I took jazz theory. It was cool, but mostly concepts I was already familiar with.

    The most theory I ever learned at school was taught to me by the guitar professor, during an ear training class. In a single hour, I learned the premise that harmony = scales = chords = arpeggios, and the fundamental scale choices for standard jazz chords, concepts that remain central to the way I think about music.
  13. Sean

    Sean I don't know what I'm talking about

    Apr 5, 2019
    I think I know what you are trying to get at but I think a better way to say this is "following the rules of theory might hurt or help you." I can't possibly see how knowing theory would hurt you, can just choose to ignore the rules if that's your style, but at least then you know exactly what rules you are breaking and can have a reason for it.
    Parsifal666 likes this.
  14. Parsifal666

    Parsifal666 I don't even own a DAW, I'm just a troll.

    Sep 7, 2015
    E. YeeHaw, Indiana
    It's what you do with or without it. Don't forget to spin Reign in Blood.
  15. ed buller

    ed buller Senior Member

    Is this the most repeated discussion we have on this forum ? It seems not a week goes by before a “ theory ...worth it ? “ thread develops . I’m not sure that’s the original posters question either. But perhaps we should have an emoji in our profiles . “Knowledge of musical practices a good thing or bad when in the business of writing music” .

    But just so it’s clear. I’m all for it . It’s much more likely to help you than hinder you. It can be fun. And can be done in a variety of ways. Not all involving hideously dull and dry music theory text books . The internet is your friend .

    Good luck


  16. borisb2

    borisb2 Member

    Sep 6, 2018
    one more thing to add:

    I suppose the trick with theory is to have the "rules" in your head / under your fingers without thinking about them while composing. There's nothing worse than having a good flow while composing/playing something and then stopping and analyzing "wait a minute, to which keys I have to bend now my melody in order to properly end my perfect authentic recapitulation cadence" .. could kill ones creative outburst

    I think its important to know good voice leading, pivot chord modulation or modal changes (either by learning theory or listening to enough scores). But don't (actively) think about it when sitting on the piano
    VinRice, Montisquirrel and ed buller like this.
  17. halfwalk

    halfwalk Member

    May 13, 2017
    Pedagogical dogma can stifle innovation and creativity. An implicit hierarchy exists; the teacher assumes authority over the development of the student's mind, i.e. learn what I tell you and recite it back to me verbatim or you have "failed." So if you have a bad teacher, learning theory can certainly hurt you by encouraging you to close your mind rather than opening it. And given the implicit authority ("I am the teacher, therefore I am correct") how could you possibly know (until too late) that you have/had a bad teacher?

    I had a big epistemological rant prepared, but I've binned it. Suffice it to say, no one can be told what the Matrix is; you have to see it for yourself.
  18. Sean

    Sean I don't know what I'm talking about

    Apr 5, 2019
    That's not really relevant to what I said. I said knowing/learning theory won't hurt you. You can teach yourself theory. Everything you just said has nothing to do with theory, it's just about if someone gets a bad teacher...
    Parsifal666 likes this.
  19. ism

    ism Senior Member

    Dec 14, 2016
    Bad teaching can always do more harm than good, Paulo Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” is probably the classic analysis (and is quite a good read besides). You’re basically talking about what he calls the “banking theory of education”, which has a particular relevance for oppressed landless peasants under a hegemonic military dictatorship, but it’s not hard to see the effect at work in lots of music education also.

    I’d argue, however, that what’s damaging here lies inherently in the social relations of the pedagogical context. And that learning music theory isn’t more inherently harmful than learning anything else.
    Saxer and halfwalk like this.
  20. robgb

    robgb I was young once

    Apr 6, 2016
    If you learn theory, you are taught how it's SUPPOSED to be done, and you feel bound by those rules. If you don't learn theory you may simply do what comes from instinct, with nothing to bind you. Someone who is used to the freedom of instinct might suddenly find their creativity hampered when learn that they're "doing it wrong." Others might feel this helps them. Again, it's up to the individual.
    halfwalk likes this.

Share This Page