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.
(Full article here.)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.
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?