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How important is music theory to composition?

Starting to compose after such a long break from music meant reconsidering the role of theory.

Theory 16th Sep 2021

While I had a strong appreciation of the role of music theory as a student and (homeschool) teacher which included putting my son through his first grade AMEB theory just after he turned seven through to grade 4 musicianship at the age of ten, when I suddenly started composing last year after so many years doing no music at all, it was an opportunity to reconsider my approach to the role of theory.

I began relearning theory from the moment I sat down to notate my first piece, re-remembering how to physically write on manuscript paper, transcribing the loops I'd thrown together in my DAW...

Musical Escapism ยท Get Up And Dance

..then abandoning that for MuseScore once I realised that having it on paper was no use to me in the digital workplace.

One of my most frustrating times was at this point when I was trying to notate original melodies in Logic Pro (which I'd began with after I discovered they were running a free 90 day trial).

After spending half an hour watching various videos to try learn simply how to tie a bleeding note across a bar line and ready to throw my laptop off the nearest bridge, I was asking myself what on Earth the point was to DAWs if you couldn't actually write music in them? After all I could have written that bar in seconds with a manuscript pad!

I eventually realised that DAWs are good for certain things and not great for others. Writing notes on a staff is not one of the things that is most easily done in a DAW. This is probably why musical notation software is still so popular.

Once I downloaded MuseScore I was suddenly able to begin composing in the way that works best for me. MuseScore also gives me access to the beautiful sounds of 'virtual instruments' which are an integral part of every piece I have written given that I don't have an orchestra at my beck and call!

I wouldn't like to imagine being without the beautiful cello sound that features so often in my work, however complex percussion is much easier to add in GarageBand (my Logic Pro trial ended and I couldn't afford to pay for it), so much so that I tend to leave it out of my notated scores unless I'm convinced someone might really want to use it.

Given my background as the child of a school music teacher and having invested so much time teaching my own son traditional music theory, there came a point when I had to decide whether or not to embark on some serious music theory refresher course, and presumably extend that to the most advanced grades which I'd missed because life intervened the first time round.

But it was at this point that I began noticing the attitude to music theory had changed quite radically in the intervening years and I also questioned the value of taking what seemed, in retrospect, such an intellectual approach to the creative process that is musical composition?

Which begs the question: how important is the study of music theory to musical composition?

It was at that early juncture that I opted not to throw myself hard into a traditional music theory course but rely more on my ear than the 'rules of music'.

This is not to say that music theory isn't helpful. It certainly greases the wheels of the mental and physical process of figuring out what key a new piece is in and what time signature it has which is often and still the most painful part of beginning each piece in MuseScore for me.

I have to notate everything as I go because there's now way I'd remember what I've just made up if I didn't type it up. Another approach is to record the playing or play straight into the notation software as I've noticed it has a functionality to transcribe on the fly while you are playing but I've not mastered that and prefer to do it manually.

For people with more recent and advanced practical experience than my life has afforded me, this may not slow them down so much but as I am forced to juggle music with my day job I still find getting the notated version right can distract me from whatever musical idea I had.

The more comfortable you are with mentally analysing the beat, rhythm and tonality, the easier it is to notate a piece of music, without being inhibited by the interruptions required to notate every bar.

I think it's fair to say that the approach you choose depends on which skills you prefer to rely on the most on and if you prefer to do it by ear, I don't think there's anything invalid about using that as your sole guide.

After all, I'm certainly not thinking about which cadence I'm using and what the various parts are doing beyond noticing I'm using particular chords. I let my ear be my guide. In the end that is all that counts IMO.

In fact, suddenly becoming a prolific composer almost overnight at the age of fifty has given me good pause for thought with regard to how and why I didn't recognise my own ability to compose when I was a serious music student as a child or when I returned to it after the first twelve year break while raising my son?

I wonder if the traditional academic music culture spends too much time steeped in intellectualising over chord progressions and deciding who to apply the label of genius to, and in so doing manage to convince themselves that writing music should only be attempted by students of advanced theory?

I look at discussions about music theory which seem to me a little obsessive in their attempts to pull apart the chords and structures used by long-dead composers and wonder if they are missing the forest for the trees?

Perhaps the worship of long-dead 'geniuses' does more to dissuade people from composing than it does to encourage people if it gives the impression you need a degree in music theory before you begin?

None of this is to say that if you or your child is learning music that you should not get a good deal of music theory under your/their belt, but I also think actual composition will provide a lot more practice at these rudiments than listening to a few intervals and recognising the notes. And at the end of it you will have a piece of music to call your own!

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