Where to learn music theory and harmony and not getting bored?

Discussion in 'Composition, Orchestration & Technique' started by kessel, May 21, 2019.

  1. Leon Willett

    Leon Willett Active Member

    Apr 14, 2005
    You loose interest... as you should!

    Because you are not interested in that, and therefore shouldn't spend time on it.

    What you are interested in is making the music you want.

    If your music already sounds how you want, you don't need to learn any theory, or to get bored reading about the theory of how to write like Mozart.

    If you feel your music still isn't coming out the way you want, then you need to learn the RIGHT KIND of theory, in order to fix that.

    People are recommending transcribing stuff you love, which can offer some insights.

    But it's hard to derive the hidden rules that are making the piece sound the way that it does, even when you transcribe it, or even have the score itself in your hands.

    Reading a novel -- seeing all the words in front of you, in plain sight -- does not teach you how to write a great novel. Because there are hidden things going on, like character development, plot design, all kinds of stuff... Hence storytelling theory to the rescue.

    Music is the same, there are many things going on that a beginner is unlikely to spot, even when looking at the score itself.

    If you are capable of deriving all the "rules" of the music you love from transcribing it or looking at the score, then awesome!

    Most people (myself included, when I first started looking at scores... wasted many years deriving mistaken assumptions from scores), need help with that. That help is: the right kind of theory.
    Ken Still, kessel, dzilizzi and 3 others like this.
  2. Alexandre

    Alexandre New Member

    Aug 18, 2015
    Most people (myself included, when I first started looking at scores... wasted many years deriving mistaken assumptions from scores), need help with that. That help is: the right kind of theory.[/QUOTE]

    And any suggestions or ideas on how to find the right kind of theory if I may ask?

  3. Leon Willett

    Leon Willett Active Member

    Apr 14, 2005
    I have hesitated to answer this question before on this forum, but here goes.

    A composition course (a theory of how one should approach composing music) must have the following goal 2 goals:

    1. To take you, the composer, to the point that your music sounds exactly the way you want -- that you are your own favourite composer.
    2. That your composing process is easy and reliable. That you can sit down and good stuff happens, every time.

    That is a successful course. A successful theory of composition.

    Before we continue, can we first agree on this? Please pause and think about this. A successful composition course is about you and your music, and has nothing to do with Mozart, Beethoven, or the Pharaoh of Egypt either.

    So how can a course get you to that point of quality and comfort?

    Well, firstly please understand that there are 9 things that are going on in your music that make you either like it or dislike it.

    In order to become your own favourite composer you need to be masterfully, comfortably, happily in control of those 9 things.

    It is the job of theory to give you, firstly, a deep understanding of what those 9 things are... and then a framework within which you can practice and master them. Again: a good piece of music -- a piece of music that fully satisfies you, the composer -- is doing all those 9 things at once.

    Let's look at what those 9 things are. You will need to keep an open mind, as I have had to make up some terms, since traditional theory conflates some things (has the same term for two different ideas) and misses other things entirely, which need a new term.


    Every bunch of pitches your piece uses (every "chord" -- but it doesn't have to be a traditional one), feels a certain way compared to the one before, and the one before that, and so on. Some feel like "home", others feel very "far" from home, some feel in between... yet others point towards a new "home"...

    The way this works is not obvious, and near impossible to derive from looking at a score, in my opinion. We are talking about how your piece feels, emotionally, over the entire harmonic journey it creates. The story of chords.

    Every composer needs to be masterfully and comfortably in control of this aspect, and needs to understand how to craft a satisfying journey -- in any style.


    Every time two instruments play a different note you get a certain flavour, depending on the distance between the two notes. The musical interval. There are bitter ones, sweet ones, cold ones, etc. And when many instruments play at the same time, you get a "soup" of many different interval flavours, all at once.

    Every composer needs to be masterfully and comfortably in control of this soup of flavours, and how it is evolving over time. It's one of the 9 things you like, or dislike, about your music. Beginners make slightly random interval flavours and are numb to the effect it is having on their music, or just don't know how to fix it.

    Every style of music (thriller, magical, classical, trailer this, trailer that, whatever you want) has a preference for certain interval flavour "soups".

    But it goes deeper than that: control over interval flavours happens by being aware of the type of harmonic motion that is happening between the instruments (parallel, contrary, oblique, etc...). Classical music theory gets this one so radically wrong that it's shocking.

    In any case, mastery over the beauty of the intervals in your music is a non-negotiable aspect of your understanding of music.


    This one is a simple one. You can think of contour beauty as melodic beauty, but it is more than that: the rhythmic and pitch "shapes" of all your orchestral elements, including things you think of as "accompaniment" are also included in this.

    It is the management of the shape (rhythm and pitch) each individual orchestral element in your piece.


    Here we are not talking about any individual contour happening in your piece, but the combination of all contours. The "dance" of elements if you will. This includes not only the way the contours play off each other, but also the beauty of the way the elements begin (beauty of entry) and stop (beauty of exit).

    Traditionally this is learned in counterpoint, but all counterpoint courses I have seen completely miss the point, including all famous books on the subject (including Fux). It is about controlling the "dance" of various elements, and how that "dance" is hitting the listener. The combined contours in your piece.

    ...and every composer should be masterfully and comfortably in control of this "dance" of elements. It is one of the 9 things you either like or dislike about your music.


    Poetic character is the reason to chose one instrument (or combination) instead of another. This includes also the specific range on the instrument(s) (or synth -- whatever).

    A melody in could be played by anyone in the orchestra. Play it on a solo french horn, in the middle range, and now it has a noble, proud quality. Play it on 3 trumpets, loudly, in the low range, and now it snarls nastily. Play it softly in celli and basses and now it is brooding and stern.

    You must be happily and comfortably in control not only of the poetic character of each element in your piece -- but also the combination of all poetic characters that are active in each moment of music.

    Noble + soaring + lyrical. Shimmering + mysterious + brooding.

    Combined poetics. Get it?

    Incidentally, beginners look to this aspect of music for deep emotional impact, where they should be looking at number 1 on this list, first. They bring in the loud percussion and brass, but have not travelled harmonically. Like shouting and screaming about a story that has already been told.


    The point of octave doublings. Totally missed by all orchestration books I have ever read, including Rimsky, Adler and Piston. When you double something at the octave, you are making it brighter, or warmer, or deeper, or more present (mid range). It is the orchestration equivalent of an EQ plugin.

    At every moment of your music, there is a certain distribution of pitches going on, provoking a certain EQ signature.

    You either like that signature, or you don't.

    You need to be masterfully, happily, and comfortably in control of this aspect of your music. Typical mistakes here include muddiness where it wasn't intended, or brittleness (brightness without warmth) that wasn't intended.

    7) BALANCE

    The more instruments that play a particular pitch, the fatter it gets. Some instruments are fatter than others. One of the things you, the composer, cares about is how fat or thin each pitch in your piece is. This is one of the points of unison doublings (the other point is combining poetic characters -- number 5 in this list).

    You need to be comfortably and masterfully in control of the fatness of each pitch in your piece. Too thin, or too fat, will both not please you.


    The elements of your piece should sound blended, or separate from each other, according to what you want.

    With bad blend and separation, you will have things disappearing (that you want to be heard), and things sticking out (that you didn't intend).

    Good blend and separation is achieved by managing the combined timbres of the instruments (or synths -- whatever) playing at a given time, their combined contours, and the EQ of the different elements. For example if an element has the same timbre as another, but the contours are very (rhythmically) separate, you will still achieve separation. If the timbres are different, but the contours are identical, you will still achieve blend in most cases. If the timbres and contours are the same, but the EQ is radically different (one is deep, and the other bright, for example), they will still sound separate.

    Getting into the technical part here a little too much perhaps, but the point is, again, that you need to be happily and comfortably in control of this aspect of your music, or you will not be satisfied.


    A subject is a musical idea that, if it came back later, the listener would recognise.

    It is the musical equivalent of a character in a movie.

    Usually, subjects are melodic themes, but they needn't be. Again that definition: a musical idea that, if it came back later, the listener would recognise.

    They can evolve over time, stretching, fragmenting, simplifying, complicating themselves... But not too much, because if they are unrecognisable, then the point was lost.

    Beginners have no subjects, or too many subjects, or don't develop them enough, or develop them too much (unrecognisably)...

    Like main characters in a movie, the subjects of your piece are very important to you -- whether you understand the dynamics of how it happens or not -- and you should be masterfully, comfortably and happily in control of this, as you make a piece of music.

    ...continued below
    Last edited: May 26, 2019
    Smittenden, Dex, Ken Still and 13 others like this.
  4. Leon Willett

    Leon Willett Active Member

    Apr 14, 2005

    Ok now...


    Once the 9 aspects of music have been truly, deeply understood (whether you can see it right now or not, music truly is: a dance of these 9 aspects -- there is no 10th aspect you can find), you need to bring it all together into a composing method that is comfortable and reliable.

    A good composing method keeps those 9 things working perfectly, and is not hard to do, in day to day composing.

    A successful course would cover not only the theory, but also include the final piece of the puzzle: how to face the empty page, and how to face the half-finished piece, and finish it.

    So, to answer your question: I can say with my hand on my heart that I have never found a course that properly covers these 9 things, which is why I developed my course, which I give over Skype.

    I am not advertising my course -- I am just trying to answer your question honestly.

    As ridiculous as it sounds -- and this is why I have hesitated to answer this question before, here on this forum -- I believe music education needs some kind of revolution, and believe the courses and books that are available today to be shockingly bad at teaching people how to compose music that is true to their heart, including university degrees (I know -- I have one from a British university, totally useless honestly), and famous courses out there (I know because I have taught students with degrees from those places, and they were as bad as I was when I finished University).

    The only point is: you need to get good at the 9 things I have laid out here. Everyone does. They are the 9 aspects of musical beauty, which are absolutes. They will never change, no matter how many centuries go by, or whether you make electronic music, or pop or are composing an orchestral symphony.
    Last edited: May 26, 2019
  5. Alexandre

    Alexandre New Member

    Aug 18, 2015
    OMG! Thanks a lot for such a well detailed answer! Very interesting and I love ( and identify) with your stance on Musical education in spite of the fact that i know so little...I certainly will keep you in mind for some eventual courses when the time comes!
    Leon Willett likes this.
  6. Dave Connor

    Dave Connor Senior Member

    May 23, 2005
    Los Angeles
    In his opening sentence he talks about the Beatles song Something released in 1969 on the White Album. That’s like teaching rocket science and starting off with the first Moon Landing in 1972.
    dzilizzi and ed buller like this.
  7. borisb2

    borisb2 Member

    Sep 6, 2018
    A masterpiece in entertaining theory (chromatisicm/ambiguity) by Leonard Bernstein:
    Vik likes this.
  8. mikeh-375

    mikeh-375 old school

    Feb 8, 2016
    ... 'Something' was on the Abbey Road album...:whistling:
    Alexandre likes this.
  9. jamwerks

    jamwerks Senior Member

    Mar 21, 2010
    After 2 minutes of Beethoven, or (pick your great composer), you don't have goosebumps and recognize those are the same chord progressions you hear elsewhere and want to know, then I can't help but think that you've probably chosen the wrong profession?...
  10. OP

    kessel Member

    Nov 25, 2018
    Yes, I have indeed chosen the wrong profession as I'm not a musician but a software developer, unfortunately not everyone can choose the thing he/she most like in life as a profession, but that's another subject... if you like music as passionate as I do you'll come to a point that you'll pick up your favorite artists by far more things than just using the "same" chord progression as Beethoven or Mozart, otherwise it wouldn't make any sense to make more music at all, let's just listen to the good old classics and get rid of everything that came after 1900?

    That's exactly the point. I feel like I'm very near to become my own favorite composer but still not completely there and as you said, I think there are some theory and harmonic rules that should be the right ones for me to learn.

    By doing what you recommend I could actually save a lot of time and I really thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience here and for your two elaborated posts on that, I'm going to read them carefully now to really understand what you describe because it sounds a lot like the information I need and the point I aim to reach to improve my musical writing skills. Thanks a lot for your words and the effort of sharing your knowledge with us and putting it into words :)
  11. Dave Connor

    Dave Connor Senior Member

    May 23, 2005
    Los Angeles
    Yes that was my point - wrong album - wrong year. (i.e. Wrong.) Not a good start from a teacher.
  12. Nick Batzdorf

    Nick Batzdorf Moderator

    Sep 14, 2004
    Los Angeles
    Thanks, will watch when I get a chance.
    borisb2 likes this.
  13. MartinH.

    MartinH. Senior Member

    Jun 16, 2018
    @Leon Willett: Thanks so much for that AAA+++ post! Saved, bookmarked, and I know I'll need to come back to it a couple of times to remind myself!
    I'll use these 9 aspects to analyze the music that I like and will try to think about them more consciously when I compose something.
    kessel and Leon Willett like this.
  14. mikeh-375

    mikeh-375 old school

    Feb 8, 2016
    Ahhh sorry Dave...you know I thought that too, but as I hadn't read or heard whatever was being talked about, I thought I'd better stay shtum. I missed your irony..nice one.
    Dave Connor likes this.
  15. Dave Connor

    Dave Connor Senior Member

    May 23, 2005
    Los Angeles
    On no worries at all Mike. Let this be the biggest issue either you or I have to deal with for the next year! It’s all good.
    mikeh-375 and MartinH. like this.
  16. Leon Willett

    Leon Willett Active Member

    Apr 14, 2005
    Please do man! Those 9 aspects are not rules -- they are things that any listener needs to be going well before they can enjoy the music they are hearing (and that includes the composer making the music too, of course!).

    If any one of the 9 pillars is not going well, you won't like the music -- at least not fully.

    I wrote my long post in the hopes of raising awareness about those 9 aspects (some of them are not obvious!). My post describes them, but can't really fully describe the consequences of each one, or how to master them (I'd have to type out my whole course!). In any case, you are aware of them now -- please think about the implications of each one!
    kessel, Alexandre and MartinH. like this.
  17. Wolfie2112

    Wolfie2112 Senior Member

    Try what I did...enrol in formal piano lessons. With the right teacher, you will not only learn to play piano (properly), but learn a s##tload about theory in the process. This has taken my writing to a whole new level, the inspiration is amazing. And if you go that route, search for the perfect teacher for your style, and have them hold you accountable.
    Last edited: May 28, 2019
    Alexandre, dzilizzi and kessel like this.
  18. Garry

    Garry Senior Member

    Dec 28, 2017
    Rick Beato has definitely got the message! After comments here (not sure he's reading them!) about how sometimes his presentations are impenetrable to those who don't already have advanced music theory knowledge, in the last couple of weeks he's released TWO videos on basic theory - the first one I'd mentioned earlier in the thread, and is here, and in the last hour he's just released a 2nd on chord construction here. It's basic stuff, very unusual for Rick Beato, but may be helpful for those new to the topics.
    Wally Garten, kessel and Alexandre like this.
  19. OP

    kessel Member

    Nov 25, 2018
    Nice to see that, he says something about being teaching on a conference Italy in the second video so I guess that's the reason why he's doing videos about theory basics now but anyways very welcome, I really like his channel and it's definitely a good point for me to start watching these videos and see I can get to other ones in his channel after watching them. Thanks for sharing the links
    Garry likes this.
  20. benatural

    benatural Active Member

    Dec 29, 2014
    In my experience, learning theory and harmony can be slow and boring at times, especially at first. Memorizing key signatures, the circle of fifths, scales, sight singing, figured bass, voice leading, etc can feel and rigid and restrictive, and disconnected from actual music making initially.

    You have to push through and go through the motions. Trust the process and go with it. Memorize those fundenentals, and know it'll likely be 4-5 years before you start to feel like you know how to apply all that knowledge. It gets better over time though! Soon it starts to feel like puzzle solving which can be fun in and of itself, and eventually you learn to use the tools you've obtained in ways that suit your own creative needs. In my opinion, it's totally worth it.

    If you're able to, consider taking college courses. A guided approach works well for some, and can make the process feel less daunting.
    Alexandre, dzilizzi and kessel like this.

Share This Page