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Does Music Theory Kill Creativity?

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This is a debate my music theory class is having, and you guys should chat it up too.

So the question is, do you think that music theory as a whole helps or hinders creativity?

Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-19 22:09:00


It helps. It's just another tool to draw from

Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-19 22:13:32


At 4/19/13 10:09 PM, SineRider wrote: It helps. It's just another tool to draw from

Well here's the thing: most people who do music theory in order to be able to write music come out with the mindset that you can only use the progressions and patterns that are common, and have to follow the rules that it has. Most of the people I've seen anyway.

If you only stick to popular progressions and styles, your music becomes bland and doesn't stand out. *cough* POPULAR MUSIC *cough*

Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-19 22:19:55


At 4/19/13 10:13 PM, Acrylia wrote:
At 4/19/13 10:09 PM, SineRider wrote: It helps. It's just another tool to draw from
Well here's the thing: most people who do music theory in order to be able to write music come out with the mindset that you can only use the progressions and patterns that are common, and have to follow the rules that it has. Most of the people I've seen anyway.

If you only stick to popular progressions and styles, your music becomes bland and doesn't stand out. *cough* POPULAR MUSIC *cough*

Um... I happen to be an ABRSM Grade 8 music theorist, having obtained a Merit for it (and a Distinction in the practical aspect), and well.... go listen to my stuff.

The point about music theory is that it spans a wide range of periods. Music rules are expanded upon over time, and they've certainly been expanded upon over the last century with people like Debussy, Bartok, Schoenberg, Britten, even Gershwin... To stay true to the spirit behind what music is meant to do, we:

1) respect the time period of the piece we're intending to write. If I'm writing a four-part Mass I'm going to have to observe certain important rules of thumb which would otherwise make the music very jarring: subtle dynamics, no consecutive fifths and no consecutive eighths. I wouldn't use the same rules, however, if I'm writing video game music or even some of my lyrical pieces.

2) don' t treat theory as something that can be thrown out the window. Music theory is like any theory, in that it has to be put into practice -- and sometimes, what we find in theory can (or has to) be bent.

Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-19 22:22:46


I'm tired of having this debate every three-four months or so, so I'll just quote myself from last time this happened:

The big deal of music theory is to bypass the whole "learning by yourself" process. Thing is, everything that you know has already been discovered by someone else, so there's really no point in "discovering" it again.

Think of it as learning language, since it literally is. You can listen to other people articulate words and eventually learn how to articulate simple ideas like "I like you." But the whole process could take anywhere between a month and a year, while being taught these kinds of things can condense that to a day.

Then, if you further your study, you'll learn to express more complex ideas like "The silk of your hair, the plumpness of your cheeks and the freckles upon them, like a aggregate of sunflowers blowing through a field of raspberries ; all of this, plus the frailty of my own poor soul, beg to express my own attachment to your very being". and at song point, once you get to the point where you are confident enough in your understanding of musical theory, you can go ahead and experiment.
Disregarding musical theory would be to disregard every musical advancement since the Baroque era.

If people weren't pushing the boundaries of theoretical knowledge, we'd still be making madrigals.

Good night everybody.

Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-19 22:43:49


If you have the ear for it, then it isn't mandatory to study it. There have been genius composers who never learned an ounce of theory or how to read music at all for that matter.

I have friends who have studied theory extensively, yet are unable to play, improvise, or creatively write well past this knowledge.

Some people have a knack for it without having to study, others just don't.

Ear training is a more valuable tool in my opinion, but theory is still great.

Here is a Ted Talks presentation pondering whether or not schools kill creativity.


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Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-19 22:53:28


At 4/19/13 10:22 PM, camoshark wrote: The big deal of music theory is to bypass the whole "learning by yourself" process. Thing is, everything that you know has already been discovered by someone else, so there's really no point in "discovering" it again.

Think of it as learning language, since it literally is. You can listen to other people articulate words and eventually learn how to articulate simple ideas like "I like you." But the whole process could take anywhere between a month and a year, while being taught these kinds of things can condense that to a day.

Then, if you further your study, you'll learn to express more complex ideas like "The silk of your hair, the plumpness of your cheeks and the freckles upon them, like a aggregate of sunflowers blowing through a field of raspberries ; all of this, plus the frailty of my own poor soul, beg to express my own attachment to your very being". and at song point, once you get to the point where you are confident enough in your understanding of musical theory, you can go ahead and experiment.

I agree. At first, when reading the topic I was surely going to reply without too much thought--> "YES."
But this is only because I am self-learned and have just been using my ears for everything since ...forever. So, my answer would only be yes if after I've already learned a little beyond the basics: I guess comparable to having learned 90% of a foreign language by ear and then afterward taking a class teaching you spelling and (specifically) grammar structure, and style.
While this may help to become 110% fluent, this is not necessary for learning music, as it's a language that pretty much has no rules..it's just a matter of knowing how to express what you want to.


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Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-19 22:59:31


I usually have the tones/harmonics in my head. I try to memorize chords and whatnot only to have a shortcut to what I'm going for.

Most of the time I'm just fiddling around pressing keys and eventually found myself playing the same motions over and over. So I looked into music theory and now I'm basically able to law down what I want.

Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-19 23:44:00


At 4/19/13 10:19 PM, TroisNyxEtienne wrote: The point about music theory is that it spans a wide range of periods. Music rules are expanded upon over time, and they've certainly been expanded upon over the last century with people like Debussy, Bartok, Schoenberg, Britten, even Gershwin...

yeah, the work of a lot of early/mid 20th century composers sounds to me like it was very anti-establishment (for the time :v) and i guess it's tied in with the burgeoning jazz movement in that regard. a lot of the "classical" work from that period is the greatest music ever written imo, especially bartok and shostakovich.

but ewwwwwwwww... gershwin! hehe :P

anyway back to OP
yeah theory's cool, if you're letting it kill your creativity then you're thinking about it the wrong way.
that's pretty much it, i would rather talk about how great bartok is tbh!


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Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 00:06:33


This, for some reason, reminds me of a little story my World Music professor told me once. She was a cellist playing in a classical concert and one of her theorist friends, who originally hailed from some Southeast Asian country I think, came to see her perform. When the concert was over, she asked her friend how the concert went and her friend ponders "...how are so many people satisfied with only the 12-tone scale? I would go mad."

Of course, music theory is broad and can extend outside Western teachings, but sometimes ignorance is bliss. So, music theory can kill creativity, but perhaps you won't ever have to know it. Since there's such a humongous spectrum of music theory that no one person can ever learn and perfect in a lifetime, perhaps your music is already dead because it has somehow been "creatively" thought out or used before. That is in a grand scheme sort of meaning. In this moment, music theory of any kind is a tool. To perfect that tool is to know how to break its boundaries...it just takes a passionate person to outlive the restraints of rules and teachings to really understand the enemy and learn how to break the chains. I think that one surefire way to be creative is to know some theory and then destroy it constructively. Or you can make random guesses and actually create some genuine gems once in a while.

But I guess at the end of the day, we all have very different perspectives on what is creative...does the fact that that person knew music theory make or break the validity? Does the fact that you know music theory make or break the validity?


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Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 00:21:41


At 4/19/13 11:44 PM, midimachine wrote: that's pretty much it, i would rather talk about how great bartok is tbh!

whats some dope bartok tracks to check out?

Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 00:37:27


I'm gonna admit right now, that I haven't read anyone's responses... because it's late, and I work in the morning... and I need to be in bed soon... but I wanna share my 2 cents anyways.

Personally, I'm on the side of people that believes music theory is not at all required to write good music. However, I also believe that knowing it can be a great way to push yourself further... given the right circumstances.
Some people will learn music theory and start treating music as a textbook. "This has to go here, that has to go there, otherwise it defies my knowledge of music theory". Those kinds of people bug me, because they're substituting emotion and inspiration with text book "definitions" of how things should be according to music theory.

I really think it depends on the person on whether or not music theory kills creativity. Some people rely too heavily on the knowledge they gain and use it as a crutch to just pump out "correct" music. Other people use the knowledge properly and just use it as an aid to push their music further while still keeping their own unique style.

This is all of course putting aside the fact that knowing music theory does not at all mean you know how to write a song... I have a friend that is classically trained as a singer and knows music theory inside and out... but she can't write an original song if her life depended on it. Where as I have little to no knowledge in music theory, and she relies on me to write music for her to sing on.

So yeah... TL;DR version:
Depends on the person and how they use the knowledge they have of music theory.


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Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 00:55:37


At 4/20/13 12:37 AM, Back-From-Purgatory wrote: Some people will learn music theory and start treating music as a textbook. "This has to go here, that has to go there, otherwise it defies my knowledge of music theory".
Those kinds of people bug me, because they're substituting emotion and inspiration with text book "definitions" of how things should be according to music theory.

what if it works and you get a sick tune out of it?

i would personally love to be able to write music in this way, it would make life much easier tbh.

Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 04:43:17


Inspiration combined with information is unstoppable. I am far from a music theory expert, but anybody who believes they should not study music theory at all is either a moron or lazy imo.

Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 05:51:17


play what you feel but without the guidelines and rules there is just chaos

Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 06:11:00


At 4/19/13 11:44 PM, midimachine wrote:
At 4/19/13 10:19 PM, TroisNyxEtienne wrote: The point about music theory is that it spans a wide range of periods. Music rules are expanded upon over time, and they've certainly been expanded upon over the last century with people like Debussy, Bartok, Schoenberg, Britten, even Gershwin...
yeah, the work of a lot of early/mid 20th century composers sounds to me like it was very anti-establishment (for the time :v) and i guess it's tied in with the burgeoning jazz movement in that regard. a lot of the "classical" work from that period is the greatest music ever written imo, especially bartok and shostakovich.

but ewwwwwwwww... gershwin! hehe :P

I enjoyed playing Gershwin during graded exams (I Got Plenty o' Nuttin was my favourite of his), but agreed: anything from Bartok & Shostakovich = win.

Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 07:52:25


At 4/20/13 04:43 AM, The-iMortal wrote: Inspiration combined with information is unstoppable. I am far from a music theory expert, but anybody who believes they should not study music theory at all is either a moron or lazy imo.

That's kind of insulting to people like myself who choose to not study theory because they like to discover things in their own way. I like the journey and experimentation of trying everything for myself rather than reading about it in a book.


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Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 08:03:04


learn theory and then ignore the rules when you feel like it, every self taught self proclaimed genius guitarist that i know have had their first composition be a generic speedmetalfest in E minor so I don't really fall for the 'finding your own way' argument

Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 09:05:32


At 4/20/13 07:52 AM, MetalRenard wrote:
At 4/20/13 04:43 AM, The-iMortal wrote: Inspiration combined with information is unstoppable. I am far from a music theory expert, but anybody who believes they should not study music theory at all is either a moron or lazy imo.
That's kind of insulting to people like myself who choose to not study theory because they like to discover things in their own way. I like the journey and experimentation of trying everything for myself rather than reading about it in a book.

he probably meant "... anybody who believies they should not know music theory".
I too learnt something from myself instead of reading, and when I read it I was like: "oh wow, i already knew this thing, but didn't know it was called 'minor chord'"

btw to answer the title: No.


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Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 09:15:25


At 4/20/13 12:21 AM, jarrydn wrote:
At 4/19/13 11:44 PM, midimachine wrote: that's pretty much it, i would rather talk about how great bartok is tbh!
whats some dope bartok tracks to check out?

man, any of his sonatas for violin & piano. number 2 is spesh great.
i forgot which was the one i sampled in that trap beat but that was also bartok and yeaa!


p.s. i am gay

Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 10:17:48


At 4/19/13 10:22 PM, camoshark wrote: If people weren't pushing the boundaries of theoretical knowledge, we'd still be making madrigals.

I write madri- hey wait! >:(

As said above, theory is just one tool in the toolbox. I know composers who aren't creative enough to otherwise write good music but are saved by the technicalities of theory letting them create ideas- people who wait for weeks just to get one idea. Yet I can sit and just spew ideas, and yes, I find the theory side and everyone shouting "Just pick one idea next time!" at me is quite limiting when I could just go off on musical adventures for minutes at a time going through countless random ideas, and so could many other composers I know... but at the end of the day, that limiting factor is beneficial.

I've experienced writing music both without any regard for theory, just by ear (when I first started) and writing music strictly by theory (in theory class). I have to say, the ear is much faster and more pleasurable to write for, but the quality of work is often lesser, while theory is harder to write in full mindset but often yields more of the "why didn't I think of that?" stuff that another composer might hear. However, the real trick is not one over the other- it's moderation of both.

Compare some Romantic- or Post-Romantic-Era classical to almost any modern popular song (pop, rock, dubstep, etc.)- a brilliant show of knowledge and moderation between theory and creativity vs. something centered kinda around emotion but utterly ruled over by underlying laws of the particular genre, even though a good number of modern professional popular writers/musicians know less actual "theory rules" than you probably do-there are big-name "composers" that cannot read or write music.

I'm listening to some Gershwin right now (early 20th Century/Post-Romantic) and let me say, you don't get music like this today no matter where you look (except perhaps a few outstanding film soundtracks or broadway scores). There's a lot of theory behind it, as WELL as a lot of creativity and emotion. It's not about theory RUINING creativity. It's about being good enough to use it to augment and supplement creativity. Nowadays in popular genres it's just about fitting in and using the chord progression everyone's going mad about or the form that is popular (seriously... most modern songs have the same form... you can't critique classical for that). If theory ruins your creativity, it means you need to work harder on finding the right balance or else you'll end up like Harry Parch, and remember kids, no one wants to be a Harry Parch! :P


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Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 10:33:17


At 4/20/13 08:03 AM, lasse wrote: I don't really fall for the 'finding your own way' argument

Your loss. I'm having a great time. Haha


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Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 10:34:37


lol, I dunno about you guys, but knowing that I know more about music than people with millions of fans is definitely a plus to learning theory... you can at least feel good about yourself. Then it sets in that you'll be working aside people who know nothing about music yet call themselves composers. Then you cry yourself to sleep for choosing this job path.

After a few days of that, you get the incredible and irresistible urge to help people who know nothing about theory but honestly would most likely benefit from it. Then you remember teaching, at least in the US, is a horrible idea if you want to live a good life without financial trouble and end up on the line for a few more months. XD

I honestly feel anyone who wants to use the term composer to describe themself should at least know how to read and write standard modern notation. The Principles of Art and Design are to art as theory is to music; you can be an artist without knowing them, but you cannot express your ideas to other artists without knowing them. I know it may sound a bit harsh of a criticism, but people who cannot express their ideas or understand when others express their ideas are deaf and mute in the language of music. It's fine if you struggle; I live my life with a theory notebook on the desk next to me and constantly have to ask people like Camoshark for clarification on what I call something... but I agree: those who rally against theory as some sort of plague or disease and declare that they have no use for it horrify me... you're denouncing the very people whose music you are inspired by, and the people who inspired them, and the people who inspired them, and so on back to the very beginning of time.

Music theory is a valuable tool and is worth the cost in time of learning it. Sure, you can get by without learning about orchestration or temperaments or A7add9 chords, but not knowing what the notes C E and G together make a certain harmony, even if you don't know what it is called or why, or that you can then play C F A and get another harmony that sounds good with that, and yet one might have written dozens of pieces without knowing such or at the very least, observing on their own such, is frightening. If the patterns don't jump out like that, you need to go and have them pointed out for you. Once they all start appearing, you will be completely amazed- shocked- and everything you write will feel even better than before.


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Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 10:37:05


and yeah, I'm all for people who learn on their own, especially at their own pace. I absolutely loved figuring things out when I first started, and I wish everyone got to do that- theory classes can be good or bad, enlightening or boring, but discovery is never boring!


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Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 10:45:48


At 4/20/13 10:33 AM, MetalRenard wrote:
At 4/20/13 08:03 AM, lasse wrote: I don't really fall for the 'finding your own way' argument
Your loss. I'm having a great time. Haha

Metal is on point here.

Look at Dave Brubeck, one of the most influential jazz musicians of our time. Never learned to read music.

He experimented with odd time signature and tonalities, and he was probable able to think outside the box because for him, there was no box to begin with.


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Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 10:48:50


No, not overall. It helps you better understand what you're doing, making it easier for you to create music, and probably make you more productive. Feel free to stroll from the paved ways though, to create something that's unique. However, to break the rules and still make good music, I think it's helpful to know the rules first and why they're there.


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Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 10:54:40


At 4/20/13 10:45 AM, frootza wrote: Look at Dave Brubeck, one of the most influential jazz musicians of our time. Never learned to read music.

He experimented with odd time signature and tonalities, and he was probable able to think outside the box because for him, there was no box to begin with.

Brubeck must have learned to read and write music... he must have learned theory to some degree, as he studied with many brilliant composers when he was younger as well. He also definitely had to learn orchestration and theory because he wrote a variety of works for choir and orchestra in addition to jazz. It is completely impossible to write for orchestra without knowing orchestration- or else it's like putting random dots on a page and crossing your fingers ranges, phrases, and everything else works out- this was especially impossible back when he wrote many of these works, in the 70s to 90s because music composition software or anything that could check ranges and all is only just now becoming powerful enough to do that. Unless he sketched ideas and sent it to an orchestrator, which is not a usual approach for casual composition, he most definitely studied quite a bit.


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Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 11:31:37


Samulis, you're making a lot of assumptions there mate. :)
You're assuming I am unable to recognise patterns intuitively rather than mathematically. I compose intuitively, I always have and my best stuff is music I make no effort to compose, that just happens without thinking at all (and anyone who listens agrees every time it happens).
I am able to force myself to compose a piece of music even if I'm not inspired. That's called being a professional.
I am capable, without knowing the explicit rules of theory, of composing for a very specific idea or feeling.
My ear can tell me when something is wrong, I hear an odd vibration in the sound and I know it's not "in key".
I strive to be different all the time, giving myself new challenges and trying new things.

Give us guys more credit! We didn't take the same classical path as you but that doesn't make our work any less valid, any less artistic or any less pure.


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Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 11:40:38


At 4/20/13 11:31 AM, MetalRenard wrote: Samulis, you're making a lot of assumptions there mate. :)
You're assuming I am unable to recognise patterns intuitively rather than mathematically. I compose intuitively, I always have and my best stuff is music I make no effort to compose, that just happens without thinking at all (and anyone who listens agrees every time it happens).
I am able to force myself to compose a piece of music even if I'm not inspired. That's called being a professional.
I am capable, without knowing the explicit rules of theory, of composing for a very specific idea or feeling.
My ear can tell me when something is wrong, I hear an odd vibration in the sound and I know it's not "in key".
I strive to be different all the time, giving myself new challenges and trying new things.

Give us guys more credit! We didn't take the same classical path as you but that doesn't make our work any less valid, any less artistic or any less pure.

And so do people who learn with a theoretical learning curve. We give credit to those who picked up instruments and music all by themselves, I've even heard some of them and I know of the skill they have -- I grew up knowing some people like you, but just because you didn't learn theory doesn't mean that we who learned theory are confined to a box and have to get out of it. That's another assumption that kills creativity.

Some genres will require theory in order to understand them and the spirit behind them much better (I sometimes base my stuff on chants, three- or four-part polyphony starting from before the Baroque area), but after that, you have a paintbrush on a proverbial canvas that has five lines and four spaces.

Response to Does Music Theory Kill Creativity? 2013-04-20 11:55:37


At 4/20/13 10:45 AM, frootza wrote:
At 4/20/13 10:33 AM, MetalRenard wrote:
At 4/20/13 08:03 AM, lasse wrote: I don't really fall for the 'finding your own way' argument
Your loss. I'm having a great time. Haha
Metal is on point here.

Look at Dave Brubeck, one of the most influential jazz musicians of our time. Never learned to read music.

He experimented with odd time signature and tonalities, and he was probable able to think outside the box because for him, there was no box to begin with.

Wait, what?

How profoundly deep from the depths of your ass did you pull that out of?

It's the exact opposite, Brubeck is probably one of the jazz composers who theorized the most the whole concept of jazz theory and, in fact, pushed an emerging genre - Third-Stream - that is based around the combination of Jazz AND Classical theory to the foreground of the jazz scene.

In any case, I see a lot of people trying to defend self discovery. While the idea is honorable, I would tend to respectfully disagree with those allegations, as it is very much fruitless. I was under the impression that if you truly love the art that you do and are of the experimental kind, you'd want to push the boundaries of said theory, or at the very least, know the extent of it.

The whole idea of learning theory is to find techniques that you would have never found on your own. I would truly never have thought of substituting the V chord in a minor ii-V-I for it's altered counterpart to produce a V7(#9b13) chord, nor use the supertonic of the minor parallel (iimin7(b5) - I) as a dominant in a progression.

Now I'm REALLY tired about this goddamned argument, so if anyone could provide me with an actual argument in favor of NOT learning theory, we could actually start a genuine debate. Because right now, all I've seen is people who haven't learned that are talking about theory as if they knew what they were talking about.

P.S. before anyone shoots this argument, Vangelis (the guy who did Chariots of Fire) DID start-off knowing nothing about theory. But you know what? When he realized that not knowing that was holding him back, he just pulled out his theory books and learned the goddamned thing.