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Music Composers Unite!

This one should be posted under the "why don't we just all...get along?" category.

 

I had a running debate with a good friend, phenomenal guitar player, who was very anti-music theory.  He would point to great guitar players like Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix and say that they knew nothing about music theory and kicked the crap out of everybody else.  My counter argument was: yes, they did know music theory, in fact they knew it better than most music theorists, they just didn't know the terms.  Music theory, when done right, simply gives labels to concepts that musicians intuitively know.  Sometimes people can get caught up in these terms and think they are what matters, so theory can be dammaging, but it can be helpful in that it can make it easier for musicians to talk to each other about what they do.  So composers who write by ear and those who know music theory, at least the good composers, often use the same criteria: their musical sense.  There is sometimes snobbery on both sides of the aisle: the ear composers who assume the theory people must write cold, calculating music with no heart, unshaped by feeling, and the music theory people who say "pshaw!  I bet that guy couldn't write in 7/8 or modulate to a chromatic mediant!  What a barbarian!"  Most people do not feel that way though, but it is something to watch out for in our own thoughts.

 

Try to be tolerant y'all.

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I think the main reason this debate between those on both sides of this conversation comes out of now knowing the other side. This debate is more then just theory verses instinct, but more Academia vs. the self-taught. This is a debate that has raged since Bach's time and it really a case of is the grass greener on the other side.
Most people mistake music theory as a compositional tool in when actuality its an analytical tool more. Most composers on both sides rarely think about music theory as they write. Like you said, theory just puts a label on things we do naturally with music, all theory does is give an insite into the composers head of the past and today. However theory is often misinterpreted as a means to compose better, which causes the debate. Those with out theory feel that people who know theory act as if their music is superior because they know something they dont, which would make anyone feel like they are snobby.

Their is also the belief with some people that the more you dissect music the less "soul" it has. The idea that music is emotional in audio form and that trying to pin it down and label it is much like going to a hotdog factory, if you see it made you will never eat it again. Some might argue that for the anti-theory people, ignorance is bliss. While those on the other side might say that theorist composers are using music to elevate themselves above others.

Its a debate and rift that doesnt seem to want to heal because to many of use musicians and composers refuse to look at music from the other side.
I see both sides of it. i think most musicians, composers, songwriters... whateverf you call them, once you go thru the gate of not doing cover tunes, and trying to write original material... its pretty clear that there are great and bad ear guys, and great and bad composers...

I bet I'm the only guy here that didnt play a pitched instrument when a kid or younger... I had no pitch or chord sense at all. i was sa drummer when young. i was taught to sight read music properly, all rests, time signatures, repeats, everything... just no pitches!

learning what notes made up a C-chord, in a book... allowed me to make SOMEthing, even though it was simply "stock pads" going from C to E, from E to G, then back... a book was all that could get me started. SO, I quickly respected music theory. THEN, i sat and moved nots around, until every note "rang out" just like I "liked it to". Found out I had picked out pentatonic minor by ear perfectly... discovered scales...

the 3 chord song model... allowed me to begin to dare to change root, LMAO... then, i saw the similarities between sonata model and 3 chord rules of thumb. The bridge was the "part B"..... Hmmm... along the way, my ear is s-l-o-w-l-y developing. because I dont have 20 years playing piano and guitar.

I cant make the music i can hear in my head yet... but, I can take a rough stab at it now.
============================================
the EAR only "I hate theory" crowd is missing out, theory would only help them, it cant hurt them!
The theory only crowd, well... i cant picture how in the *&^% I would write anything, if I turned the sound off on my speakers on the computer...????? still, I guess beethoven did it, but... he's a god...

self taught, or, university educated... if you can do it, you can do it...

I used to be a programmer... what was the difference when i bought myself a book on representing 3-dimensional vectored computer graphics on a 2-d grid layout? whether a professor taught it to me, or I went thru it myself? either way, I projected sets of 3-d lines projection-represented on a 2-d coordinate system... and in the end it doesnt matter if that cool fleetwood mac song you liked on the radio was made by an ear only guy, or a theory and ear guy... same result...

thats why religion kills me... MY religion has jesus teaching me "thou shalt not kill..." and another religion, someone ELSE tell him "do not take human life"... then, we both kill each other over it ! LMAO... kind of ironic...

I GUESS I could just watch the news, and not need to learn how to read and write... adn i could STILL write a novel...

...still seems to make sense to know how to read though, even though it doesnt make me able to write a novel better, thnough...
I have a lot of respect for people who write by ear, because they are up against a lot of hurdles in my mind. Jimi Hendrix may not have officially known any music theory, but I'm wiling to wager that he knew what a minor pentatonic scale was (most solo guitarists do). Also, Hendrix was more credited with his technical dexterity more than anything.

There is snobbery on both sides, and it's meaningless. Anybody who can produce good music with or without musid theory should be hailed as a music god.
its also my personal opinion, that a lot of famous musicians, particularly in the rock arena, pretend they play entirely by ear, and have no use for scales, theory, nothing... I think a good bit of that is just "ad copy"

I have a buddy, we've been good friends for over 20 years now. he was covering metallica on guitar really well when he was 20 in college, and over the years he blossomed more. I was always curious about pitched music, and kept insisting you just "play with the sound, and you move it around, until its cool, you know?" meanwhile, by this time he sounds similar to George Lynch soloing... years later, I'm visiting down south with him, and by this time his "band" he's in is a lot more advanced. They make regular money on the weekends like I make all week working, plus the singer and her husband had their own little studio and everything...

he must have forgot I was there, and I busted him talking musical-calculus with the lead singer, LMAO... I brought it up on the way home, and made him admit he was into theory, like, formally and all. I asked him why he had been LYING to me for the last 12 or 14 years... he said, now GET this... "I didnt want you to think i was a geek, dude."

My GOD man, we both have 2 degrees in mathematics and computer science !!!! we are geeks by definition, I told him!!

I dont think he's the only one who thinks it somehow sounds like better ad copy to pretend its all by ear... thats just my opinion.
I had no choice but to get into this... I've been surrounded by musicians for over half of my life, LMAO. It gets old just being the drummer after a decade or so, particularly when you arent a drummer anymore... Plus, drummers dont even get an opinion in conversation somehow... its like just because we dont play pitched music, we dont get input on what songs were going to cover... about all you get is "learn to play it or we'll get someone who can, dude..."

But if its out of the singers half an octave screaming range... oh my...
Tyler, this is absolute nonsense. If that were true, the subject of music theory would be useless, and people would not be bothered to learn it. The fact is, music theory is a compositional tool, and is extremely useful to composers, and composers that have learned it are always referring to it during the process of composition. Okay, it is possible that one might learn how to analyse a certain period or style of music, and then ignore it, such as "impressionism"+ for instance, but on the whole, when people learn the rudiments of basic tonal harmony, and how to obey the rules, you will find that at first they will take heed of these rules and abide by them, until such a time when they feel confident enough to break them.

But whatever way, to say that the theory of music is to be regarded as an observational tool like social anthropology, is bordering on lunacy.

So what I will say about composers who write with the use of their ears only, is not that they are less skilled composers. On the contrary, but the fact remains, they will find their job a lot less easier than if they were to be aware of some of the rudiments of music theory.
Tyler Hughes said:
I think the main reason this debate between those on both sides of this conversation comes out of now knowing the other side. This debate is more then just theory verses instinct, but more Academia vs. the self-taught. This is a debate that has raged since Bach's time and it really a case of is the grass greener on the other side.
Most people mistake music theory as a compositional tool in when actuality its an analytical tool more. Most composers on both sides rarely think about music theory as they write. Like you said, theory just puts a label on things we do naturally with music, all theory does is give an insite into the composers head of the past and today. However theory is often misinterpreted as a means to compose better, which causes the debate. Those with out theory feel that people who know theory act as if their music is superior because they know something they dont, which would make anyone feel like they are snobby.

Their is also the belief with some people that the more you dissect music the less "soul" it has. The idea that music is emotional in audio form and that trying to pin it down and label it is much like going to a hotdog factory, if you see it made you will never eat it again. Some might argue that for the anti-theory people, ignorance is bliss. While those on the other side might say that theorist composers are using music to elevate themselves above others.

Its a debate and rift that doesnt seem to want to heal because to many of use musicians and composers refuse to look at music from the other side.
I didnt say music theory was completely useless to a composer, its just not help make your compositions more creative, or "better". To say that music theory is a compositional tool is to imply that the theory came before the music. These theoretical rules came about due to common tendency composers of a certain period did. And even the theory changes over time, what was considered bad in one period is good in another, composers tendencies change as time goes by and thus the theoretical rules change. As far as theory to today's up and coming composer, most of them know the fundamentals of theory even though they dont know they know. If you establish the key of C and play a G7 chord for any audience and ask them what comes next, most of them can hum at least the C. A lot of these "rules" are embedded in the minds of those who grew up on a steady diet of western music. So learning the basic rules of theory doesn't enhance our ability to write music, but instead re-enforces what we already know.
Music Theory is absolutely important to composers, but, unless you are actively and consciously thinking about functional harmonies and counterpoint, music theory will not help you compose a unique masterpiece, nor will it make composers out of people. I mean, most of us here can say they werent masters in music theory before they started composing. Speaking for myself, I can tell you I didnt even know what chords were when I wrote my first piece of music.


Simon Godden said:
Tyler, this is absolute nonsense. If that were true, the subject of music theory would be useless, and people would not be bothered to learn it. The fact is, music theory is a compositional tool, and is extremely useful to composers, and composers that have learned it are always referring to it during the process of composition. Okay, it is possible that one might learn how to analyse a certain period or style of music, and then ignore it, such as "impressionism"+ for instance, but on the whole, when people learn the rudiments of basic tonal harmony, and how to obey the rules, you will find that at first they will take heed of these rules and abide by them, until such a time when they feel confident enough to break them.

But whatever way, to say that the theory of music is to be regarded as an observational tool like social anthropology, is bordering on lunacy.

So what I will say about composers who write with the use of their ears only, is not that they are less skilled composers. On the contrary, but the fact remains, they will find their job a lot less easier than if they were to be aware of some of the rudiments of music theory.
Tyler Hughes said:
I think the main reason this debate between those on both sides of this conversation comes out of now knowing the other side. This debate is more then just theory verses instinct, but more Academia vs. the self-taught. This is a debate that has raged since Bach's time and it really a case of is the grass greener on the other side.
Most people mistake music theory as a compositional tool in when actuality its an analytical tool more. Most composers on both sides rarely think about music theory as they write. Like you said, theory just puts a label on things we do naturally with music, all theory does is give an insite into the composers head of the past and today. However theory is often misinterpreted as a means to compose better, which causes the debate. Those with out theory feel that people who know theory act as if their music is superior because they know something they dont, which would make anyone feel like they are snobby.

Their is also the belief with some people that the more you dissect music the less "soul" it has. The idea that music is emotional in audio form and that trying to pin it down and label it is much like going to a hotdog factory, if you see it made you will never eat it again. Some might argue that for the anti-theory people, ignorance is bliss. While those on the other side might say that theorist composers are using music to elevate themselves above others.

Its a debate and rift that doesnt seem to want to heal because to many of use musicians and composers refuse to look at music from the other side.


Simon Godden said:
Hendrix was more credited with his technical dexterity more than anything.

.
I have to disagree with that one. He was actually sort of a sloppy player (I hope that is not blasphemy). When most people think of Hendrix they think of his version of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, or setting his guitar on fire, or his creative use of feedback, or his psychedelic, magical adventure albums, or...the point is it is a long list. As a soloist, his phrasing and manic performances far out did his technical prowess. Anyways, back on topic
I was just about to comment on Simon's post and then I saw yours. When I think hendrix I think band of gypsys. I don't pretend to know even how a guitar is tuned (top and bottom are E and the rest are 4ths apart? I can never remember) let alone how to play. To my ear Hendrix was very techniquely proficient. I would definitely put him right up there with Jerry Garcia and Dwayne Allman as being top 3 (off the top of my head) from that era/genre. I think Scofield would easily give all 3 of them a run for their money but he was from a different time (save Jerry) and was doing something completely different than them. Trey Anastasio too, but I have more respect for Sco than Trey just based on know how, which is kind of what I'm leading to here. The aural tradition of music is much more suited to short form whereas the theoretical is to long form. You can have very long jams, and very short complex pieces, both being exceptional...I mean that in both senses of the word. The gravy is somewhere in the middle (as always). A good example of this middle ground I think is Medeski Martin and Wood or Scofield or Bill Evans or Count Bassie or Fats Waller or Stevie Wonder...in other words jazz and its offshoots. Jazz is where you NEED both theory and aural skills just to survive.

Also I think that aurally based musicians are typically much more geared towards improvisation where as theoretically based (or literate if you like) musicians are much more geared towards composition which makes sense...like a lot of sense. This in turn favors pretty much what everyone else has said because at the end of the day improvisation and composition are really the same mental stream or process... the heads and tails of the same coin so to speak. Improv is to speaking english as comp is to writing english...in both cases you hear what you are doing in your head as you do it. Don't forget now there are those that don't know theory at all and can't play by ear at all, they just read. That I really don't get. Maybe I just really subscribe to the notion that music is a language, and that yes each discipline requires its own dedication and refinement, but reading, writing, and speaking (improv) are all equally important to musicians. I would never encourage someone to learn to speak english but not read or write....and the thought of only reading great english literature but never talking about it is just asinine to me.


Tombo Rombo said:


Simon Godden said:
Hendrix was more credited with his technical dexterity more than anything.

.
I have to disagree with that one. He was actually sort of a sloppy player (I hope that is not blasphemy). When most people think of Hendrix they think of his version of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, or setting his guitar on fire, or his creative use of feedback, or his psychedelic, magical adventure albums, or...the point is it is a long list. As a soloist, his phrasing and manic performances far out did his technical prowess. Anyways, back on topic
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA



Sean E Duvall said:
thats why religion kills me... MY religion has jesus teaching me "thou shalt not kill..." and another religion, someone ELSE tell him "do not take human life"... then, we both kill each other over it ! LMAO... kind of ironic...
It's odd, everytime I make some sort of proclamation like "music theory = intuition" I start thinking of exceptions. Take atonal music. In a way, it is actually intentionally counter-intuitive. It is like a negative photograph of intuition: the fact that it avoids expected resolutions betrays a recognition about how intuitive music experiences are shaped. I think what happens when you learn about atonal music and other more obscure, advanced techniques like serialism, is, ironically, that these anti-intuitive languages almost become intuitive to you...but they are still completely foreign to most, who would rather avoid listening to such things because they go completely against everything that feels right to them. Listeners feel alienated, which causes composers of "experimental" music to get defensive.

As a personal note, I feel that the music I write often alienates people on either side of the fence because I am a rocker and an academic of sorts at the same time. An example of how I have always wanted to set each side on the same level is that I wrote my masters thesis on Black Sabbath. Anyways, the self taught find my stuff grating, maybe pretentious at times, while the academics find it rather banal in spots. Since the true measure of any music is if people like it, I may then be writing crap. Sounds great to me though ;)
Actually, you maybe right there Tom.

Tombo Rombo said:


Simon Godden said:
Hendrix was more credited with his technical dexterity more than anything.

.
I have to disagree with that one. He was actually sort of a sloppy player (I hope that is not blasphemy). When most people think of Hendrix they think of his version of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, or setting his guitar on fire, or his creative use of feedback, or his psychedelic, magical adventure albums, or...the point is it is a long list. As a soloist, his phrasing and manic performances far out did his technical prowess. Anyways, back on topic

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