Make Better Music 72 : Music Theory

A forbidding, unscalable mountain - complex and and obscure?

make better music. Trebuchet magazine
make better music. Trebuchet magazine

Music theory can be a really divisive issue amongst electronic musicians.

Some are rabidly against it, feeling that it robs them of their creative freedom and that learning about it will stifle their ability to think outside those rules.  Other musicians feel like they need to learn it, but that it’s a forbidding, unscalable mountain – complex and and obscure.

The truth is actually very different, and I think the problem of how theory is perceived is down to a couple of factors. The most important is possibly its connection to classical music – which lends an air of stuffiness and formality to it. Other reasons might be bad experiences of music lessons at school, and even the fact that music software allows music making to be possible for almost anyone.

Is theory redundant for anyone outside the world of orchestral music?

I’d argue no, but that it depends heavily on the individual. Theory has a lot to offer the modern electronic musician – but there are two main problems:

.  Most people don’t really understand what it is.
Electronic music (for the most part) is not based on traditional music theory ideas.

The first problem is easy to solve, a clear explanation will do it: music theory is way of labelling sounds and ideas in a way that highlights the relationships between them.

there are no absolute rules

in music at all. That would be

silly and…unmusical

There is a common misconception that theory is all about rules and regulations, and that learning it will convert you into a zombie who can only obey these sacred rules. Sadly a handful of people actually do feel like this, and I’d ask them if having learned English means they can’t make up a nonsense word or sentence now because of all those pesky rules of language they have to obey!

For the most part though it’s an unfounded myth, and probably comes from the fact that there are “rules” for writing (and performing) certain kinds of music – but there are no absolute rules in music at all. That would be silly and…unmusical.

The second problem is trickier, as theory essentially is traditional theory – anything outside of the traditional “classical” version of music theory is not formally organised anywhere. It’s just been people striking out on their own. And even this work does not necessarily benefit the electronic musicians working today.

A single Make Better Music article isn’t enough to explain music theory, although a much-needed stripping away of the old-fashioned and superfluous elements of traditional theory (and re-presenting the evergreen ideas in a practical and modern way) is an underestimated need for musicians worldwide. (Interested readers might try my own site : http://musictheoryisyourfriend.com/ , where I go into more detail.)

Where more than one musician play together, eventually they will need a way to communicate musical ideas to each other. Humming gets old pretty fast! Add more musicians, and the need for a commonly-understood means of communication becomes clear. Even for just one musician, anything beyond the simplest of melodies requires some way of organising and storing its various elements. And however you write them down – the ideas are still your own!

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About Dave Graham 70 Articles
David Learnt composition (harmony, counterpoint and orchestration) to degree level through studying Schoenbergs Fundamentals of Musical Composition, the classic text on twentieth century harmony by Vincent Persichetti, Henry Mancini's Sounds and Scores, Rimsky-Korsakov's excellent books on orchestration as well as studying any scores that intrigued me. He is a founder member of two bands, avant pop duo Cnut, and orchestral doombience outfit Regolith, and have performed across Europe with them.

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