Sunday, February 5, 2012

How much theory do you have to know in order to be a composer?

This is a question that I am sometimes asked, and it came up recently in a conversation I had with Karim Al-Zand, the visiting composer for our recent (January 26-28, 2012) Newfound Music Festival.  I won't attempt to quote him from memory, but my sense of the conversation is that he felt that it was very helpful for a composer to have good music theory skills, and I happen to agree, so I thought I would explain my reasons.

What is meant by Music Theory?

"Music theory" may refer to any of the following:
  • Analysis (structural, melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, Schenkerian, set theory, phenomenological, psychoacoustic, stylistic);
  • Orchestration and instrumentation;
  • Under "music theory," our university also lists rudiments, aural skills (ear-training), keyboard harmony,  and jazz theory;
  • Harmony and counterpoint (renaissance counterpoint, baroque counterpoint, common-practice harmony, late-romantic harmony, 20th-century techniques).
By way of comparison, "art theories" cover a variety of topics such as theories of the nature, functions, and effects of art,  mimetic theories, procedural theories (abstraction, expressionism, formalismminimalism, naturalism, romanticism, symbolism), expressive theories, formalist theories, processional theories, aestheticism, theories of organic unity, and pragmatism.  Click this link to read more, or do a Google search of "art theory" and browse some of the results.

"Theory," when applied to music, often has a very different meaning than when applied to art!

Breaking it down…

With the understanding that "music theory" refers to a wide variety of topics as listed above, how much theory do you have to know to be a composer?

Let's break it down by topic within the wider category of music theory:

Analysis is an attempt to understand how music works using a variety of methodologies.  Analytical skills are important for composers on at least four levels:
  1. Discovering how other composers' music works is one of the best teaching tools there is for the development of a composer;
  2. Analysis of others' works can stimulate the creative process by giving you ideas of things to try in your compositions; 
  3. Analytical skills are essential in achieving a deeper understanding of your own music — this understanding can help you make the most out of your musical materials, and can help get you unstuck when you feel as though you've run into a compositional brick wall; and
  4. It is easy to lose perspective while composing, because the experience can be so subjective.  Analysis of one's own music is one method of introducing some semblance of objectivity into the equation.
Orchestration and instrumentation:  Instrumental ranges, the ways in which instruments change tone colour in different registers, how to write idiomatically for different instruments, extended techniques, types of bowing, how different instruments sound in combination with one another, how to create different textures — it's all stuff composers should know.

Rudiments: As the name suggests, this refers to the study of the fundamental aspects of music, such as key signatures, time signatures, scale types, chord types, and accepted notation practices. But many composition students struggle at times with incorrect notation of rests and rhythms, and illogical enharmonic spellings. It's basic, it's boring (to some), but it's essential knowledge for composers.

Aural skills are among the most important skills a composer can have. It is useful to be able to hear an unusual chord, chord progression, tune, rhythm, etc., and to be able to quickly transcribe it, which might spur a creative impulse such as using some aspect of your transcription in your next piece, or to be able to quickly transcribe your complex musical ideas.  This skill is essential when rehearsing your music; if someone plays wrong notes or rhythms, you need to be able to hear this instantly and correct the problem.

Keyboard skills:  Almost every "great" composer that you learn about in music history since the piano's rise in prominence in the late baroque era was regarded as an outstanding keyboard performer.  This suggests that keyboard skills are (or at least were) extremely important and useful for composers, but are they essential?  To answer that, it would be helpful to know why so many great composers were great pianists.  My guess is that there were at least three reasons:
  1. Being a skilled pianist enabled composers to perform their music for others, even if the music was not written for piano, such as a symphony.  Nowadays, you can use computer technology to make approximate realizations of your music for others, but in earlier times, the piano was the best way to do this; and 
  2. Being an accomplished pianist was a great asset in the development of composers because it enabled them to hear realizations of their own compositions long before computer technology existed that could fulfill this role.  
  3. Being a skilled pianist facilitates score study of works by other composers.  Nowadays we can listen to recordings while studying scores, but even so, you discover things by playing (or, in my case, hacking) through a score that you don't necessarily get any other way.
The fact that there are many successful composers in the world today who are not piano virtuosi illustrates that exceptional keyboard skills are no longer essential for composers, although I believe it is very useful for any composer to have some keyboard competency.

Harmony and counterpoint:  In order to become a skilled composer, do you really need to master Bach-style harmony and counterpoint, or renaissance counterpoint, or late-romantic harmony, or many 20th-century techniques?  Some people may tell you that John Cage and Iannis Xenakis didn't know any of this stuff, and they became two of the most important composers of the 20th century!

But how true is it that "they didn't know any of this stuff?"  Wikipedia tells us that Cage had piano lessons as a boy, although he was apparently more interested in sight-reading than developing virtuoso technique (but note that lots of sight-reading is great training for a composer!).  He studied for two years with Arnold Schoenberg (who Cage apparently "worshipped,"), and also with Henry Cowell.  However, Cage claimed to struggle with harmony:

After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, "In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony." I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, "In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall." (Pritchett, James. 1993. The Music of John Cage. Cambridge University Press; p. 260)
Wikipedia tells us that most of Cage's compositions from the 1930s are "highly chromatic and betray Cage's interest in counterpoint."  The importance of structure was stressed to him by at least one of his mentors (Richard Buhlig). Cage drew upon an impressive variety of extra-musical influences, including art, architecture, Zen Buddhism, philosophy, and mathematical formulae. He may not have developed the deep mastery of traditional (i.e., "common-practice period") harmony and counterpoint that we associate with practically all other composers, but he did have some training in these areas with some pretty impressive composer-teachers!

Iannis Xenakis studied architecture and engineering at the National Technical University of Athens, and was subsequently employed at Le Corbusier's architectural studio in Paris, working on a number of projects, perhaps most famously the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair in 1958, completed by Xenakis alone, from a basic sketch by Le Corbusier (Hoffmann, Peter. "Iannis Xenakis", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy).

Phillips Pavillion, Brussels World's Fair (1958), 
bearing an uncanny resemblance to a nun's fancy cornette and habit (below):


But he also had musical training, having studied notation and solfège as a boy, and having sung works by Palestrina, Mozart, and other composers in his school's choir.  [One of the best ways to learn renaissance counterpoint, by the way, is sing Palestrina, so this in itself represents a kind of training.]  While working for Le Corbusier, Xenakis also studied harmony, counterpoint, and composition with a variety of teachers.  However, when he asked Messiaen if he should continue his studies in harmony and counterpoint, Messiaen famously recommended against it, something he apparently did with no other student.
I understood straight away that he was not someone like the others. [...] He is of superior intelligence. [...] I did something horrible which I should do with no other student, for I think one should study harmony and counterpoint. But this was a man so much out of the ordinary that I said... No, you are almost thirty, you have the good fortune of being Greek, of being an architect and having studied special mathematics. Take advantage of these things. Do them in your music. (Matossian, Nouritza. 1986. Xenakis. London: Kahn and Averill; p. 48)
Both Cage and Xenakis had training in harmony and counterpoint, although it was arguably less rigorous than the training received by most composers of classical music, even in the 20th-century.

The fact is that so many composers were well-trained in harmony and counterpoint, even among the avant-garde of the 20th-century, might suggest that these are probably still important skills to master for any composer.

But was this cause or effect?  Did skills learned as students in harmony and counterpoint contribute to composers' later "greatness," or were "great" composers such good musicians, even when they were students, that they naturally did well in these subjects, whether or not they applied this knowledge to their mature compositions?  We can't know for sure of course, but my hunch is that, for most composers, the harmony and counterpoint learned as students probably informed the development of their mature style, and made them better musicians.

If you studied harmony and counterpoint and did not do well, I do not suggest that your future development as a composer is irrevocably compromised, however.

For one thing, you can go back and study this stuff again.  I did poorly on most of my Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto) theory exams until I began my studies in composition, mainly because the material didn't seem relevant to me, and I had no background in classical music.  When I began studying with Dr. Samuel Dolin, he basically said, "harmony and counterpoint are relevant, but you won't know why until you become good at them."  Since he had trained so many good composers before me, I figured he knew what he was talking about, and I dedicated myself to becoming more skillful in these areas.

For another, the fact that at least a few composers without extensive training in harmony and counterpoint went on to do very well for themselves would suggest that this training may not be as vital as was once considered to be the case (and probably still is in music schools and conservatories).

But I still think it's important and useful to become as skilled as possible in harmony and counterpoint because subsequent experiences as a composer have convinced me that Dr. Dolin's advice was 100% right.  And for that I remain forever in his debt.


How much theory do you have to know in order to be a composer?  
  • Think of the many aspects of music theory as a toolkit; the more tools (skills) you have, the better equipped you are to be a composer.
  • It helps to know a lot!


Bekah Simms said...

I find it comforting that you say you did not initially do so well in your theory exams with RCM; I feel like my theory skills are lacking and it sometimes makes it difficult to get what's in my head onto paper (or into binary, as it were.) But, as you say - it doesn't have to mean a permanent handicap!

Elliott Butt said...

I agree with much of this post, especially with the ear training and analysis parts.

Before I even knew if I could, I wanted to compose. That's the reason I came to Music School in the first place. The problem was that I really didn't know what to do. I would hear all these sounds both in the music I listened to and in my own head, but I was never able to actually translate any of that sound into useful information. Say I knew I really wanted a major seventh chord here, or a German +6 chord here, the only tools I would have are my untrained ears trying to decipher these sounds that I want. But with ear training and theory I am now able to identify what those chords sound like, what they look like on paper, how they function, and in turn how to use it in my own composition.

If it wasn't for musical theory, I would not be able to write what I am writing today.

Olivia Budd said...

I think that I could definitely argue both sides of this. Theory and counterpoint knowledge could never be considered a bad thing. Also, as Elliott says, being able to hear a particular sound or feeling and knowing exactly how to get to it, harmonically, is an asset.
However, what are the possibilities for someone who doesn't really have much knowledge of theory. I sometimes feel really out of my depth when I look at theory textbooks, and it can make me feel like giving up. However I think that in composition, just like in most things, it is possible to 'get good' through trial and error. A person could have be a potential musical/compositional prodigy, yet if they never had access to theory lessons or textbooks, does that mean their talent would be worthless?

Jenny Griffioen said...

I agree that a good understanding of theory is incredibly useful in composition. Knowing how music works, why certain things sound "good" while others don't, being able to analyze your own work, having a variety of "tools" to draw from - it's important. I think that you can greatly reduce the amount of trial and error in the compositional process by applying concepts from theory.

This reminds me, too, of having to learn all those scales and arpeggios on piano. I never really saw the use of practicing technique until I started playing more advanced repertoire - Beethoven sonatas and such. Then I gradually came to appreciate how the hours of mundane practice prepared me for this more difficult music. Now I am thankful that my teacher made me do them!

So now I'm finding that the things I've learned in theory classes help in composition, just as practicing basic technical exercises helps in performing real pieces. It may seem somewhat dry at the time, but it really is useful!

Mitchell wxhao said...

I guess I might be one of those people who started composing without any knowledge of theory. And let me just say it's a giant crapshoot in the dark. It was a totally ineffective way of trying to do things. Writing music with zero technique and zero theory knowledge had led me to compose some... interesting things back in the day.

But I also found an online community of young composers and posting music there helped me learn theory on my own. They would talk about concepts, and I'd have to go look up what they were saying on my own just to understand. And then I would try to apply them. Gradually I had become fairly sufficient at basic music theory.

When the time to audition for music school came about, and I had to do my first theory assessment, it turned out that I had been pretty quick to do the test, and theory has remained a strong point.

And now I'm creating music that I never ever thought was possible. There would have been university students on this online community composing music that was somewhat like what I've done this semester and my thoughts were something akin to "You are only 20, how can you be that good?"

And the answer is music theory, despite how difficult I find it to attend the class. It's important.

Aislinn Dicks said...

I think a knowledge of theory is extremely important to develop your skills as a composer. To me, it seems logical due to the reasons you mentioned in your post. Before coming to musical school, I dabbled in composition but it would take me a very long time just to come up with a few bars that I liked. I'd usually sit at a piano and play around until I finally made something that sounded good. I wasn't able to figure out why things didn't sound good, or why progressions didn't seem to work the way I wanted them to.

The ability to analyze your own compositions and "fix" things that you don't like is extremely important, and a skill that is hugely furthered by a knowledge of music theory. The aural aspect of music theory is also extremely important to me in composing. Much of the time I come up with melodies by humming them. Being able to notate something you hear in your head with ease cuts back on the amount of time it takes to write something that you're happy with.

Without abilities in music theory, it seems like composing a single piece could be a never ending venture where it's almost impossible to reach a final product that you're happy with.

Timothy said...

I agree much of what you say Dr. Ross. Music theory is definitely a great asset for composers and I think it is important to have at least a basic understanding of rudiments in order to compose good sounding music. As Aislinn said, being able to realize what sounds "good" is important for any composer, even though it's highly individualized and what sounds "good" or "right" for one composer is not necessarily the same for another.

For me, I did the RCM exams in rudiments, harmony, counterpoint etc. and ear training through practicalk exams, and I felt that the knowledge I gained from learning these aspects of theory really helped me understand the music I played much better. However, I realized that my music theory training was extremely valuble when I beagn to compose more. When I was younger, it would take me a long while to come up with a melody or accompaniment that I was pleased with and they were fairly simple. Now, I feel more confident to compose longer and more complex works, as my musical language has broadened over time. I also feel that my ear training allows me to hear and identify the chords/sonorities that I write, so I can determine whether they will sound good and fit into the framework of my composition.

Timothy Brennan said...

I agree much of what you say Dr. Ross. Music theory is definitely a great asset for composers and I think it is important to have at least a basic understanding of rudiments in order to compose good sounding music. As Aislinn said, being able to realize what sounds "good" is important for any composer, even though it's highly individualized and what sounds "good" or "right" for one composer is not necessarily the same for another.

For me, I did the RCM exams in rudiments, harmony, counterpoint etc. and ear training through practicalk exams, and I felt that the knowledge I gained from learning these aspects of theory really helped me understand the music I played much better. However, I realized that my music theory training was extremely valuble when I beagn to compose more. When I was younger, it would take me a long while to come up with a melody or accompaniment that I was pleased with and they were fairly simple. Now, I feel more confident to compose longer and more complex works, as my musical language has broadened over time. I also feel that my ear training allows me to hear and identify the chords/sonorities that I write, so I can determine whether they will sound good and fit into the framework of my composition.

Aaron Good said...

I really do agree that having a good understanding of theory helps the composition process a lot. It would be the same as an author who didn't understand grammar. Take enough time throwing words together in a sentence and you'll come out with a fine result but the author who understand s language and it's formal structures will have written five books by the time you complete your one sentence by trial and error.

Jennifer Hatcher said...

I sit on both sides of the fence for this discussion post. Having a strong background in theory, understanding what is going on with everything you are writing, being able to explain why you did what you did using musical terms, are all very good assets to have as a composer. On the other hand, I know many amazing composers who have absolutely no background in theory, they just know what sounds "good", not necessarily "why" it sounds good.
When I'm composing music, I often question some of the things I am doing. Would the rules of counterpoint agree with what I just did? If I handed this in as a theory assignment how would my prof grade it? I often feel like the things I learned in five semesters of doing theory have escaped me which leaves me very unsure of what I write, but the one thing that I do know is that I like how it sounds, and others will probably feel the same. Did all good composers start with an abundance of theory knowledge, or was it something they learned as they grew as composers?
Ultimately, understanding why a certain chord works in one place but not in another could help narrow down some ideas that a composer has if the goal is to make the piece sound "good". Is it necessary that the composer understand the theory behind their music to make their compositions sound how they want? Not at all. Will these composers make it past some basic compositions? Potentially not, but on the other hand they may just be the next great thing. There are ways around composing that don't involve siting down with a theory text book - now that books are becoming a thing of the past, composers have the ability to google any theory questions they may have, read the answers they need, and then move on while learning very little theory, but enough to get by.
At the end of the day, there are amazing composers without strong music theory backgrounds, just like there are amazing composers that have years of training. It all depends on the person, and their true ear for music. However, composers without the knowledge of even basic theory are opening themselves up for a lot of constructive criticism from musicians who sit on the other side of the fence; not saying this is a bad thing, but it could take a bit more time to get their piece where they truly want it to be.

Chris Morrison said...

I agree a strong knowledge of musical theory is an essential resource to a composer. It is like the painter with his paints and brushes or the carpenter with his toolkit. Having a strong insight into how music can and does function assists greatly when creating it. It provides an immense number of resources for the composer to draw from. Interestingly, a good friend of mine writes music without any knowledge of music theory. He figures everything out solely through experimentation with no tools to fall back on besides his ear. It leads for very unconventional and highly fascinating and creative compositions. This individual however still feels as though he is lacking vital information for composing without theory knowledge.

Robert Godin said...

Obviously music theory is an asset a composer. It makes our work much quicker and gives us ideas to draw from. Like many have said it can be seen as a tools in a large tool box, or various paint brushes to painters. But I'm always worried that I might get too comfortable with the brush. Could relying too much on theory dampen my creativity? Maybe instead of reaching for another tool I should try to make a new one.

Luke said...

I find music theory knowledge very beneficial to my compositions, and I think some theory knowledge doubles as compositional knowledge. I think if composers are fluent in the language of theory, it becomes a simple task to write music by applying that knowledge. As I do most of my composition in day to day life with a pen and paper, I find it a little daunting to sit in Finale and try and write something meaningful. There are so many buttons and knobs to press, I find it much easier to write without the distractions of technology. Sometimes however, I find something that really works in Finale and run with it. But speaking the language of music theory has benefitted my compositions, looking back on some compositional efforts that I made previous to learning music theory, it became quickly apparent that my new knowledge of theory helped my compositions.

Shawn Bennett said...

Thank you for this fantastic post! Cage and Xennakis are fantastic examples of monster composers who did not display much masterful knowledge of music theory in their compositions. But as you say, they did know some.

Agreeing with the gist of this post, I would say that theory knowledge is second to creative vision. Being original, and dreaming big is the composers greatest ally.

For me personally, I like to use harmony as my element of surprise. To me, harmony is the feeling of music - and changing the harmony changes the feel. When you do something harmonically unexpected, you can change the listeners entire sensation without them even knowing it. I can think of several examples of Debussy using a similar technique to this, and even Tchaikovsky to a certain extent.

But I have recognized this use of my theory knowledge as just one of my compositional tools. At the risk of sounding pompous and over-bearing (trust me, I am aware of my own areas of insufficiency), I would say that this is the idea Dr. Ross is getting at here.

So how much theory do you have to know in order to be a composer? I would say as much as you can. It can't hurt. There's simply no downside to learning as much as you'll use.

André McEvenue said...

I also feel that music theory has helped me develop compositional abilities. At the same time, I think that there are many people who are extremely musically talented and innovative who would not benefit from its study.

Musical structures can be derived from other sources, as we have seen with John Cage, and Ian Xennakis. I would never go so far as to say that the study of music theory is an inhibitor, because I have found it extremely useful, but I also feel that we must be open to different approaches and methods.

In general, I would agree with Dr. Ross. I do believe that for the most part, the study of harmony, and counterpoint, is important.

Josh Penney said...

I agree with a lot of what this article says. Having a greater knowledge in harmony and counterpoint (or just about any music subject) can contribute to a composers "toolkit".

However my caution is often that young composers (or young people in general) often find boundaries by knowledge. They see rules or ways of composing and find it hard to step outside of those boundaries. It is however important for them to step outside these boundaries. That is how music has evolved throughout history, and how the great composers in history and the present have gained recognition.

Again I do agree, a great knowledge of all aspects of music will do nothing but aid a composer in the compositional process, however a composer should have feel the need to push these things to new levels to create new level of interest in their works.

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

This post definitely resonated with me. I actually love theory of all kinds, and I don't consider a thorough knowledge of it to be a creative hindrance, but rather a help! I have often found myself with an idea in my head that I was unable to put to paper because though the sound was clear to me, I did not know what the notes were. As my knowledge of theory has increased, I encounter this less often, since I can use aural training to deduce the notes, or I realize that the sound involves a technique I have studied and can thus write down. For me, music, like writing, is about communication. Writers learn grammar, expand their vocabulary, learn about literary form and figurative devices, and of course they read! All this helps them write more evocatively. I think this translates to music in the same way. I like the toolkit analogy. After all, that is a major part of why I am studying composition: to expand my toolkit!

Flutiano said...

The title of this blog post made me very excited. I agree extremely in the fact that knowing music theory is important for composition. This is something I've believed for many years; it is the main reason that I have written so few compositions (none that I will admit to ownership of).

Reading through other people's comments makes me realize how different people are in that regard. For me, I love theory (and especially counterpoint) and have been interested in composing for a number of years. I used to write down little melodic fragments with the idea that I would do something with them . . . when I had mastered harmony, counterpoint, analysis . . . (I lost that little black book on the bus, and haven't quite forgiven myself).

This post is significant to me for two reasons: it gives me validation for my belief (theory IS important), but it also reminds me of my regret of never having done anything with my little melodic fragments.

Kassandra-Anne Demers said...

Theory is definitely a helpful tool for a composer but I don’t think you necessarily require this knowledge to be a great composer. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that it is advantageous. However, I’ve come across many great musicians who are fabulous players and composers and don’t even know their note names on their instrument or have never had the opportunity to have music lessons. They primarily rely on their ears and musical instincts to express themselves on their desired instrument. Nowadays, there is so much technology available to be able to translate your musical ideas without using standard notation. Most of the naturally skilled musicians I know rely on audio recording software to display their compositional output. I’ve always seen music theory to be a method of music identification or relatable to a language. Just because a musician can’t label a dominant 7th chord doesn’t mean they can’t hear it or can’t express it in their own way.

Perhaps having the music theory skill set might be much more beneficial to write in more complex music genres. However, I don’t believe that it is a must to have these skills to makes you a “better musician.” It may be advantageous but I believe that being a great musician requires so much more then that. I’ve been on both sides of this fence. Six years ago I couldn’t identify a single note on a staff but found different ways (mostly audio recording and midi programing) to express myself in music composition. Now that I have theory knowledge I can translate my music to standard notation. I believe that being a better musician can be refined by knowledge and training but essentially I think great musicians and composers have got something that is purely within them.

Samantha Evans said...

I agree with this post wholeheartedly! I believe that theory, harmony and counterpoint are necessary to a degree when composing. That being said, not all composers come from a classically trained background, nor do all composer have training in theory and counterpoint. I believe this is a good thing! When people are giving a set of rules for things such as composing, they feel as if they cannot break from the mould that they were giving. Yet, it can be seen throughout history, that some of the most well-known composers are the ones that broke the rules. Composition, like most things, is ever evolving. And for it to evolve the rules need to be broken. I also believe that the skills that theory and counterpoint provide aid in becoming a better musician, but the are not necessary. Sometimes raw talent can create the best musicians, but I do believe that at least some knowledge of theory would be beneficial.

Peyton Morrissey said...

Growing up following the MYC and RCM program, theory was always something that was incorporated throughout lessons, but did not grab my attention until I began studying at the university level. I agree strongly with this post, and firmly believe a good understanding of theory is incredibly helpful in not only composition but all aspects of music. I find myself using theory more and more in all classes.

I think theory is what first drew me into trying my hand at composition. When I could see how the music I was learning could be broken down I was intrigued and wanted to learn more. By having a strong working knowledge and understanding theory, getting started composing was easier. I could understand why what I heard I liked, and why other things I didn't like. This helped me to troubleshoot and problem solve quickly and effectively.

Contrary to the help theory provided, I also find it as a sort of barrier. This is because if what I'm writing doesn't necessarily follow all of the rules that I've learned in theory of class I am hesitant to write what sounds good to my ear, and lean towards more what makes theoretical sense on paper.

Overall, I find theory to be incredibly helpful and a good skill to have when approaching composition.

Adrian Irvine said...

The nature of music theory (especially rudiments and counterpoint) as subjects where rules are incredibly important pushes some people away from their study in conjunction with composition out of fear of limitation. To me it all comes back to our need for systemization to most efficiently understand, interpret, and execute ideas. Theory and counterpoint should rarely, if at all, be the starting point for a composition (unless the composition is intended as an exercise in these disciplines). However, having learned to effectively employ these rules can be of great assistance when raw creativity doesn't yield desired results, and a deep understanding of these principles seamlessly integrates aspects into your natural compositional voice, in turn (often) improving it.
On a broader scale we require systemization to understand large complex concepts. The "rules" of music theory are best understood as an efficient and effective standardized method of breaking down the inner workings of things our ear hears and likes, but are too complex to be instantly understood. One's effectiveness in this systemization (without feeling forced to work within them) can be very advantageous when it comes to one's ability to harness a flow of ideas, and in turn improve the quality and quantity of compositional output.

Jessica Pereversoff said...

It may be true that a lot of great music has been composed without the composer having an expansive knowledge of music theory. However, as has been mentioned, music theory exists for a reason. People have long been fascinated by figuring out the elements of a composition that make it work (or not). I think a healthy curiosity in this area is certainly beneficial to a composer, or musician of any kind. Understanding why a dominant 7th chord wants to resolve to I is fundamental to an understanding of Western tonal music. We have been conditioned to hear this as such as a result of centuries of music based on this principal (and obviously more). Even for composers who wish to do more unconventional things with their music, an understanding of the music that has come before can be critical. The whole idea of "learning the rules before learning to break them" definitely has some merit in this regard.
There are countless instances of composers who have done great things with a limited theoretical base, yet there are similarly many composers who DID have this base and were just as successful, if not more. At any rate, knowledge of music theory has been proven not to be harmful. I think how much you have to know to be a composer really comes down to individual differences in learning and expression.

Josh McCarthy said...

Basically I agree and disagree with this post. Hold on, let me explain. So when I first started playing the piano and writing my own music a few years back, I had no knowledge of music theory, I knew a bit about the key of C and that there were four types of basic chords, major, minor, diminished, and augmented. Two I liked, and two, not so much, you can guess which ones are which. Anyway, I had no idea what "worked" theoretically, but I knew as a listener of music what sounded good to me personally. So I just started fiddling with the piano until I played something I liked. I'd play a chord and them a note on top, maybe even two, and then I thought to myself, "I can write music, look at me go!" But the thing is, I wouldn't have been able to go very far with my limited knowledge of how things were actually supposed to work. Like common chord progressions, harmonizing, voice-leading. Moving away from the piano, if I tried to write anything down back then, I wouldn't have known how, because I didn't know how to notate or anything like that. I didn't know how to orchestrate a larger ensemble (still don't, but getting there), and I had little to no aural skill level besides knowing what I liked to hear. All of these things I've learned here at music school, and I am much more informed about how to write music because of theory, I don't feel so lost not, like I actually kind of know what I'm doing.

Josh Chancey said...

While I personally agree that strong theory skills are important tools to have as a composer, I do not necessarily believe that theory skills are a must for every composer. In addition, the definition of composer vs song-writer would need to be established. Many artists of popular genres have little to no training musically, but they still write music that is enjoyed by many, but are they still "composers" by our operating definition?

As a jazz player, musician, and academic, I strongly believe that learning a language (or theory, as the case may be) is the basis for understanding and operating in that language. A parrot can repeat many english words, and perhaps string together a sentence, but there is no intent behind the parrot's message (or maybe there is, who knows?). While I would not liken popular music composers to parrots, I personally find that composers with a deeper connection to music theory write more compelling compositions because they are not inhibited by trying to translate their ideas to paper. They just write what they hear in their head and allow the theory to help them transcribe it. This is the type of relationship I long for with music theory: a tool to facilitate my compositional voice.

Jack Etchegary said...

There are several aspects of this post that I agree and disagree with. As someone who's had formal music training for most of my life, it is extremely difficult to imagine writing music without that music knowledge instilled in my brain. In many ways, this information exists almost subconsciously, especially when talking about the basic fundamentals of rudiments and such. To imagine someone attempting to compose without this knowledge is hard to do. In the case of Xenakis, I believe Messiaen made a good point of acknowledging that Xenakis did not need to continue his musical training to succeed in composition. Xenakis' extreme intelligence and mathematical background definitely provided him with a completely different set of tools to compose with. To compare his compositional process or knowledge to a composer with intensive music theory training seems a bit nonsensical. With that said, I believe there are several ways in which people succeed in composing. From the traditional standpoint, it makes perfect sense to say that one needs music theory training in order to compose, however, with the likes of Xenakis and other contemporary composers, who incorporate graphic notation and other forms of notation that do not make use of traditional music structures, then this idea definitely becomes challenged. I cannot lean to one side of this argument for these reasons.

Pallas A said...

To start off, I had never considered music theory as an umbrella term for more specific aspects of music, and though it challenges my previous notion of what music theory is, it does make sense.

Consequently, I am unsure of whether to be a better composer, one should focus on learning the aspects of music theory that are troublesome, or hone in on one's strengths. Clearly the "playing to one's strengths" option worked best for Xenakis and Cage, but the musical foundations laid in their youths seemed to have lessened any alleged weaknesses in harmony and counterpoint in their later works. Subsequently, to what extent can a lacking in one area of theory be redeemed by excelling in another? The ways in which music technologies have replaced the need to be a great pianist is a good example of this. Though it is beneficial to be able to interpret a score oneself, that is no longer the only way to analyze or play back the score.

I also am curious about the depth and nature of the theoretical analysis needed to be a composer. Personally, I struggle with theory analyses because I cannot process all the information on the page in an efficient or timely manner because to me, notes on a page have no context. However, I can do quick harmonic and form analyses in my head if the passage is played to me a few times. I attribute this skill to being a monophonic instrument player who played in many ensembles as a child. As an ensemble player, one has to form a mental map of where the music is going and how you fit into the grand scheme of things, since there is no score to look off of. As a result of aurally learning the basics of music theory, I think I have learned more about music theory in aural skills and keyboard harmony than I have actually learned in theory class. I can see how the analysis of one's own music can add a feigned sense of objectivity, and it would be very useful for any composer to have such a skill. But how in depth does the analysis have to be to benefit the composer and serve this purpose (since I assume that some composers do not want to be music theorists)?

Kristin Wills said...

I think it could never hurt to know more theory. If you know the theory, you know how to write certain types of music, but more importantly, you know how not to write them. If you want to write music that disobeys the rules of traditional harmony, for example, then knowing a lot about harmony means that you know the difference between experimental, dissonant harmonies and harmonies that just sound bad. I think just listening to a lot of music is as valuable as studying theory, tough. This goes with what you said about singing Palestrina, sometimes the best way to learn to compose in a style is to immerse yourself in it, like learning a language. If you perform and listen to it a lot, you often find that you instinctively know how to write it.

Peter Cho said...

There is a video on youtube of Dmitri Tymoczko, a theorist/composer at Princeton, doing a lecture on his theory of music geometry and he puts the relationship between theory and composing very elegantly. I don't know how he worded it exactly, but the gist was that when you are composing you have hundreds of different options to take. Music theory allows you to narrow the options down to a manageable number so that maybe you only have to choose from 10 different options. In a way music theory is almost like the chemistry of sound. In the same way that a chemist can predict what happens if you combine two substances together, a music theorist can predict what something will sound like if you mix sonorities together. But, where this analogy falls flat is that in music a person with little music theory knowledge can make a great piece of music. However, this requires a very natural intuition about music and will likely longer, especially if writing in a relatively unfamiliar idiom. I don't think music theory is necessary to write great music, however the lack of theoretical knowledge absolutely needs to be compensated for.

Nader Tabrizchi said...

I think this is an excellent blog post covering lots of information on music theory and giving plenty of detail as to how you can get started, or how you can enhance your skills as a composer. Though there are many people who compose music in this world with none to very little knowledge in music theory, I see it more benefiting to learn this information to get that better understanding.

When I first started composing I had very little knowledge of theory which made it hard for me to compose pieces. I would often write a melody and follow it with a series of chords with no sense of tonality. After a year of theory, I started getting more familiar with analyzing pieces of music which helped me quite a lot with my composing. My composing started to make sense and I was able to start being creative in composing through this theory background of which I am continuing to establish. I also found my keyboard harmony skills to substantially further my knowledge of chord progressions as helping me with composing better melodies. I also agree with your take on aural skills as it has helped me compose without the need to be next to the piano all the time and I am able to transcribe my ideas onto paper. I am happy and grateful to be able to learn and further develop these skills which have been such great tools to use when it comes to composing music.