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Topic: Discussion topic: Theory vs. the ear

  1. #1

    Lightbulb Discussion topic: Theory vs. the ear

    I thought I'd stir the pot here a bit today on a subject that's been rumbling around in my head a lot lately. Below is a quote from the minimalist composer Steve Reich.
    I think people suffer from a misconception, not only about me, but about music theory and its relation to music practice. Whatever music theory you encounter, certainly including the rules of four-part harmony, was written after a style had been worked out by ear, and by a good musical ear. Of course its good for a student to learn the rules of four-part harmony, but with the understanding that they’re just student exercises and that parallel fifths may be perfect in another context. All music theory refers to something that has already happened, but if it is taken as a prescription, or worse as a manifesto, heaven help you. It’s interesting that the music we treasure most of Schoenberg preceded the 12 tone theory. It’s no accident that Op. 11, and “Farben” of the Five Orchestral Pieces Op. 16 (my favorite piece) or Pierrot Lunaire, and other earlier works all keep getting played. They’re “difficult” and they’re dark, but they’re more successful, I believe, than those pieces that came later with the adoption of the 12 tone system.
    (Full article here.)

    I have to say that I'm in full agreement with Reich on this matter. My question to you composers is how does the notion of "theory" affect your music? Are you bound to a system? Do you sweat it out when you really want to include parallel fifths in a piece?

    I've lately been looking at many of my works that I have written over the years, and I noticed a certain common thread that is a bit hard to explain (and which I won't go into detail about here). My more recent works increasingly use this device, and I've never seen it talked about before, so it may or may not be unique to my writing. I've been wondering if there is any value in my trying to codefy some of my own rules for myself, or for anyone else for that matter.

    Or perhaps it is best to just continue to let my ear guide me. After all, the ear is king, and the musical buck stops there.

    What do you think?
    - Jamie Kowalski

    All Hands Music - Kowalski on the web
    The Ear Is Always Correct - Writings on composition

  2. #2

    Cool Re: Discussion topic: Theory vs. the ear

    My personal opinion is based on a long (and probably still going on) evolution of knowledge and experinces, but anyway it's just an opinion:

    - without rules it's nearly impossible to keep your own musical language effective and the style coherent, the amount of instinctive imitation will be frequently too much, and the invention too low and too short. The experience I had with my self, and with my pupils/students is confirming that even the most talented composer is facing incredibly high difficulty during the early stage of pure ear composition and research. After the understanding of the first set of rules, the intelligent and talented composer goes beyond rules and start creating his own method.

    - the question is: why creating rules, instead of following a free flow of sounds and unchained ideas? Because every experienced composer understand how easy and effective is the organization of elements in structures, creating development of basic material, saving time and resources.

    What you really learn during harmony and counterpoint study is not a set of rules: it's the need of selection and organization of material.

    The second milestone in composition study is the analysis: analysing pieces of great Composers you learn how to understand why something works, and something doesn't. Then you learn to operate a kind of auto-analysis during the composition process: you stay fashinated by a chord, a group of notes, a rythmic pattern, a melodic idea...if you write by ear, after transcribing the single short magic moment, you need some more fashination-inspiration to go on, and you get frustrated by the long, frequently unsuccessful research, and the slow progression of the work.

    If you are a composer, you will immediately analyse and de-compose in elements the nice idea, developing it in all dimensions and exploiting the whole potential of every element. You know also what and where to add the background or the support for the idea underlining.

    Composing it's a matter of rational organization of what satisfy our ears. The simple application of rules will never produce new and intersting music, as the simple ear-writing will never produce complex and everlasting masterpieces and big structures.

    As you say, even avoiding academic rules, you feel that a kind of complex and personal set of rules is driving your creativity, and it's the key of your style coherence. You are a composer.

  3. #3

    Re: Discussion topic: Theory vs. the ear

    Cool topic.

    I've been playing and making music for 15 years. I studied classical guitar, but I had developed a good ear from listening to my parents (both professional classical musicians in Germany - lot's of scales and practicing the classics, sitting in the rehearsal hall) and out of sheer laziness, I never really bothered to learn reading music, instead I would learn the guitar compositions from CD's instead. While in a rock band, there was no reading or writing of music, it was all by improvisation, ear and memory (burned in by repetition).

    Now, working on film scores and writing orchestral music, I find that I need to be far more analytical about music... so I've now gone back and found all the 'reasons' why certain things work the way they do by learning theory. But having done it this way (essentially, learning how to speak English before learning to read or write - how it's normally done!) has given me a much more solid and real understanding of what these theories mean. They are now in my 'arsenal' - I can get myself out of difficult situations or come up with sophisticated solutions to problems by modulating, using chord colors, understanding modes/scales, good chord progressions. As well, things happening in a film can be directly translated to music - how do you create tension - how do you set up resolution - how do you create a sense of confusion, or tranquility? The psychological undercurrent of the character's can be wonderfully and subtly expressed if you know the exact ways in which music will function to do this.

    Also, as my knowledge and ability increase, I find that poor 4 part writing and things like unconsciously used parallel 5ths do actually result in music that does not sound as strong; this is to say that the composer is not making decisions, they are simply being careless and/or ignorant. Knowing a few 'rules' (I think of them more as suggestions) can dramatically increase the rate at which you might improve and certainly how consistently you write and express strong musical ideas. Then, you can consciously decide to abandon or distort those rules.

    I guess in music to picture, you start with the film and it's motives first, and then you must decide "How do I make music say that?"... it's a lot easier to make conscious analytical choices if you have a bit of theory in your bag of tricks.



  4. #4

    Re: Discussion topic: Theory vs. the ear

    Great post, Fabio, succinctly put!


  5. #5

    Re: Discussion topic: Theory vs. the ear

    Quote Originally Posted by Skysaw
    I have to say that I'm in full agreement with Reich on this matter. My question to you composers is how does the notion of "theory" affect your music? Are you bound to a system? Do you sweat it out when you really want to include parallel fifths in a piece?
    When I was younger, (before formal study) I played whatever I thought "sounded good"

    I found that knowing "rules" made it easier to find good sounds, but if I choose to break the rules, I go ahead, and no worries. I usually also do so because I really want a certain effect in a certain place...

    I've also been experimenting with a couple of concepts recently, that seem a bit of a cross between instinct and knowledge:

    1 - I try to write without playing it on the keyboard first... writing what I hear in my head instead of what my hands want to play. This has lead to some interesting discoveries (!)
    2 - When writing contrapuntal music, I have become less concerned with where a piece is headed harmonically/chord-progression-wise and more concerned with the sounds of the individual melodies of the counterpoint. This has lead aslo to some interesting sounds.

    If you can codify your process or style in your head, you are definitely coming into your own style, something that will be recognizable to you and to others. Whether writing it down is helpful or not will have to be up to you (!)

    Others might find it helpful, if only for helping them understand the creative process from another composer's point of view.


  6. #6

    Re: Discussion topic: Theory vs. the ear

    From an untrained novice composer, but a long time pianist's perspective - I come up with melodies and such in my head, but to expand upon those, I think is where theory comes in. Just banging around on the keys trying to figure out where to go with the basic theme is usually not very productive. Theory, if nothing else, can give you a jumping off point. Of course, in the end, I will always have to come back to what sounds good to my ears...even though it may not sound good to anybody else.

    Speaking of theory, can't wait until Gary's free online course is available!


  7. #7

    Re: Discussion topic: Theory vs. the ear

    Theory is very useful for building the foundations of your house.
    A house with a level foundation, will probably stay up longer.
    Personally I would advocate the study of theory.

    However, Theory alone, will not help you decide on what curtains will look good in the Front bedroom.

    Much of our notion of good 4 part writing comes from rules derived from Bach. But what hits me most forcefully in his music, is his incredible sense of invention. His harmonic daring. His sublime gift for haunting melody.
    Sadly, the study of theory alone, will not supply these elements.

    I have lived in both Camps of the Theory versus Ear debate.
    I have a had a classical education, including conservatoire training in composition.
    I decided to learn Jazz, the old-fashioned way. By ear.
    I listened to records, tapes, and tried to figure out what people were doing.
    I attended MANY performances, and tried to extract the quintessence, of what worked well live.

    My conclusions. ?

    I learned more about composition from studying scores, than any other method.
    The ears will always have primacy, because our subject is sound.
    So much depends on personal attitude. Form can be a pair of handcuffs to some, or the keys to freedom for others.

    Many beginners mistakenly believe, a study of theory will turn them into a good composer.
    Unfortunately, though I know all the rules of Tennis, I am not as good as Pete Sampras.

    By hook, or by crook, talent will find a way to express itself.
    Dont choose theory or the ear. Choose them both.

    regards Joe

  8. #8

    Re: Discussion topic: Theory vs. the ear

    This topic always intrigues me since we all have our own ways of dealing with our composing processes. I have no training, so the ear rules my world (so to speak, but that's not really true either...). My pieces are already done (full complete pieces in an instant) I just have to "play" them correctly. That's the hardest part - the fingers don't always cooperate. When I think about it or try to change it, I mess things up badly . I think that a musical education may help, but for me, it may hurt as well. I'm not sure.

  9. #9

    Re: Discussion topic: Theory vs. the ear

    Since we are talking art, let's look at it from an artist (painter, sketcher, etc.) You learn the basic so you have a place to start. The painter uses his "eyes" to see what and where he needs to go. He uses his "learned" techniques to get the result his"mind eye" sees. Grandma Moses is an acclaimed artist, but she lacks the technique of let's say a Rubens. But here "mind's eye" sees and produces the art she likes through the techniques she was either taught, or picked up by doing.

    The argument follows into music. Do you train the "ear" to use the techniques you are taught? Or, do the techniques you are taught train the ear to write what it hears? I think it is a combination of the two. Technique (theory and musical study) provide the atmosphere to train the ear to hear and think in a particular direction. Rules are guidelines. Drive any freeway in America, and you can see that fact put in action - Speed Limit 60 - measured speed 70. The guidleline is 60 the need to get to where you are going pushes you past that guideline, within limits determined by the road. Rule: No Parallel 5ths, the ear says, "hey I like it", thus you use parallel 5ths. The more you are trained the easier it is to think "outside the box." The less you are trained the smaller the box. I wonder how many people reading this, got this far? (test tomorrow!)

    I agree with Reich!

  10. #10

    Re: Discussion topic: Theory vs. the ear

    Interesting post, Skysaw! I haven't read everyone's responses yet, because I want to write down my response before I find out that somebody already said it or something...

    I certainly agree with Mr. Reich!

    Just about all the MIDIs on my website (written before I got GPO) were written without studying anything, without knowing an ounce of theory (if theory can be measured in ounces). They were composed completely by ear with the help of a really cheap MIDI keyboard and DirectMusic Producer. After showing them to a friend in high school who was (and still is) a very skilled pianist and a composer, I found that I had actually used triads and inversions of the triads for harmonies, and that one of my chord progressions was a variation on the chord progression Pachelbel uses in his canon. (Forgive my pride in that! )

    However, just because I did not read any books on harmony or study music theory formally doesn't mean that my brain hadn't formed its own rules based on what I had heard before. People sometimes disagree with me on this (I think), but I believe that a brain is perfectly capable of following rules during composition though you may not be able to consciously recognize them or put those rules in words, but your brain recognizes them and uses them when you compose. These "rules" ("rules" probably isn't the best word, though) are formed in a listeners brain by just listening (you see, it's a feedback loop).

    Yet this doesn't mean a composition student should go throw all his music theory books out the window in a wild fit of defenestration. I believe studying theory will still help you to recognize (for lack of a better word) some of the rules (again, for lack of a better word) that you could not get on paper. For example, I may have some brilliant music playing in my head and it sounds beautiful in my head, but I may not be able to get it into DirectMusic Producer or Overture because I can't figure out exactly what the harmony I hear in my head is. By having studied a bit of theory (since I myself am still very far from knowing a lot of theory ), it is much easier for me to recognize that I am hearing something like a simple I-IV-V-I progression.

    I do not believe the essential ingredient to composing music can be taught (at least, not yet, and no time soon, unless we can recognize why exactly the brain likes music in the first place, and I certainly believe there is a reason somewhere in our weird brains), it must be inate in the composer's brain. However, it can be nurtured with theory. A student cannot expect to just read a book on theory and suddenly know how to compose like Mozart (unfortunately). The "ear" (you're not really "composing by ear", you're just using the ear as an input device for your mind, which does the composing ) is the ultimate guide.

    Alright, now I'll go back and read what everyone else said... EDIT: Oh, good, I think most responses just about agree with mine.
    Sean Patrick Hannifin
    My MP3s | My Melody Generator | my album
    "serious music" ... as if the rest of us are just kidding

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