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

Leon Willett

Active Member
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.
This would be theory done wrong.

Theory done right is when you learn how to make your music sound exactly the way you want.

Which would be the only point of spending time learning something :)

Does your music already sound exactly and precisely the way you want? If it does, you don't need any help. If it doesn't, you have something to learn -- so you can fix that. You should be your own favourite composer -- are you?

In your defence, theory is usually taught the bad way, so I understand why you think this. This includes the vast majority of books, courses, and even some theory I've seen touted on this forum.
 

ism

Senior Member
Theory done right is when you learn how to make your music sound exactly the way you want.
Or when you want another too to help you discover music you didn’t even know you wanted to write.

I also think that the thing about most theory books it that they were always meant to be studied in a context, for instance with a teacher able to offer genuine, specific musical insight. Or where a student is simultaneously studying performance. Decontextualized theory is just a kind of pointless and arbitrary form of algebra.
 

Sean

I don't know what I'm talking about
What I think is the root conflation (and why these threads predictably degenerate in more Luvvies vs Boffins acimony) is the way that being badly taught theory can not only *not* help you become a better composer but can even do you damage as a composer (if you internalize badly conceived theory) vs the indisputable value of theory itself.
Well some people are clearly arguing about that, but some are also just simply stating "theory can hurt some people" which is just not true. If it is "hurting" their creative process then they are just simply doing it wrong...
 

Sean

I don't know what I'm talking about
My point is, learning theory does not equal understanding the vibrations of the universe and how they affect human consciousness. It is merely one way to contextualize a small subset of our understanding of the universe.

For instance, there are theoretically infinite tones. Yet we arbitrarily restrict ourselves, generally in the "western" mindset, to just twelve. And thus, many are led to believe that an arrangement of sounds outside of those twelve tones is inherently "unmusical."

What I'm trying to say is that music theory is just one perspective on what music actually means. So in thinking that "I've learned (a) music theory, therefore I understand music" is imposing an arbitrary limitation on your own perception of the universe. And that can potentially be harmful if you ever decide to decouple your mind from the cultural expectations instilled in you against your will from birth.

Music does not exist except for inside the brain. It's just vibrations that we have learned to interpret, through the lens of culture, and filtered by the physiological limitations of our sensory organs. So you can learn all about how people have historically made sense of these vibrations (i.e. music theory), but you are learning only what has been agreed upon by authority figures throughout history. You are learning what someone else decided music means. And by committing to music theory you are shaping your own interpretations of the vibrations of the universe in order to fit neatly with those expectations devised arbitrarily, albeit through empirical observation, by people whose culture is potentially radically different than your own.

I'll repeat, music does not exist except for inside your brain. Music theory can shape your perception of it, can help you make sense of what you're hearing, but does nothing to explain the why of music. And regarding music (or art in general) I would argue that the why is infinitely more important than the what or the how. And that must come from within you.

Also, self taught in this context does not mean the information just spontaneously appeared inside your head from nothing. You read it somewhere. So maybe you are interpreting the "teacher" part too literally.

Of course, if you're trying to get someone to pay you for your music, then yeah, probably play it safe.
Can you please stick to the point because you aren't. We aren't talking about what music is, we are simply talking about whether or not there is a point to learning music theory, which there is.

So in thinking that "I've learned (a) music theory, therefore I understand music"
Nobody has said this or implied this, you are just making up stuff to further your non-argument.

You could also try not using a thesaurus to write your sentences, it's not helping you.


Learning music theory gives you a set of tools to use at your disposal if you so choose, nobody is forcing you to follow the rules of music theory, but they are there to help you. Not everything I write follows all the rules of music theory, I'm not saying that's what you have to do. What I'm saying is it is a good tool to have in your toolkit, regardless of what you are trying to do.

Never have I said "knowing music theory makes you understand music" when there is obviously more to that.
 

mikeh-375

old school
The principle of technique (theory) is one of the real prizes for a composer afaik. This is one area where misunderstanding sometimes creeps in - there is a disconnect in some people's minds between the creative process and the artifice, as if one even hinders the other. In actual fact the opposite is true. The artifice is capable of freeing creativity.

Once the principle is learnt, invention and imagination (and constraints too!) are applied to the parameters of the technique, a) in order to search for material b) in order to progress an idea/section and c) to maintain control, cohere the music to make it sound inevitable. Ironically too, if one does constrain the options, often the music is more powerful for it.

In other words the composer uses their artistic sensibilities and proclivities, whims and especially instinct, to dictate what happens in their music by applying these paradigms to the principle - the composer dictates, not vice versa. If one can also be open to serendipity, then there is no limit to what can be achieved. Flexibility is also the key for as new ideas present themselves, they will dictate new technical approaches, especially to the trained ear.

I will add though and have said elsewhere on this forum (and will again no doubt) that my feelings about composers who work on instinct alone is one of great respect and admiration and probably half of the music I love is written in that way. (the last thing I am is a musical snob, I even liked the Norway entry in Eurovision last night:eek:) In this regard @Robg, we completely agree, although in certain genres instinct alone is not enough.
 
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mikeh-375

old school
If it cannot be explained by music theory, then it must not be music, right? It depends on what the individual considers to be musical, rather than what people have traditionally agreed upon. Some people hear songs in the wind, where others just hear noise.

It's about consciousness and the perception of vibrations, arbitrarily, as "music" and how music theory can (not saying it does, but it can) instill a sense of "tunnel vision" regarding what music is and isn't.
Wrong on the question above HalfW. Who in their right mind thinks like that?..not me.
I agree that technique can instill a sense of tunnel vision, but only to someone who fails to see the real purpose of it as it relates to creativity. Ironically, the "consciousness and perception of vibrations" you speak of is heightened and enhanced musically speaking, with the correct application of technique.
 
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GtrString

Active Member
Theory in the sense that it is a set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based, is indispensable. It is also easier to break out of the box, because you know what the box is. You can make decisions a lot faster, and help you find direction and progress in your work.

It can make you a composer with good understanding, and make work a lot easier for you, but it doesn’t make you a “good” composer by default. The dark 1% side of theory is that you just follow “rules”, and become narrow minded and boring. But don’t elevate that 1% to mean everything, you’ll be missing the train.

If you have total control, it means that you are trying to play it safe, and not pushing boundaries like artists are supposed to do. Theory should rather be used to help you push boundaries.. it is the principles of musical syntax and semantics, but language keeps evolving and extend those rules.. same with theory.
 

ism

Senior Member
Well some people are clearly arguing about that, but some are also just simply stating "theory can hurt some people" which is just not true. If it is "hurting" their creative process then they are just simply doing it wrong...
And if they’re doing it wrong, if it’s been taught badly and internalized, then it’s hurting their creative process.

My point is that while sweeping statements that theory hurts creativity are wrong, we can still admit the possibility that some people have had bad experiences with theory.
 

Parsifal666

I don't even own a DAW, I'm just a troll.
It can also be helpful when you're struggling for ideas. For instance, last year I just sat down and started drawing out a twelve tone exercise, strictly abiding by the rules of that compositional technique. The beginning came out real nice and I kept that, however as I kept writing I began not liking some of what I heard...so, I abandoned that compositional model and instead took the composition to natural minor and finished with that.

Had I not known that (and other) compositional models, I might have been where I imagine some resoundingly-theoryless composers get: just shooting into the wind, and that can take forever to base something substantial on. Reverse compositional engineering can take up a lot of time, and composition itself is an essentially lonely, time-consuming process to begin with.

But hey, I must reiterate that the theoryless have been guilty of making terrific music, right off the top of my head the Beatles (though, to be fair they had a supremely knowledgeable producer in George Martin who probably acted as copy editor and even ghostwriter at times to their ideas...of course, even the fact that they cooked up those ideas on their own remains mind-blowing to this very day imo). Then there are the theoryless instrumentalists like Hendrix...inspiring awe to this very day.
 

dtcomposer

Active Member
I've kind of skimmed this conversation and I think one thing that is missing is recognizing the fallacy of assuming that theory means 1st or 2nd year common practice theory. I mean yeah learning the most basic elements of theory and only using those might feel restrictive. But there's a reason for that. They are general building blocks for tonal music in a pretty common style. But these building blocks are such a tiny drop in the bucket of what even common practice theory is.

I'm very confident that anything a trained or non-trained (in the sense of having a formal music theory training or equivalent experience) composer could dream up has already been explored, analyzed, and written about as of 2019. At a certain point theory just becomes an exploration of how composers are achieving certain sounds. That is a wide umbrella that takes non functional harmony, formal concerns and myriad other elements into account. Take a peek at any kind of 20th century theory book and you will find as much non-function and rule-breaking as you desire. There are no rules at a certain point, just composers with lots of knowledge making intelligent choices while trying to explore new (or even familiar) musical ground.

Understanding that is fundamental to being able to reproduce or build off of those ideas. With enough knowledge you get a better understanding of even your own music. For instance when you write something really interesting and you can dig into it with a theoretical understanding and be able to reproduce it or expand on it you become a much more agile and efficient composer. Instead of just hoping that you stumble into it again you can know how you did it and add that technique to your toolset. Understanding how others have done similar things (because you are likely not reinventing the wheel) can also give you perspective about how really talented people traversed similar musical ground. Maybe they did it better than you did. Maybe they have thought about options you haven't considered.

Anyway my TLDR is that theory isn't diatonic chords and 18th century polyphony. Those are often useful things to know, but they are similar to learning some best practices for EQ or reverb in a general sense. There are unlimited options and techniques to learn even though it is very useful to know the basics in many circumstances.
 

angeruroth

Active Member
Fwiw, my 2c:
Theory do constrain you... until you reach some kind of breaking point. Then it allows you to express yourself in different, better or at least commonly accepted ways.
First you are 100% free, but you fail big time when trying some not so obvious things. Then you feel limited 'cause you're trying to match what you do with what you learn, and some good ideas just don't follow the rules you know. And then, as your knowledge grows, you find ways to marry both worlds.

The hard part is reaching that breaking point.
The good part is when you discover how to follow or ignore what you've learned.
The sad part is when you realize that you've forgotten how to do some things, following theory or not.
And the happy part is when you realize that most times it doesn't matter how you achieve this or that if it's what you wanted to achieve.

Just my humble opinion.
 
I’ve been reading Mastery by Robert Greene lately and it’s really solidified a lot of things for me. Learning theory, harmony, orchestration, counterpoint etc. basically ‘craft’ is vital when you’re in your formative years at a particular vocation.

He makes the case that you need to learn all of the rules of the vocation before you can go out on your own with your own ideas. Basically the first 10 years (10,000 hours of deliberate practice-your apprenticeship) of composing (or anything really) need to be spent learning as much as you can from the giants that stood before you. After that then you know the ‘rules’ and their limitations and can create new approaches.
 

Fang

New Member
I actually think trying to unlearn something can be harder than learning something. Knowledge can be restraining in the way that it closes your mind, where the ability to make great music lies in having an open mind.
 

Parsifal666

I don't even own a DAW, I'm just a troll.
I actually think trying to unlearn something can be harder than learning something. Knowledge can be restraining in the way that it closes your mind, where the ability to make great music lies in having an open mind.

Yeah, whenever I read this it makes me cackle like a hyena;

a) because it's usually a newb (no offense to newbs) and

b) because it's an example of someone who doesn't know anything about music and has no plans to.

Tell Beethoven, John Williams, Alfred Newman, Wagner, Mozart, Haydn, Scriabin, Schoenberg, Bartok, the Bachs, Mahler, Bruckner, DeBussy....dozens more composers considered the greatest in all history that. They all knew theory inside and out. Why would anyone listen to that sentiment from you and discard the facts?

Seriously consider dropping that little axiom if you actually plan on doing something in music, my friend.

All that said, I do think being overly concerned about theory and thereby letting it get in your way is possible (to set the record completely straight).
 
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