Music Theory and Writing

If you’ve spent much time around music or really anywhere that people talk about music you’ll notice pretty quickly that there’s a lot of criticism around the whole concept of music theory. People will say it’s a waste of time it’s too technical. It will hurt your creativity and that you’ll all just wind up following all these rules when you’re trying to create music. Now this is something I wanted to talk about for a long time and I think that there’s really two key issues or key arguments on that side of things.Playing Music in Arizona at ASU

One is that I’ve certainly seen this happen. There are plenty of people who learned their scales and chords and all this stuff and they really do have a hard time being creative. I remember when I was in college. I had this professor who was an amazing violinist, incredible performer and she had studied theory her whole life and taught theory classes and everything. I remember asking her, like hey what have you written or what kind of music do you write. She says oh no I don’t write music. I never had an ability and added I can’t do it and I remember thinking at the very least that’s interesting. But worst case it really worried me. I mean I’m here at school under the impression that learning all about music is going to make me a better musician. But, if it didn’t work for her at least in the creating music sense then why am I even here and then the second big issue is that there are certainly tons of people out there. Musicians who have never studied theory certainly, not formally, and they’re fantastic musicians.

They make some of the world’s best music. So how do you explain that? So I want to give you my insights on this stuff and hopefully help you think about the way you approach music. Whatever your particular thought process might be and I think the place to start is by thinking about how a four-year-old approaches writing music. If you ever get a chance to watch a four-year-old do anything you can learn a lot because they have no prior experience or anything. You’re going to approach things in the most natural way possible. I mean they just gained consciousness, they have nothing to go on.
So, here’s how a four-year-old will write music and I’ve seen it many times. I used to teach lots of kids but they will go to the piano or whatever instrument there on and they’ll just choose a note. So they just pick one and think sounds good. They pick that one, they’ll play it and listen to it and they’ll decide if they like it or not. If they don’t though, they try a different one and keep going until eventually they find a note that they do like and that’s the first note in their song. Then they’ll move on to the second note and they’ll repeat the same process and they play random things until they find a note that they like and now they have two notes in the song and they just keep doing that until they’ve strung together this little melody.

Now I can tell you first hand sometimes this works really well. I have seen kids write stuff where I’m like, dang kid kind of wish I’d thought of that. It can work really well in that’s the essential process of writing music and it really the essential process of creating any kind of art. There’s two steps. There’s the idea generation part just thinking up of something that you want to try and then the judgment part where you listen to that thing and you decide if that that works or not. Now in the kids scenario a kid is really good their judgment part because if you think about what you’re really doing, all you’re doing is you’re exposing your brain to something you’re listening to. A sound and you’re trying to see if you’re human mind responds to it in a way that’s positive or not. You know there are the neurons in your head lighting up and if you had an fMRI machine you could actually see this. You can see those parts of your brain you know firing and lighting up and that’s all you’re really trying to do and because this kid has no bias no experience no nothing they’re very in tune with that. They just play something and they see if they like it or not and they’re fantastic at this judgment part. But the part 1, the idea generation part they’re pretty terrible at you know they have no concept of what notes are likely to sound good together and are really just choosing things completely randomly. Either they’re like a random number generator or something they’re very bad at that and that is what limits them a lot. I said they can come up with a really cool little melody but I have never seen a four-year-old write some incredible symphony or something because as the complexity of what you’re trying to do grows it gets exponentially harder to just randomly choose things and see if they work. That’s the case for a lot of musicians starting out. A lot of people, you know after playing for a few months, are able to write you a really cool riff for a cool little progression or something but they have a much harder time expanding that into a full-blown song with sections that makes sense. The bigger picture part is very difficult for them. So anyway if you left that kid there and they kept playing around they would eventually start to figure stuff out. They start playing two notes together and they would start to notice stuff. If you play you know two notes that are right next to each other it sounds not great it sound kind of sour. You know they usually don’t like that sound you’ll notice that if you play notes that are further apart you know they sound a lot nicer and they’ll even get more specific and notice that if you play notes that are exactly this far apart it sounds kind of sad. I had a girl tell me once that you know this sounds like when Bambi’s mom died which I thought was really heavy for a four-year-old but you’ll notice that this is a little bit happier and whatever and they’ll start to make these little connections and recognize things that they like and things that they don’t and they’ll start to see these patterns.

If you left a kid they’re playing around for 10 or 15 years or something eventually they get really good at this, you know. Their ability to come up with ideas and predict what’s going to sound good and it’s going to fit together would start to develop hugely. They build into bigger things like chords and chord progressions and little melodies and harmonies and all this kind of stuff and eventually they become a really great musician and that’s how you wind up with people that have not studied theory formerly that are great musicians. They’ve done, this they’ve sat there and they’ve just discovered things on their own. They’ve started to identify different sounds and patterns and whatever and they become a great musician and regulate music.