Why I think music theory rules (but also kind of sucks)

Okay, so the title of this one may be a tad confusing, if not just a bit silly. But I do think it is apt, because that’s the best I can describe my feelings toward “Music Theory,” in it’s common sense.

The term itself is strange I think, first of all. I mean music theory seems as though it could possibly refer to so many different ideas and concepts. However, its usual meaning is an organization of musical concepts such as pitch, rhythm, and harmonic relationships, into a system; more or less it is a language. Or, more accurately, it is a new set of terms and rules to add into our own language the ability to accurately describe music and have other people understand what the hell you’re talking about. That’s the most important concept to understand when thinking about music in its theoretical terms… it is NOT a set of rules, but merely a common understood language. It is a tool for understanding and description of general, and specific musical ideas. In this capacity, knowledge of theory is wonderfully useful. As a musician, to be able to describe to other musicians what you are playing, or what you want them to play so easily and clearly is invaluable.

I think this is a fairly easy way to think of music theory, and without a doubt the most important in my point of view. However, there are other uses of these concepts, but to be appreciated properly, I think a bit more background is needed before they are introduced. Where theory came from (in a conceptual sense, rather than a geographical one) is immensely important. The ideas and terms related to music theory have been developed over hundreds of years, and have come about as a result of studying the past. From the tasks of studying, cataloging, and explaining the thousands of significant musical pieces written throughout history, certain patterns have emerged, then developed and expanded, and so on. The process of development between music theory and of actual music have been ongoing, and fluid. But the important point here is that theory is a result of music, and not the other way around. So the idea that theory is a bunch of rules is debunked right there. If you want proof, do a formal and harmonic analysis of any Beethoven symphony and tell me how well he follows the rules. If you are well taught and learned, you will likely be able to come up with theoretical explanations for the things he does, but its only because terms were invented to solve that very dilemma. If you were wondering, this is the area in which theory starts to suck pretty bad, when dealing with some beautiful piece of music like a Mozart sonata or one of Beethoven’s symphonies. In many cases, it becomes an exercise of near-futility to really make sense of it, and that’s because the truth is that when these pieces were being written, the composer wasn’t thinking much about theory, or so it would seem. It seems much more likely that they were doing whatever the hell they wanted, and, of course, what they thought might sound cool.

So there’s my big statement: composers composed what they composed because they thought it sounded cool. Of course they were informed, they had learned the theory relevant up to their time period in one way or another (although historically it was learned much more through practice than lecture,) and that does have to be taken into account. But if they were following guidelines, it was because they knew it would work for whatever part they were working on, and showed little hesitation in shaking things up. So, in that way, theory is very useful information. Being well studied, it can be quite handy to look at a passage and have a great idea as to how Handel or Mozart might have treated it. The problems set in when you use your knowledge of theory like a rigid framework and let the music serve it, instead of the other way around. Many “old-school” composers dislike the idea of composing within a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) environment, or a piece of notation software, because you are inherently limited by that software’s capabilities, or the methods which it may promote by its interface design. Holding too tight a grip on principles of music theory is no different.

As I’ve said of past topics, none of this is new. I think everyone figures all this out eventually, or I hope they do. Even the high-art types in the music scene embrace the breaking of the rules (but only if you know those rules ahead of time.) However, there isn’t enough emphasis put on the practical reasons for learning theory when you are actually being taught it, in many cases. I know that was the case for me, and it led to a lot of frustration. Learn it as a tool, a multifaceted one. Remember the doors it can open in communication, and the great inspiration it can provide. Just never use it to dictate how you treat a new musical piece. Unless you want to… I guess the most exciting point in all of this is do whatever you want (musically that is).

Scoring a Film – Part 1, or something

It’s quite a large undertaking, daunting to say the absolute least, to score a film. Daunting in part because there are so many different meanings for that term as it relates to style and genre, the artistic intent of the director, the composers own artistic intent, and so on. There is no real formula, and no right or wrong way.

In the coming months I will be taking on my largest scoring project yet, it’s not a feature length film, but a solid 25 minutes and focusing on a genre and style I’m largely unfamiliar with… namely country and western. The film is titled “Of Blood and Brine,” and is being made by Film 5 Entertainment, for whom I’ve been fortunate enough to do plenty of work in the past. This film will serve as their senior thesis for graduation, and will premier at the Angelika Theater sometime this spring. It is a fantastic opportunity, and something I feel grateful to be a part of, but I can’t help but be more than a bit nervous about it (as I always am before starting a film project.)

These things typically come together in a way that is difficult to describe, like some sort of organized chaos… but by the time its all over with it’s nearly always surprisingly good, to me anyway. The fact that they get completed at all is astonishing based on my feelings of overwhelming, but they do. Anyway, this is the preliminary thought process I suppose, and I will continue to post updates of the process and whatnot as things continue to move along. So stick with me! We will get through this feat together, and it will be great fun I’m sure.

To find out more about the film and the people making it, check out http://www.filmfiveentertainment.com/

All the gear!

I think most musicians and audio professional will be able to sympathize profoundly when I say that I’m a bit obsessed with gear. By comparison to many, my collection of things musical is actually quite small, but I’m catching up… and the pursuit is teaching me things.

First of all, it’s teaching me to repair things, which seems odd… but when buying on a budget the ability to repair a broken piece becomes invaluable, and it’s saved me some serious cash on some cool purchases. Lesson here: get a soldering iron and learn how to solder your ass off.

The second noteworthy ( and I believe most important) thing this gear lust has taught me is that I really don’t need much of this junk at all. Not to say I don’t use it, or that I don’t absolutely love having it and plan on buying much more of it, but I do not need it to get the job done, in most cases. And that’s a good thing, I believe. One should never really need some specific item to be able to make something to be proud of. To want something on the other hand, in order to allow for a new or different way of creating something to be proud of is a different story.

Gear can inspire, absolutely. So can it allow a different perspective, one that otherwise may be inaccessible. Tons of gear will not make a production better, whether it be 2 dozen rare vintage microphones on a drum kit, or an entire wall of vintage analog synthesizers. All these things are merely tools, and the ways they are used along with the performances they capture are where the true inspiration and subsequent creation really begins.

To be clear, these observations and ideas are not necessarily new, or uniquely my own among the artistic community, but are those that I am in the process of experiencing, first hand. Many have had the same realization along the years, and it is my most important one yet, I think. For the sake of an example (a very brief one), in a number of recent mixes that I’ve been very proud of, I’ve been able to identify one or two key components that really made the project come together, above all the other elements. In most cases, that component has been a single (sometimes accidental) room mic, recording the source indirectly. Just one microphone, out of the dozen that may be in use recording a full ensemble or any particular element, has become the entire life of the project. Those individual mics have inspired an entire sound and feel, making many of the other elements far less important, and proving that the correct, or for more fun, “incorrect” use of a couple tools is all you really need. It had nothing to do with which microphone it was in terms of model, it was purely the way in which it was used to capture an already inspiring performance.

The conclusion, if there must be one, is to really look hard at the tools you may have at your disposal, and challenge yourself not to need them to accomplish whatever goal you have, but instead use them to allow you to look at your goal in a new way, and bring to it a new approach. Be inspired by the opportunity an object provides, rather than the object itself. And by all means, keep collecting!