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  1. Rohann

    Rohann Senior Member

    Feb 2, 2017
    Hi all,

    I posted this on the Redbanned forum and Mike graciously replied, but I'd like to go a bit deeper and clarify my understanding (something I'm not sure he has time for). A little quiet over there at the moment.

    "Hi all,

    Mike mentions (passionately I might add) in the question section of Composition 2 (around 2:01:00 or so) that approaching music from a theory perspective is a bad idea, and theory should be left really to the end.

    I can completely understand why, in a way -- most of my favourite musicians started off writing fantastic music with little to no theory knowledge, instead learning in intuitively (or at least so I argue).

    However, I haven't had this experience myself -- what would be considered useful vs. not useful theory? Starting composing as an adult, I didn't really have the opportunity to jam along to my favourite songs for 15 years prior to starting. Isn't it useful to at least know what key one is in, what makes a minor scale, which notes are in which scales, etc? Not prescriptively, mind you. I found a bit of music theory made the piano make a hell of a lot more sense, and when writing melodies or parts, at least having an idea of what kind of mood I'm going for made writing a lot easier and quicker.

    Similarly, transcribing something and knowing what intervals sounds like, or what a major 7th sounds like has made transcribing a whole lot faster. Similarly, when messing around and trying to find a melody idea, knowing what scale I'm in makes improvising something sound a lot less like hunting and pecking.
    In short, what about theory that simply codifies certain moods or sounds you like? It doesn't mean you work it out on paper beforehand, but more or less acts as a label or starting point for finding a mood. "Oh, I want that really heartbreaking chord sound that I like -- minor chord, add a 9th and a 2nd."
    I'm not really sure how else one would know one's way around a piano, except perhaps by pattern recognition. Patterns work great on guitar for the most part, as it's really easy to, say, play chromatically descending Maj7th chords down the neck (just move the shape), but piano is another story. At least I think so?

    So...where does one draw the line? Sitting down and thinking "I'm going to write in Lydian" may indeed be missing the point, but isn't it useful to think "I'm kind of after that middle eastern vibe (i.e. start with the Arabic scale)" or "I'm sort of after that Japanese folk vibe" and know, at least on a basic/general level, what fits in there?

    I'll be the first to admit that attempting to write prescriptively with theory leads to drivel, and I hate the process, but I've found it useful for codifying what I'm learning.
  2. Replicant

    Replicant Senior Member

    Jul 16, 2016
    Alberta, Canada
    I disagree. Theory is liberating.

    The more you know about theory, the less you'll struggle to write whatever it is you want. Get good enough, and you can compose anything you want without putting much thought into it. Knowing where to start is important, and there is nothing you can do that can't be explained with music theory, so you might as well know it beforehand.

    You'll spend an eternity trying to effectively harmonize your melodies, write counter melodies around it, or write a tune at all; if you want to write something that sounds "X", how will you begin to do that if you don't know why what you're after sounds the way that it does?

    I've never heard anyone who knows theory say they wish that they didn't.
  3. OP

    Rohann Senior Member

    Feb 2, 2017
    He does mention that theory is really useful, but says that he discourages theory for new composers because it often leads people into a false sense of safety of thinking that if one knows theory, one knows composition. He says (and I agree, as far as I can tell) that learning to write is more like learning language as a kid, via transcribing melodies, moods, changes, etc one likes, internalizing them, and only starting to codify and learn more formal structure after the fact, the transcribing process and checking one's accuracy being the main "learning" component (in the same way that a child hears words, tries them, is corrected, and gets a solid basic grasp on how to express his or herself verbally before learning technical grammar). Not sure if that illuminates the concept at all.
    mikeh-375 likes this.
  4. Saxer

    Saxer Senior Member

    Mar 30, 2008
    Children learn differently than adults when it comes to languages. You can hear a difference when adults move to a country with a new language: those who learn the grammar (theory) can speak correctly after a couple of years (just keeping their accent). Those who learn by ear only use wrong grammar all their life.

    Same with musicians: i.e. there are lots of guitar players out there who play pentatonic over every chord and never realize something else could fit better. If they don't know what pentatonic is and what's happening in the chords they just 'play what they feel' and think it's creative.

    Mike is arguing from his standpoint. He grew up with music, had early piano lessons and he is educated in theory. He is talking about key signatures and chords and modulations and notating scores and structure... all things you can't know if you never learned it. That is music theory. If you already learned it you just use it. But you have to have it.

    And there's another standpoint. If you learn by ear only you always use parts of something that has been there before. But if you explore a scale yourself and build your own chords out of it you come across a lot of things you never heard or recognized in other peoples music. It's a process you have to go though yourself. Mike also does this (in one of his lessons using sus4/sus2 chords combining them with different bass notes). That is exploring music theory knowledge in a creative way. You can't do that without knowledge about chords.

    Theoretical thoughts can lead to creativity. Tasks like: "make a melody with two octave jumps and harmonize with sus-chords only" will give other results than noodling on your instrument. It helps to get out of the "no idea" trap.

    Mike is right when he says: you can't get music out of a book. You have to make it. But that's obvious.
    Last edited: Sep 13, 2017 at 11:55 PM
    Rohann, ghandizilla, muk and 3 others like this.
  5. JJP

    JJP I put dots and lines on paper.

    Apr 29, 2008
    Los Angeles
    Saxer's post is excellent.

    Music theory is the grammar of music. Learning grammar will not make you an eloquent speaker. Not learning grammar will greatly hinder your chances of being eloquent.
  6. mikeh-375

    mikeh-375 Senior Member

    Feb 8, 2016
    Jeez, I'll just say read Replicant and Saxer above and add me to that.
    I can accept that theory is not for all and may hinder some natural inclinations, fair enough. But to not start a beginner with theory is missing a golden opportunity for that person. Theory and practical, side by side all the way.
    Rohann likes this.
  7. Dave Connor

    Dave Connor Senior Member

    May 23, 2005
    Los Angeles
    Theory is particularly good for the young. It opens up a new world to them in displaying the individual components that make up the whole of music. It also gives you a vocabulary that you may now employ and experiment with (such as the Major scale degrees; the chords built on them and their extensions.) Learning what a Maj7th chord is was a revelation to me as a young teenager, (as well as ii V I etc.) At that point you're running down the road of music and not stumbling around. The fact that you can hardly name a single great composer without a traditional background in music theory puts a few metric tones on the scales of the question in favor of theory (i.e. getting an education in your chosen field such as science, medicine, physics, music etc., is a vital necessity.)
    Rohann and mikeh-375 like this.
  8. Nick Batzdorf

    Nick Batzdorf Moderator

    Sep 14, 2004
    Los Angeles
    Learning *anything* is good!

    We get these threads from time to time, and - I'm probably repeating myself - I've never heard anyone who's studied theory (or who knows notation, etc.) say they regret it. That's because they understand the value very clearly.

    Confucius: "Wider perspective better than narrower perspective."
    sourcefor, Rohann and Dave Connor like this.
  9. OP

    Rohann Senior Member

    Feb 2, 2017
    Great points all, thanks for the replies. I suppose my question here isn't "no theory" vs "yes theory" but more "when theory" and "how much theory".

    It seems like his perspective is more a matter of "order of operations". He does say that one should be able to write and develop a melody before learning advanced theory because learning B without A is missing the crux of composition, which I can agree with. However, he seems to stress this to the point of saying you should be able to write and connect appropriate "mood" parts at any given moment without learning any theory, and this is something I have a hard time understanding. I can see that if one has been playing for decades -- my favourite "composers" in the world of "band" music (i.e. rock, metal, etc) either didn't learn theory at all or learned it late after already internalizing and being able to play a ton of different songs, and I agree that approaching music writing from a theoretical standpoint, not in a "I need a new idea" kind of way, I've seen Mike do that, but in a large-scale way, is I think perilous and the idea leaves a foul taste in my mouth.
    That said, someone like Nick Johnston (who may well be one of the best improvising guitarists I've ever heard) sure as hell knows his way around a fretboard, but again only learned more advanced/formal theory down the road. Denying its usefulness would be rather silly, but keeping it as an organizational tool seems key -- no one writes a good story by studying grammar, but if one can write a good story, grammar is certainly helpful in refining, dressing and polishing it. I think writing a good story is probably the hardest part, and it really does seem like a large amount of grammar and accompanying "style" is learned by reading a lot.

    I'm trying to consolidate this with the general way he tends to teach his courses, and I can't help but wonder if my conception of basic theory means something else, as he does refer to keys, notes, types of chords, etc. I agree with him in the sense of the "feel" for music being an internal one and language learning requiring immersion (10 years of mandatory academic/"technical" French in gradeschool with zero ability to speak it at the end is testament to this), but basic knowledge of chord structure, notation, keys, etc have made navigating music a whole lot easier.
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2017 at 1:18 PM

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