The perennial question; is it essential to know some music theory to compose and be a successful musician. This blog post was inspired by a recent forum conversation that I came across. It all started when someone asked whether it was essential to be classically trained and whether it gives an edge in composing. When talking about being trained, it is implied a more in-depth knowledge of music theory. This is beyond the standard basic knowledge, but we are getting ahead of ourselves a bit. Let us take a closer look.
The Basics of Music Theory
I would suggest that any aspiring musician should take some time to learn the fundamentals of music theory. These being rhythm, scales and how to form chords. If your track does not have the basics of an interesting and catchy rhythm it is not going to go well for you. Learning the scales is probably the most important thing to get under your belt quickly. This will allow you to know what notes work with which scale. It also avoids a trial and error approach that will help you work more quickly. But your track is not going to go far if you do not know how to form basic chords, be they major or minor. I will cover the formation of chords and progressions in another post. So for this little section, it is an affirmative that basic music theory knowledge is essential.
However, will this be enough to put your music out there and make it shine above all the other music you can consume?
So you have the basics nailed. Do you need to go further and will it help you to compose better music? This depends, as many a famous musician has made their name without being able to do certain things in music. Take for instance Paul McCartney, he famously cannot read music. Did this stop him writing many a catchy tune as a member of the Beatles? You can go a long way on very little knowledge. However, to make it in the world as a film and media composer it would be advantageous to have a more detailed understanding of music theory. I would not, however, suggest you go out and study for a degree in the subject unless that is what you would like to do.
There are many books on the subject of music theory, some of them more successful than others. For a good grounding in 4 part harmonic writing, I would suggest getting hold of Elementary Harmony by C.H.Kitson. The book is a bit long in the tooth but is still very much relevant in today’s world. Kitson takes someone with a basic understanding of scales and theory into the world of 4-part harmony. I would go as far to say that I would not be writing the pieces of music that I have for the choir that I am the organist and music director of.
I would also look at counterpoint. You may think what relevance this has in modern music. Let me tell you, a simple understanding of counterpoint will help you form both simple and complex melodies that work together. A nice treatise on the subject is Fux, The Study of Counterpoint by Alfred Mann. Once you have absorbed the teachings of counterpoint you could move on to studying the form of Fugue.
We have established that having an in-depth knowledge of theory is helpful. However, as well as a blessing it does come with a curse. Let us look at the following situation, you are sat at your instrument and know that you are going to compose in the key of D minor. Cool, we know what notes are in that scale along with the relevant chords. But by those two simple choices, you have arguably closed a part of your mind off from experimenting. Would you automatically consider that by changing the G minor chord to a G Major chord the progression takes a more upbeat feel? Would you also consider notes that are not normally found in the scale of choice?
Closing notes (or double bar line)
In closing this post there is one thing evident, there is no actual right or wrong answer. Going back to the forum conversation that inspired this post, the vast majority of respondents concurred that basic knowledge is a must. Providing you have the basics to hand nothing should stop you from writing your own music. Whether you continue to build on this knowledge is personal preference. I have found that the older I get the more interested I have become in learning how music ticks.
One tip I can give you is to listen to a lot of music, at least a whole album each day. Don’t focus your listening on just one genre of music, step out of your comfort zone. I listen to music from Gregorian Chant, Classical/Baroque all the way through to Electronic and Symphonic Rock. What do you think, is a deeper knowledge of music theory essential to make music? Does it make the whole process easier? or Does it stilt your creativity? Please leave a comment below with your view and check out my latest compositions.