I’ve been getting a lot of suggestions related to music theory from YouTube lately, which is strange because I’ve never watched any such videos. I’m not really sure I’ve ever watched music-related videos before. Such is the state of the algorithm, I guess. Google knows I write music.
I happen to have 3/4 of a degree in music theory, thank you very much Google. I also happen to hate music theory. The rest of this is a diatribe explaining why.
I’ve been studying creative writing lately. It’s my hobby du jour. I’ve always loved writing, not for sharing but for conveying feelings from one side of my brain to the other, so to speak. Being a very analytical person, I have trouble understanding my emotions. Writing helps me to process. I’ve read four books about writing now, and there’s one common thread throughout all of them: grammar is the last thing you should worry about. That’s not to say that it doesn’t matter. Good grammar does not make a good piece, good content does. Your personal voice, your message, and your story.
This is exactly how I feel about music theory. Music theory is not my muse, and it’s probably not yours. It is a bully pulpit for the gatekeepers of “good music.” Let me make one thing clear right now. If music theory is your muse, by all means let her inspire you. If you grew up listening to popular music, if you want to write music that reaches the broadest range of people, you probably want to find another way.
Those of us who paid attention in our English classes have enough background in grammar to write. Right now, not after further study, not after understanding dangling modifiers. The difference being that most people didn’t take music theory classes in school even if they were in orchestra, band, or choir.
That doesn’t matter. Music theory is codified after the fact, by the study of what has already been written. Do you think that the composers of Gregorian chant knew music theory? No, but what they wrote mostly conforms.
So you, someone who loves music and wants to start writing, want to know. How does it all work, what are the rules? The fact is that there are no rules, per se. Your ear — and our collective ears — are the rule makers. The rules of music theory are based on what sounds pleasing to the ears, not commandments presented to the people by the gods of music on clay tablets.
All of what you need to know to write music is contained in the airwaves. Listen. A lot. No, more than that. Not just listen, study, listen intently, even take notes. Figure out what they did, and try to understand why it works. Also, practice your instrument. A lot. No, more than that. Find your voice on your instrument. In my less-than-humble opinion, music is its own muse. She speaks to you herself, through you in the language of the soul.
The more you listen, the better you understand what sounds good. The more you play your instrument, the better you understand what feels good. The more you write, the better you understand yourself, your voice, and your message. Don’t let the fact that you can’t convert a lead sheet to Roman numeral analysis. Sure, RNA is an incredibly useful tool, but it and its ilk can be a stumbling block.
If you spend time studying something that doesn’t bring you joy, that doesn’t inspire you, it is a complete waste of time. Spend that time writing instead. Even if you end up throwing it out, like I have with most of my work, you might feel more satisfied than if you had spent that time memorizing the circle of fifths. Spend that time listening. Listen to music that speaks to you through the language of the soul.
P.S. For what it’s worth, I love complex music. I curate an extensive (~17 hours) bebop and hard bop playlist on spotify.