Music Theory: It Won’t Kill Your Music

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 6 min.

music_theory1From time to time I find myself in a conversation with a musician who says something to the effect of, “I’m not interested in learning music theory because it would ruin my music; I believe that music should just come from the soul.” This idea is not an invalid one per se (provided we take “soul” as a metaphor), but in most contexts it doesn’t hold water.

One of my biggest problems with this view is that in every case I can think of, the musician in question has a vast pantheon of musical idols who knew theory. It’s incongruous to say that music theory inherently ruins music while being a fan of Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, The Beatles (at least the contributions of George Martin and, later, Paul McCartney), Randy Rhoads (and many other metal guitarists), Frank Zappa, and countless others (you know, like the entire realm of classical music).

When challenged, some musicians will say that learning some theory is ok, but learning too much is where ruination comes in. I have a problem with this is well, not because the only way to measure “too much” is to pinpoint when a musician becomes less good (so, any theory-extensive person who makes good music cannot have learned “too much”), but because the person saying this always seems to be drawing an arbitrary line right at the edge of the limits of their own knowledge. My response to this is to ask if they know what a “C” chord is, or the note names of the strings on the guitar they play. Where is the “too far” line exactly? It’s ok to know 7th chords, but 9th chords, well, now the creative process has been spoiled?

randy_rhoadsOf course, the limits of a person’s knowledge correspond to the limits of his or her interest, which is fine. What I don’t like is the insinuation that if someone has a greater interest in theory than s/he does, it must mean that the theory-interested person is not creative. In other words, I don’t like being characterized as some kind of unfeeling, computerized musician just because I happen to have an interest in music that extends beyond the  actual sound and emotional impact of it. There are also those whose interest in theory goes well beyond mine. I don’t fault them for that, nor would I expect to be faulted by them for the limits of my own interest. In the end, I either like someone’s music or I don’t. Their knowledge of (Western, Eastern, or whatever kind of) theory – or the extent to which they apply that knowledge during the creative process – is irrelevant to me.

To be clear, I have studied theory obsessively, especially when I was a teenager (it was a good way to help manifest into the world the complex of new sounds in my head), but I don’t consciously use or think of theory when I make music. There are times when it does come in handy, but in the creative moment, I’m just listening.

Here I should point out some examples of people for whom theory was not so useful. A handful spring to mind:

Erik Satie claimed that studying counterpoint in Italy later in life ruined his originality (note that he was already musically educated, but had holes by some standards). What ruined him wasn’t learning counterpoint, however, but was that erik_satiehe had studied it in the most disciplined environment imaginable, and in which exercise after exercise ingrained into Satie a certain way of thinking. In essence, his nature was transformed from an original one to a manufactured one. There is also the possibility that Satie was making an illusory correlation; that is, perhaps the reason he went to study counterpoint is that he was out of ideas, and the reliance he handed to this newly formed mastery did not help renew his creative energies. Also, this was 1905, a time when artists were beginning to reject the Romanticism of the 19th century, which also contributed to his desire to effect a change in direction (or to deny his seemingly inherent Romantic nature; he wanted developmental clarity now, not harmonic splashes of impressions). Whatever the case, I’ve always been against the idea of doing extensive imitative exercises as a way of teaching composition, but I’m all for the teaching of composition itself. So, this is a pedagogical issue, not an issue of content.

Another example is Django Reinhardt, who didn’t know chord names, was basically illiterate, and seemed to have been born with a fully developed musical sensibility. I don’t think theory could have chained down his independent spirit, but it also probably wouldn’t have lifted him much higher either (he also was known to have composed at least a few orchestral works, one of which appeared on a program with a work by Maurice Ravel, and reportedly rivaled that composer’s work in quality; it may have been an organ composition, come to think of it… maybe an interested person will look this up and let us know).

Thom York of Radiohead also comes to mind, whom I recall saying that he thought about learning to “read music” (perhaps an endearingly naïve metonym for “music theory”), but his band-mates, who all do read, were against the idea because it might damage the band dynamic. Perhaps they’re right, since they are working as a whole, the parts of which each contribute some special value. But I bet if York ever ends up going totally solo he’ll start learning more about the inner workings of music (I also bet that by “band” York especially meant “Jonny Greenwood”).

shenker_analysis1We see then that there are plenty of musicians who don’t need to study theory in order to engage in their creative project, nor will it magically instill creativity. On the flipside, however, there’s at least one musician whose music I love but I think would have benefited from some theory (due to his claims of being in a musical rut): Kurt Cobain.

Another thing going on here is that I don’t relate to how someone can be passionately interested in doing something while denying the value of studying certain areas pertaining to doing that thing. It’s acceptable for (and often expected of) photographers, painters, actors, ceramists, sculptors, and poets to fully explore the technical aspects of their art. Why can’t it be acceptable for musicians? The answer can’t be “because of punk,” because the musicians I’ve had these discussions with weren’t punk musicians. Maybe it’s the general anti-intellectual current running through pop culture in the last, I don’t know, 20 years (by the way, in musical terms this trend seems to be reversing as we see Prog-like music on an upswing, thankfully). Maybe it’s simply fear and insecurity. Or could it be just another example of giving special status and applying different standards to the likes of cultural icons so that they’re exempt from the mortal pitfalls of which the rest of us must be wary? When I think of this idea, I feel that deifying people in this way is an attempt to justify the perpetuation of our collectivistic, conformist culture (despite the US being one of the most individualistic cultures on Earth). That’s another topic, though…

So, before I digress, music theory: if you don’t have an interest, that’s fine by me. What’s not fine is being put down for having that interest myself. Especially by someone standing in front of a Miles Davis poster in their own living room, five minutes after telling me about how unsatisfied they are with where they are as a musician. Now as I think about it, I can’t recall an instance when anyone who was excited about the music they were making told me that they thought learning more about some particular aspect of music (i.e., theory) would be their creative ruin.

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13 Replies to “Music Theory: It Won’t Kill Your Music”

  1. Dan: you’ve pretty much nailed it, I think. There’s no denying that for any musician, a knowledge of theory is bound to open new options and multiply the colors in one’s musical palette. Unfortunately, it also provides more rope to hang oneself with, if the availability of resources outstrips one’s imagination and taste. Since that’s exactly what happens so often, it’s surely what some musicians are thinking of when they joke, “I can read a little bit, but not enough to hurt my playing.” Certainly, disparaging other musicians’ knowledge of theory also tends to be a cover-up for one’s own fear, insecurity, and ignorance. But perhaps it’s also a reaction to the arrogant attitudes of some “well-schooled” musicians toward those who are less theoretically inclined. For example, I remember once hearing a Chicago-area jazz guitarist sniff disparagingly: “You realize, of course, that the Beatles were not very good musicians.” I think I know what he meant, but there’s no denying that he also sounded like an asshole saying it in that way. In the end it has to be remembered that knowledge of music theory is no substitute for inspiration or creativity. It’s just a tool that (in the ideal situation) makes it easier for one to transfer sounds from one’s own head into the air via fingers, embochure, voice, computer, or whatever other tools of one’s choice.

  2. Hi Renaldo –

    Yeah, I think one of the worst things to do with theory would be to use it alone as a means of creating, especially if one is second-guessing one’s natural musical vision. 20th cent. composer Paul Hindemith wrote a harmony textbook in which he explained that anyone could learn to compose through imitation, which is the kind of creation he said most students would use theory tools to spend their lives engaged in. It may not be particularly inspiring, but it’s probably honest; I took it as a valid warning to not to confuse a knowledge of harmonic theory with being able to create something unique and beautiful (however one defines such a thing). Actually, I’m not convinced that artistic originality isn’t usually just a failed attempt at imitation.

    Also, you make a good point here: But perhaps it’s also a reaction to the arrogant attitudes of some “well-schooled” musicians toward those who are less theoretically inclined. It’s really lame when theory becomes a badge for insecure musicians to affect an air of superiority.

    The comment you mentioned by the jazz musician makes me want to make a whole list of snobby things I’ve heard jazz musicians/fans say :). I’ve met plenty of nice, humble, open-minded jazz musicians/fans, but I must say, as a group, their snobbery volume beats out any other kind of groups of music people I’ve ever known of (including Wagner fanatics, heh heh… and he was, by accounts, quite a bad musician). The snobbery seems to center on this idea that jazz is improvised, but, I must say, in reality it’s not that hard to sound like you’re improvising jazz. Just as with Hindemith’s warning about theory as a tool for imitation, there are plenty of very straightforward tools (learned step-by-step) that all working jazz musicians understand, making it possible for a group of strangers to get together and sound essentially indistinguishable from most other groups of strangers using those same tools.

    Anyway, I too know what the guy meant about the Beatles not being good musicians, but I think it’s funny that there are so many “bad” musicians making music I love, while many “good” musicians make music that bores me. Obviously there are two connotations here of “good/bad”: the technical and the creative. I’ll take the good kind of the latter any day, and leave the good/bad technical as a property of whatever tools are contributing to the realization of the final (hopefully inspired) creative product. Still, when I look at this way, I can’t help but sympathize with the unsung jazz musician. In that way, maybe the snobbery is a survival tool in an era when the most famous jazz musician is, who, Kenny G, or the generic Hotel Lounge combo? Then again, the Bad Plus are doing well.

  3. Dan,
    I am studing music theory and find it interesting how they can invent different ‘names and labels’ for alternative chords, scales and perhaps rythmes?

    I use to never take time to learn to write because I was always just writing melodies and lyrics with recording equipment.

    I can see how helpful having music & lyrics written and organized before recording. Learning music thoery helps one write and organize music more accuratley.

    Thanks for reeading this,
    Eric Stefani

  4. Hi Dan, I’m 53 and picked up the guitar at 13. I taught my self guitar, piano, bass guitar and drums. I’ve made recording where all instruments were played by me along with the vocals. I must say there is nothing more fulfilling than to understand what it is I am doing when it comes to making music. All the chords and lead progressions might sound great when put together but I want to know what I’m doing. Why do these lead notes fit with these chord progressions?

    I thoroughly believe that the frame of mind reflected in those individuals is, sorry people but, simply immature. To reach the point where one realizes we never stop learning is only the beginning of the maturity. Don’t stifle your creative possibilities people. Understanding music theory may allow one to communicate their ideas intelligently with other musicians. It’s a win-win scenario.

  5. Music is an art there is no right way. you need people inside the box and people outside to keep the cycle. its the way it can be really good at playing classically or any art drawing realistic. and sound amazing or you can be out side the box and do creative and improv type stuff.they work off each other.

  6. I like all these ideas, I been long times thinking about the same questions.
    Nice points :
    “but I think it’s funny that there are so many “bad” musicians making music I love, while many “good” musicians make music that bores me.”

    and :”Music is an art there is no right way”

    Certainly music is an art. But what happens with art? Most of times it gets popular not just because of one single creation but because a whole movement.(marketing?) That means for me that there is a kind of fashion according to the times.

    Music is an art so everything can sound beautiful, right? All depends on what we consider beautiful. However in Photography happens the same, any picture can be good but there are some rules that will help provoke an attraction to the watcher, and why this rules are effective most of the times? This is maybe a bigger question than where the universe ends.

    There is also another idea that came up to my mind. Since I have been learning guitar for one year. I can say that after 1 week I was able to play the pentatonic scale without even knowing any scale yet. So how original is that? I never studied scales before but maybe the fact that pentantonic scale might be heard in a lot of songs helped me feeling appeal for that composition of notes. I mean what is originality?, all we do is use what influenced to create something that we believe is original and pure. But maybe we are just taking a 30% of Rollings 30 %Santana 30% Jimi Hendrix 10% own creativity.

    PD:Sorry for my English not very fluent yet.
    Take care.

  7. Thanks to everyone for taking the time to post here, sorry I didn’t respond sooner.

    Hi Yves, have you heard of the book “This Is Your Brain on Music,” by Daniel Levitin? (I’m assuming you’re a French speaker, in which case the title is: “De la note au cerveau : L’influence de la musique sur le comportement”). It goes into biological reactions to music (through neuroscience). As you point out, it’s a big question, which, like so many when it comes to human experience and behavior, involves looking at nature vs. nurture (color theory is interesting in that way as well… as are aesthetics in general, I think).

    At any rate, music (that is, sound), consists of physical properties, so, there are corresponding physical effects that occur in the brain of the perceiver, some of which might be there in the brain to begin with, others of which might be shaped by sound itself. This book explores that relationship, which is one small aspect of why things sound “good” or “bad” to us (not to mention cultural, social, et al. factors).

    Regarding the pentatonic scale, check out this video of Bobby McFerrin, in which he suggests (and attempts to prove through demonstration) that the scale is innate to all humans:

    Something that has to be remembered here is that our auditory perception is a mechanical process. It’s physical, material, from ear canal to neural pathway. So, whatever doesn’t fit into our perceptual slots (like coins going into a coin-counting machine), doesn’t register, isn’t heard. The questions, especially when considering neuroplasticity and the like and their relationship to human perception (in this case audition), are: how much is the shape of the auditory machine actually shaped by the “coins,” and: how much of that shape is genetically determined? It goes deeper than that, such as the effects of the overtone series on the physical machinery of our ears, etc.

    But these (largely unanswered) questions acount for only a couple of small pieces of a greater puzzle I don’t think we’ll ever put together, not because it’s too “complicated,” but because it is, by its very nature, as elusive as the horizon. It’s fun to think about, though.

  8. I’m a teen, and I obsessed over theory for about a year for the AP course. (This was fairly recent… like I ended the course around a week ago.) Loved every moment of it. I was taking it with kids who, mostly, couldn’t give a damn about theory itself; instead, they were mostly upset at it not being an easy A for them.

    How these kids could utterly reject the very fundamentals of the subject they love so much is beyond me. It’s outrageous, really. It isn’t too hard, if you put your mind to it. That’s like if you have an architect who loves abstract creation, but refuses to learn practical physical properties that complement the field. The only difference between the two, is that a musician can function without theory, whereas an architect doesn’t have that luxury.

    And that’s all it is. A luxury. Theory is a luxury to most musicians, and it has been for quite some time. It became a symbol of obsession and rigidity that was better left alone for good musicianship. It’s a shame, because it’s the opposite…

    Oh well :(

  9. Hi Ash –

    I’m responding late to this, but wanted to thank you for your comments.

    I also often wonder why people who are serious about music would not be passionately interested in learning at least the fundamentals of what we know about the properties of music and sound (such as the implications of the overtone series, expanding one’s harmonic vocabulary, etc.).

    Perhaps one of the problems is the word “theory,” which might give some people the wrong impression of exactly what it is we’re talking about. The truth is that many people who don’t like the idea of theory, in learning chords and such, actually really are exploring music theory.

    At the same time, I can understand why musicians would be wary of anything that implies the application of rules. To study harmonic theory and counterpoint means learning lots and lots of codified rules. Note, too, though, that jazz, pop music, folk varieties, and avant-garde forms also come with foundational rules from which musicians diverge to varying degrees, depending on their sense of adventure and aesthetic appetites.

    I guess in the end we’re all trying to get to a satisfying aesthetic or creative or intellectual or physical experience, and our intuition and circumstances are guiding us inexplicably, hopefully, in that direction.


  10. If you enjoy writing music, a little theory is a useful overview. However for me, there’s an adventure in not knowing the all rules, which leads to inversions of standard chords and not feeling obligated to use prescribed keys to shift to in the bridge, etc. It’s not a justification for ignorance; it’s a creative perspective. After all, an instrument is a tool for self-expression. You can de-tune that thing; you can put paperclips in the strings. So who is supposed to tell you that you can’t do whatever you want with your preference of expressing yourself (misguided or not) ? Also, if you play every day, you are acquainting your ear to the range of sonic possibilities. You *are* absorbing theory through your skin, which is my rather romantic notion of things. If you grew up listening to the scale of Western music or pentatonic, whatever, you’ll probably propagate variations of these “rules” consciously or not. It’s a mistake to argue about this. Btw, I don’t know what you mean about the Beatles benefitting from George Martin and “later” McCartney. McCartney to this day says he doesn’t want to know the rules because he doesn’t want to fall into predictable patterns.

  11. I do agree that too much theory ruins the music flow to play at the right beat the right variation reading music. To read music and play is very difficult since you have to strain a lot keeping the scroll and the instrument right in pace of fingering especial on the string instruments like the violin and the guitar and also the organ when you get into the higher octave to progress and give special effects. But we should know the theory on chord relationship why we use a particular type of cord and play it if your ear says it sounds good with the note you sing. Thanks is all I have to say. I know the theory but I play any song by listening to the record several time and getting it by hart fixed into my head and ears.

  12. Dan,
    I’m on the flipside. I’ve been a “musician” my whole life, took piano lessons until high school, started playing trumpet from grade 9 all the way through grade 12+. I still play in church bands occasionally. I’m starting to pick up the Ukulele and some other stringed instruments, however without the theory. I need that theory. I’ve always wanted to write my own music and can’t seem to find any creativity, however I feel in order to get a creative start, I need to understand the fundamentals of music theory. I have retained a little bit of it since piano lessons, however, my interest has peaked in the past little while. I completely agree with you, and while I have a good ear, and can mimic almost any music just by listening to it (with a little time and practice) I WANT to understand WHY. I listen to the greats: Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. and I can’t help thinking how wonderful it is, so mathematical, but also so creative and emotional.

    I honestly think I was born in the wrong era…

  13. All those jazz musicians you named began music organically, trained by ear or by prior skilled musicians.

    They later learned a varying degree of music theory, largely to see what’s out there, typically later in life after already being experienced, accomplished musicians.

    They also didn’t lean on it so heavily the way many among the more technical musicians of European classical music background did.

    And jazz music itself certainly wasn’t born through use ans adoption of music theory, even if much of jazz is what’s covered and encapsulated in technical terms as music theory.

    The very heartbeat of jazz (and all music born from African-American music culture) is improvisation and a sense of passing along musical roots through a kind of fraternity or apprenticeship.

    It wasn’t until others came along did jazz become analytical and theoretical, especially during the mid-1950s and early 1960s when jazz became the theme of the college-educated intellectual.

    Some would say, when jazz culture started to lose its organic way for the more “artsy,” syncretized vibe.

    And I’m not saying that music theory is the death of creativity, either. There’s merit to at least hearing someone out on the theory. You don’t have to abide by what you formally “learn” (though, “unhearing” it all is hard).

    But all of formal music theory copies its notes and fathers from someone’s given music history and culture that people elsewhere made without theory, birthed more organically, traditionally, emotionally, and communally–without heavy technicalization.

    Or, as we say in black American Vernacular: Soulfully.

    Miles and Duke might’ve picked up the theory, but that inimitable element to their music didn’t come from music theory. It came from, well, their own roots.

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