Composers' Forum

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.

Views: 1235

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

since hendrix keeps popping in and out, was Hendrix the first or at least one of the first... to do fast, extended electric guitar solos? I just remember being real young and everyone raving about how great he was... when i was older, i saw a few performances on TV and thought how it was similar to my heavy metal guitar solos I was watching on MTV as a teen...
No I don't think he was first really. Maybe the first to become widely known for it, not sure though. I think Buddy Buy, BB King, other older blues guys were what Jimi was copying and how he got his chops at first. I mean Jimi didn't just start doing what he did. I think the first job he had after Nam was rythym guitar for the isley brothers (don't quote me on that, I'm not specifically a hendrix scholar and I'm to lazy to look it up. I think I heard once that Jimi was quoted as saying Buddy Guy was the best guitar player to ever live or something. Don't forget you had slide guitar before electric guitar, and slide is really how improvised soloing started (guitar wise).



SEDstar said:
since hendrix keeps popping in and out, was Hendrix the first or at least one of the first... to do fast, extended electric guitar solos? I just remember being real young and everyone raving about how great he was... when i was older, i saw a few performances on TV and thought how it was similar to my heavy metal guitar solos I was watching on MTV as a teen...
Interesting discussion here and I think Hendrix is a great example. Sean, for the record I think it was Hendrix's awesome showmanship that really helped. I mean Charlie Christian was playing awesome electric solos as far back as 1939.

One fact that has largely been ignored here is that the theory is all there in the music we hear. In the past, guys in rock bands might not have known about borrowing chords from the parallel minor but they would love the sound of a bVI - bVII - I chord progression and so they would re-use it. The Beatles were very taken with the surprising effect of the iv minor chord from Cole Porter's Each Time We Say Goodbye and wanted to find new ways of writing pop songs with unexpected chords.

So gigging pop/rock musicians often would have a workable knowledge of some music theory. In some ways this could be considered limiting because maybe they'll only feel comfortable in certain keys but at other times it might be quite liberating because they often use more complex ideas (such as borrowed chords or temporary modulations) without having to think about them (oh I love just using this chord at the end of the verse).

I would posit that this even applies to film/media music where generally successful composers have to be good at pastiching other styles. I was in a conversation yesterday where an upcoming composer friend of mine had his eyes opened. He was chatting with an A list composer and was stunned to discover that this composer (among many) really wasn't that good at reading music. Does he right great music? Yes.

On the other hand, you will notice that I made a lot of my statements above in the past tense. This is because the general musical knowledge of pop/rock musicians has leapt up thanks to the large number of schools and courses aimed at contemporary music. Functional harmony and scalar relations are all discussed at length during these courses and many of the musicians who complete these courses are great readers. Of course as Sean's friend demonstrated, there is still something of an 'anti-learning' attitude in the rock community so people will not admit how much they really know!
A personal anecdote about how many aspects of music theory are intuitive.

After I got my bachelors, I spent a year kicking around at home and decided to start a band with some old high school buddies. Very small town so I didn't have my pick of musicians: In fact, I had to teach the rhythm guitarist how to play. Rather than teach him music theory, I just taught him how to play the songs by shapes on the fretboard. Soooo, we would have these free form jam sessions where he would be doodling about, exploring variations of those shapes, and I would do my best to make my parts fit with his. Sometimes, I would deliberately throw a monkey wrench in by changing the key (nothing too drastic), or moving from major to minor. He just about always picked up on the fact that something had changed and adjusted his doodles so they fit within a measure or two. Or I would start deliberately playing "the wrong notes" and he would adjust by making weird sounding bends and squeals, or playing chromatic ascending patterns. So perhaps even atonality is intuitive in a sense. He wouldn't be able to tell you that we had just modulated or went into atonal land, he just did it. I've attached a file just as proof of what I am talking about, I wouldn't recommend listening unless you want that proof. He's the one playing all the single note lines.
Attachments:
I agree that if one is writing or playing music, one is going to know theory in the sense of having some theoretical understanding of what one is doing with an instrument. It might not resemble any standard way to think about theory, but it's really unavoidable to think about doing something like music in a theoretical way.

Also, knowing theory in a standard way does not at all imply that one is writing or playing by a set of standard "rules" (or any rules at all necessarily). It does seem like some people think that must be the case, but I'm not quite sure why they have that misconception.

I also agree with you that it's helpful to have everyone speaking the same language, for obvious reasons. I've been in many musical situations with musicians who do not at all know standard theoretical terms, and it can be difficult to communicate with them.
Simon: ". . . composers that have learned it are always referring to it during the process of composition."

That is trivially false, as there are many counterexamples there.

Simon: "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."

That doesn't gel with my experience, including that many people do NOT teach theory as if it's about rules. It is frequently taught more as analysis and as the beginnings of a toolset (in the sense, for example, of "Here's what a scale is and here are some very common scales; these are tools you can use, and you can also use far less common scales, create your own, etc."). I do not doubt that maybe some theory teachers are conveying it as being about rules that one should or must follow, and that some students are actually following along there (especially as something other than a quirk of a historical approach), but I can't say that I've run into any of those folks in "the real world", either.
Yes, agree with this completely.


Streaker Ofinsky said:
I agree that if one is writing or playing music, one is going to know theory in the sense of having some theoretical understanding of what one is doing with an instrument. It might not resemble any standard way to think about theory, but it's really unavoidable to think about doing something like music in a theoretical way.

Also, knowing theory in a standard way does not at all imply that one is writing or playing by a set of standard "rules" (or any rules at all necessarily). It does seem like some people think that must be the case, but I'm not quite sure why they have that misconception.

I also agree with you that it's helpful to have everyone speaking the same language, for obvious reasons. I've been in many musical situations with musicians who do not at all know standard theoretical terms, and it can be difficult to communicate with them.
When I was taught basic 4-part harmony (SATB), there WAS a set of rules one could either obey or disobey (obey to pass exams), and that was the set of ''rules'' espoused by Bach in the late Baroque period. We were taught these rules from the beginning of our 'O'levels (exams at 16 years of age) through to our 'A'levels (exams at 18 years of age, governing our admission into university). And then, even at university in our first year, it had to be established that all first year students were au fait with the rules of fundamental harmony (rules applied to the SATB style of Bach).

However, alongside these formal studies of harmony, we were also studying free composition which would mean invariably using techniques of a later period that would have broken the very rules we were learning, and during our music history lessons we would have to analyse the different styles of harmony of later composers such as Shostakovich, R. Strauss etc.

But our intensive knowledge of the formal harmony of the Baroque era, made it easier
Streaker Ofinsky said:
Simon: ". . . composers that have learned it are always referring to it during the process of composition."

That is trivially false, as there are many counterexamples there.

Simon: "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."

That doesn't gel with my experience, including that many people do NOT teach theory as if it's about rules. It is frequently taught more as analysis and as the beginnings of a toolset (in the sense, for example, of "Here's what a scale is and here are some very common scales; these are tools you can use, and you can also use far less common scales, create your own, etc."). I do not doubt that maybe some theory teachers are conveying it as being about rules that one should or must follow, and that some students are actually following along there (especially as something other than a quirk of a historical approach), but I can't say that I've run into any of those folks in "the real world", either.
Simon, that's the "quirk of a historical approach" I mentioned. I've met no theory teacher who has said, "This is how you should compose", or no student who approached it that way. For that class (or those classes, as they often last a few semesters), you're doing exercises per those guidelines, but it's because you're learning something historical, and it's seen pedagogically as a good way to (1) introduce the basic theoretical ideas one needs for both analysis and that one will be working with as basic tools--it keeps things focused and simple, so that in a very regimented context, you begin thinking about the kinds of things you need to start thinking about (intervals, tonal centers, melodies, harmonic progressions, counterpoint, etc.), with a relatively easy way for professors to check whether you're grasping the kinds of ideas you need to deal with, (2) learn how to do things within the scope of basically arbitrary limitation sets, as that is both useful and sometimes necessary (for work-for-hire jobs) to know how to do later, (3) catalyze a greater familiarity and more thorough analytical understanding of the musical tradition that you're historically connected to.

That's different than believing that everyone always composes by rules, and especially believing that everyone composes by THOSE rules, as it is historical material (and historical material with a narrow and somewhat mythological/fictional focus) instead.
theory is great... ear and experience is great...

its like chocolate and peanut butter... each is wonderful...

but, theres nothing quite like popping a reese cup in your mouth and really savoring it.

theory guys use their ears more than they might realize... ear guys use, or, implement... the SAME theory when they make it

that Cmaj chord is a Cmaj chord... your not inventing new chords.
that use of the C chord, F chord, and G chord... that relationship exists whether you just hear the give-and-go and LIKE the sound so you use it... or if your taught 3-chord song format formally

same thing for the bridge. You know you want something "same but different" sounding... you can strum a few chords to see which one fits well... or, you can see the relative kley on the 5th circle thingy...

its both the same thing... no one is right, no one is wrong...

we might like chocolate more, or like peanut butter more... and its fun to argue about... but, we are all munching away on reeses peanut butter cups, LMAO...
I don't really understand this debate.
Jimi Hendrix and Wes didn't really need to know how to read and write music ( music theory).
There is music which is essentially from an aural tradition such as folk, blues, rock, pop and jazz. And there is music from an essentially written tradition.
I've never seen music theory as a tool to be used in composition but 1) a way of telling a group of players what you want them to play and 2) a way to decipher what composers over the last 600 years have been getting their groups of players to play.

If you going to write a piece for twenty musicians which lasts 15 minutes you will need to know how to score it .
If you are going to call yourself a 'composer' as opposed to a songwriter, drum and bass producer, jazz improvisor etc. Then you really ought to know the forms and techniques of your predecessors IMO.
I'm used to this... this thread comes up regularly on every music or music-centered site across the internet.

its the Miller Lite beer commercial of the music world...

"Tastes great!"
"Less filling!"

"No! Tastes great!!"
"No!!! Less Filling !!!"

LMAO... I would have both, given a choice.

Reply to Discussion

RSS

Sign up info

Read before you sign up to find out what the requirements are!

Store

© 2020   Created by Gav Brown.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service