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How Music Theory is (not) Killing Your Creativity

     Do you think you are spending more time figuring out what would mechanically fit into a song rather than just let it flow? Has anyone had to deal with this kind of problem at some point?

     This has to be one of the greatest discussion points amongst young (and sometimes not so young) musicians. The problem is that some musicians think of music theory as a discipline that you learn because it tells you what to do, like it is prescribing a modus operandi for any given musical context. And if you eventually fail to follow those rules, then you are doing it wrong! I believe that this understanding of the usage of music theory knowledge is the reason why so many people think that learning it will mean the death of their creativity.

     Theory doesn’t kill creativity. But yourself and other people might, depending on what they will tell you and how much you let it affect your decisions in the music-making process. Most college level music theory refer to music that was written four to five hundred years ago. What happens is that this language clearly does not work for other aesthetics. Remember that most modern music genres wouldn’t exist if the people who helped develop them were using the same set of “rules” and aesthetic of the music that was being made before them.

     Theory explains music, it doesn’t restrict anything. It’s the accumulated knowledge base of all the previous musicians before you. It isn’t a set of rules you necessarily have to apply. Music theory, as a discipline, only seeks to describe music as it is made in the real world, free from aesthetic or artistic judgement. This means that different forms of music require different theory approaches to describe them. For instance, you wouldn’t talk about 16th century counterpoint the same way you would talk about Jazz. However, if you know enough of the theory behind this music you can draw distinctions between the way each style of music is composed. This should tell you that music theory gives you the tools and language to achieve a certain aesthetic. For instance, this should tell you that abusing the usage of parallel fifths, unresolved dissonances or coherent harmonic language when composing a period piece in the style of Bach, probably is not going to sound so good. It’s not that it is wrong… it just won’t sound quite like the musical period you are referring to.

     This is where the “learning to break the rules” comes in, if you actually know how to emulate that musical period, and now you want to give it a modern twist. This should be fine and it relates to what is called a musical quotation, while being fully aware of the context of that musical period, of how music was done and what tools you should be using to compose it. All in all, music theory gives you the language to understand the music itself and also the means to communicate with other musicians. It applies to all music, to all genres and contexts and the more you learn about different styles of music, the more you can draw connections between different aesthetics and the language used to describe them. This practical language saves time and reduces ambiguity when communicating with other musicians and gives you time to actually play and compose the music you want to, instead of getting yourself lost in translation.

     The astonishing part is that people take so much time and energy devoted to something they say that they love and at the same time be proud of the fact that they don’t know anything about it. I have never heard of any great musician regretting the musical knowledge they acquired during the years. Building this knowledge leads you to such rich experiences that it is hard to think that studying music isn’t the right thing to do. Learning music theory empowers you to choose from a tool set you acquire and develop over time. You do this by trying to match the music you hear in your head to the one you are actually able to produce.

     The end point is that you should never choose notes, scales, chords you play based on theory but rather on how they sound. Some composers may rely more on their instinct than others, but at some point it is always good to have some guidelines, something to return to in case you are lost, or to make you stick to the point instead of wandering around aimlessly. It’s like if you were talking to someone and suddenly you go off-topic and never return to the main one. In that sense, learning music theory is like developing the skills of a language. While you increase your lexicon, you learn how to better express yourself, to be more objective in the way you present, develop and explore your ideas.

     At the very least, music theory helps you to better understand your creative self! It won’t kill your musical creativity, although it is normal that when you start learning it you will probably shift your focus to it. To some people, this may indeed mean less focus on creativity and this is also one of the reasons why you should be wary of the way music theory is taught in some places. Nevertheless, in most cases this is just a temporary phase while the student is trying to make sense of the information while making it his own by marrying the concepts with the music/sound itself. Music theory can expose you to a world of new ideas and therefore, it won’t limit your abilities. As a matter of fact, when creating it is beneficial to impose some boundaries or limitations… but that is for another talk!

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