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Topic: Your thoughts on theory and your music

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  1. #1

    Post Your thoughts on theory and your music

    Composers,

    I am doing some writing on the subject of music composition, and would like to hear some of your thoughts on theory, its place in modern writing, and in particular its place in your own writing.

    I would appreciate you answering one or more of the following questions:

    1. Can having a solid knowledge of theory be a hindrance to creativity? If so, how?
    2. Can following proven practices of voice-leading, harmony, etc be seen as a crutch? Can purposefully ignoring them also be a crutch?
    3. Would it be possible to ignore what theory you know when you write?
    4. When you write, how conscious are you of how deeply your music is steeped in tradition?
    5. Do you ever worry about being writing music that is too tonal, or not tonal enough?

    Thank you in advance for your response.

    Edit:
    I find it is necessary to point out the following:

    I am not talking about the relative merits of learning theory, or about those who chose not to learn it. I have a very strong knowledge of theory, and am always interested in going deeper. The questions have only to do with those who DO know theory, and who feel, if only on rare occasions, so engrossed in thought over it that it might throw up a writer's block, or steer them out of interesting compositional territory.
    - Jamie Kowalski

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

  2. #2

    Re: Your thoughts on theory and your music

    1. Answer: I don't believe a solid knowledge of music theory would ever be a hindrance to creativity. In my opinion, every bit of knowledge on the subject can be helpful in justifying "voice leading" and "harmonic progression." Also, in the doubling of voices in large, orchestral arrangements.

    On the other hand, if one's mind is so disciplined in traditional theory that it affects the writing process, because the creator doesn't WANT to betray his original music theory traditions, then I would say too much theoritical knowledge could stand in the way of a "newer" approach to music composition.

    I think every composer should try for a substantial foundation in "voice leading techniques," "harmonic progression," and, most of all, skill in "modulation" which gives him the ability to move, smoothly, to any desired key. If his music is atonal, this is not as much of a disadvantage, but modulation is a big asset and should be studied anyway.
    Jack Cannon--MacBook Pro (2015, 13") GPO4/5, JABB3, Auth. STEINWAY, YAMAHA CFX, Gofriller CELLO, Stradivari VIOLIN, COMB2, WORLD, HARPS, PIPE ORGANS, FINALE 2014.5, Mac Pro 2.66 GHz CPU, 8 GB RAM, DP 9.5, MOTU Traveler, MOTU Micro Express, MacBook Pro (2012, 13") 2.2 Ghz CPU, 8 GB RAM.

  3. #3

    Re: Your thoughts on theory and your music

    Answer to question 5:

    I do feel that a lot of contemporary composers are affected when they are not comfortable in writing/don't know how to write atonal music. It's only human nature to want to do something (and do it well) that is "now." If one doesn't possess the knowledge in this respect, it is intimidating to the composer.

    I feel that to overcome this malady, one should try to learn as much as he/she can about traditional music theory and then progress to the study of contemporary or atonal music. Studies using 12-tone exercises can be a starting point. Beyond that, let your ears be the judge of what you want to write and what instrumentation you will apply to that written composition.

    With a diligent study approach, any type of theory, new or traditional, can be learned and used as an effective tool to portray what the composer wants to say.

    I might compare this approach to all composers who are "sample instrument challenged" when trying to make a virtual orchestra sound "live." A thorough, disciplined study of audio techniques when using a computer is necessary to try to even come close to what a composer wants his music to sound like. It is too bad that there are not enough outlets to provide this crucial information to those composers that create great compositions only to have their work fail, when converted to audio, because they are not proplerly mixed or don't have the necessary effects applied.
    Jack Cannon--MacBook Pro (2015, 13") GPO4/5, JABB3, Auth. STEINWAY, YAMAHA CFX, Gofriller CELLO, Stradivari VIOLIN, COMB2, WORLD, HARPS, PIPE ORGANS, FINALE 2014.5, Mac Pro 2.66 GHz CPU, 8 GB RAM, DP 9.5, MOTU Traveler, MOTU Micro Express, MacBook Pro (2012, 13") 2.2 Ghz CPU, 8 GB RAM.

  4. #4

    Re: Your thoughts on theory and your music

    Quote Originally Posted by Skysaw
    1. Can having a solid knowledge of theory be a hinderance to creativity? If so, how?
    No. How could it? Tools are tools. More tools means greater means at your disposal.

    Quote Originally Posted by Skysaw
    2. Can following proven practices of voice-leading, harmony, etc be seen as a crutch? Can purposefully ignoring them also be a crutch?
    A crutch is only so when it hinders you. Understanding how something works is the only way to work with it.
    Ignoring tools is not a crutch, it's silly.

    On the other hand, rules of common practice harmony were established to give guidelines to composers and theorists within a specific period of time. We no longer live in that time. Understanding why parallel 5ths are "wrong" in common practice harmony is one step towards understanding the EFFECT of parallel 5ths and how and why they can be used in a different context.


    Quote Originally Posted by Skysaw
    3. Would it be possible to ignore what theory you know when you write?
    No. Once assimilated it is completely inate to your work. It's like saying can I write a book while ignoring what I know of grammar? How can I?

    Quote Originally Posted by Skysaw
    4. When you write, how concious are you of how deeply your music is steeped in tradition?
    Personally, not at all.
    I don't think about how others will perceive my music, I don't analyze what I am writing from a historical perspective.

    Quote Originally Posted by Skysaw
    5. Do you ever worry about being writing music that is too tonal, or not tonal enough?
    At times, yes for the former, and no for the latter.
    I've been through the whole formal training thing, learning serialism, latin squares, alleatoric techniques, set theory, etc..
    I've chosen to go my own way.
    Sometimes, elements of those theories will pop up in my work, rarely in a methodical fashion, generally only if I am aiming for a particular effect.

    This is where knowledge (cf. question 1.) plays its part. The more I know, the better I am equipped to express what it is I wish to express and when I need to.

  5. #5

    Re: Your thoughts on theory and your music

    Hi Jamie,

    I'll give it a shot.

    1. Can having a solid knowledge of theory be a hindrance to creativity? If so, how?

    No. Theory is just a tool. It shouldn't drive the process any more than the kind of saw you have dictates the kind of house you are building. Where things get gray are theories that actually drive the composition, a good example being serialism. There are those that would argue music produced in this fashion is pointless, lacking in any meaning.

    2. Can following proven practices of voice-leading, harmony, etc be seen as a crutch? Can purposefully ignoring them also be a crutch?

    Proven practices are proven for a reason. In many contexts, voice leading is just common sense. Harmony is essentially the well-developed physics of the overtone series. Writing harmonically simply reflects our physical acoustic reality. Purposely ignoring or stretching these elements can certainly be used to produce an effect. But keep in mind, ignoring something is not the same as the ignorance of something.

    3. Would it be possible to ignore what theory you know when you write?

    I ignore it all the time (or at least I don't think consciously about it). But whenever difficulties arise, a quick analysis can certainly help bring the flow back.

    4. When you write, how conscious are you of how deeply your music is steeped in tradition?

    Somewhat. Yet, all music is steeped in tradition to one degree or another. And if one is setting out to replicate the impression of an earlier period, then tradition consciousness has to come to the fore.

    5. Do you ever worry about being writing music that is too tonal, or not tonal enough?

    No. I let the music itself dictate its own level of tonality. All that matters is whether what is to be expressed is best achieved via a strict tonal scheme, a very loose, unstable tonality, or anything in between.

    Let us know how your writing goes.

    Regards,
    Darwin

  6. #6
    Senior Member Leaf's Avatar
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    Re: Your thoughts on theory and your music

    Great idea for a thread!

    I have for many years had music that just suddenly appears in my head, that is sometimes very complex orchestrations. I could be doing almost anything when it would occur, standing on a beach watching the waves, or standing on a busy street corner in center of the city, driving over a railroad crossing or watching passing cars scatter some autumn leaves.

    Having not been formerly or unformerly trained in music, there was really no way for me to ever get this on paper, but now that i have discovered Finale and GPO, I'm learning to read music and to use these tools. I am now just starting into theory.

    Since i have been focused on this study, i find that the music is now no longer just suddenly playing completed symphonies in my head, and not even the partial ones or intros.

    Although this really sux, it's sudden absence didn't start when i began theory, it started when i began just very basic notation, and I'm counting on it to only be a temporary quell. Over all I'm still convinced that acquirring all the knowledge is the best way to get it from my head to paper and to a .aif or .wav.

    I'm hoping to be able to use the theory to better know how to realize this without it dictating any departures, just mainly to keep it crisp and clean and not muddy.

    I have only recently played with something chromatic that seems to blend well with something i had previously kept strictly in a key, but to my ears it does not sound atonal, and i'm probably not even far enough along in that area to know what to comment about it... but i find it interesting and looking forward to reading more of the other comments and perspectives on it.

    David

  7. #7

    Re: Your thoughts on theory and your music

    Jamie, I'll also give it a shot.

    1. Can having a solid knowledge of theory be a hinderance to creativity? If so, how?
    It always depends really. On a personal level, I think that I usually come up with "new" theories and ideas and I don't see myself dependent on any kind of harmony, or style or anything. At least consciously. But I do sense in a way that someone could be too dependant on tehcniques, rather than composition. As my old teacher would say "composers are born, not taught".

    2. Can following proven practices of voice-leading, harmony, etc be seen as a crutch? Can purposefully ignoring them also be a crutch?
    Again it depends. I think that there is tons of music which is based on that techniques and ideas and it is apparent some times that it is used due to lack of other ideas, or even time. Especially in film and TV music, 90% of these are stuffed with such techniques. There simply isn't time to come up with something "better", if I may use the word.

    3. Would it be possible to ignore what theory you know when you write?
    You will need to define theory a bit better now. Because theory means the notes, the intervals, time signatures etc, so no, I can't ignore that. If you are talking about some kind of more contemporary tecnhniques, etc, then yes, I just get ideas and go on with myself and my own style. For better or worst.

    4. When you write, how concious are you of how deeply your music is steeped in tradition?
    I hope it's not steeped in tradition. I don't like tradition, I'm Greek. I don't like to think that my music has greek elements inside. About classical tradition I think it's more apparent, but still I just feel rather diverse as a composer, so... It could simply be that I'm not concious of this of course.

    5. Do you ever worry about being writing music that is too tonal, or not tonal enough?
    Yes

    For my PhD I do try to write in a certain way and I do feel pressured to do so. It is a PhD after all. I just hope that futher on in life I'll be liberated by that. In my other music for computer games or comissions I don't worry at all. If it's C maj, so let it be that.

  8. #8
    Senior Member
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    Re: Your thoughts on theory and your music

    I'll give this a try....

    1. Can having a solid knowledge of theory be a hindrance to creativity? If so, how?

    Quite the opposite in my case.

    I had been writing music for a while and had hit a brick wall. I took a few years off and decided to start over again but with a grounding in theory.

    4 years later and I feel I have only begun my studies, yet I see the musical world opening up in a way I never felt possible. I understand what I hear so much better and my music is, I feel, a greatly improved. The more I learn, the greater freedom I have.

    Funny thing, almost every person I have heard say they don’t want to learn harmony etc. because it will hinder their creativity writes, in my opinion, very, very conservative music. The more you more, the freer you are.


    2. Can following proven practices of voice-leading, harmony, etc be seen as a crutch? Can purposefully ignoring them also be a crutch?

    It can be a crutch if you let it or if you need to have a crutch. It is not out of necessity a crutch.

    3. Would it be possible to ignore what theory you know when you write?

    I think it is possible to just write and not think about it. A lot of composers rely on their ear.

    Of course, what sounds good is usually determined by the theory the composer knows consciously or unconsciously.


    4. When you write, how conscious are you of how deeply your music is steeped in tradition?

    I have been studying the music of specific composers and then write music influenced (though not trying to sound like) these composers. In this case, yes, very much so.

    Occasionally, however, I just write what comes to me. I don’t ignore the past and am often conscious of influences, tough not trying to use them.


    5. Do you ever worry about being writing music that is too tonal, or not tonal enough?
    No. well, not too much. I am still studying tonal music, so I am writing tonal music. Later I will study music that is more atonal and so write more atonal music. When I write for myself, I currently write mostly tonal, but I don’t fret when things get a bit atonal.
    Trent P. McDonald

  9. #9

    Re: Your thoughts on theory and your music

    Some great responses so far! Thank you all, it's very good food for thought.

    Keep it coming!
    - Jamie Kowalski

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

  10. #10

    Re: Your thoughts on theory and your music

    Quote Originally Posted by Skysaw
    1. Can having a solid knowledge of theory be a hinderance to creativity? If so, how?
    Sometimes. Only when this is the leading theme in your life. When you dare to break those walls, you are a renovator. But first you have to have knowledge of what you break down. Just applying a sledge-hammer without knowing what you are doing, gives more trouble. Or.... you must have a very, very good ear to music. Let's say some intuitive knowledge.

    2. Can following proven practices of voice-leading, harmony, etc be seen as a crutch? Can purposefully ignoring them also be a crutch?
    Yes. Following them. As stated before, you have to know what you are ignoring. But never stay with one theory. Do a survey on all possible harmony theories. There are ones you like and ones you dislike. E.g. I hated Stockhausen, but still one can learn a great deal from him.

    3. Would it be possible to ignore what theory you know when you write?
    Never. A man is always the product of his knowledge. Even this plays a role when he ignores anything. You have to know the facts before you can ignore them. Or... and that is evenly true, you must have heard any music before ignoring any rules.


    4. When you write, how concious are you of how deeply your music is steeped in tradition?
    Almost impossible to answer. Then I have to dig up my "brain-database" those deepest thoughts, way back at the very end of the corners. Is this called synapsis, those electronic nerve systems, burried deep down... one tends to forget when growing older?


    5. Do you ever worry about being writing music that is too tonal, or not tonal enough?
    No, not in the least. I don't mind being tonal, atonal as long as it serves my purpose. By the way, who tells me what is tonal or atonal after all. The audience!! The same applies to paint art. They laughed at Salvador Dali until they discoverd that he was really a great painter (and completely nuts at the same time).

    Thank you in advance for your response.
    No thanks, now you know.

    Byebye,

    Raymond - has a very atonal yawn.... at this time of the night.

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