My thoughts on Music Theory.
I get asked a lot: "Is knowing music theory a prerequisite to making great music?"
Fantastic question. I happen to have a very strong opinion about it.
Full disclosure, I also happen to be a bit of an expert in music theory.
Getting a masters degree in it has made me more convinced than ever that knowing music theory is NOT a prerequisite to creating great music.
I’ll get to my reasons in a minute.
What is Music Theory, actually?
Music theory is simply the study of the language of music.
Music theory is to a musical style like grammar is to a language.
For instance, musical grammar can teach us how to put a musical sentence together (melody), how we can structure a paragraph (harmony / chords) and finally, how we can structure a full story (the form of a musical work).
Except, music existed long before language did.
For language we need rules to help us express ourselves. We had to create an ordered system to communicate more effectively, and grammar explains that system to us.
Music is the other way around.
With music theory, we created rules to try and understand what we were already hearing.
So the music came first, and then the music theory.
Just like in language you get different alphabets and linguistic structures across the globe, in music you’ll also find different musical theories relating to music of different countries and time periods.
For instance, you may ‘know’ that an octave is divided up into 12 semi-tones. You may assume that to be a universal truth.
That’s just one way of divvying up an octave.
If you play those 12 semi-tones in a particular sequence, we happen to call that a ‘chromatic scale’.
Just like we happen to call some chocolate and a marshmallow melted between two graham crackers a ‘smore’.
It’s nothing more than a man-made invention with a name.
Dividing an octave into 12 semi-tones has given many people 12 fundamental building blocks that we often rearrange to create new musical sequences (some of these are called scales, some are called melodies).
Using these building blocks just happens to be the way that music of a Western-Classical culture has been built for a very long time.
But there are other parts of the world that do things differently.
The Arab tone system for instance divides the octave in 24 quarter-tones instead of 12 semi-tones.
How do we play quarter-tones on our piano? Well, the short answer is, we don’t.
We stick to our 12 semi-tones and are creative with what we have.
In order to be creative with our building blocks, do we need to know everything about how and why these 12 semi-tones came into being, and how some people have chosen to be creative with them?
What do you think?
Why I don’t think you need Music Theory
Let me draw another parallel here. This time, between music and visual art.
Do you think a visual artist needs to know the names of all the colors in the rainbow?
Do you think that their knowledge of complimentary colors, color palettes and the 7 rules of composition is what make them a prolific artist?
Or do you think they can make beautiful art from within, from their own unique taste and sense of creativity without all that education?
Maybe the artist has a feel for choosing good color combinations.
Maybe, through making so many paintings, the artist has nurtured an innate sense for creating a balanced composition without ever reading a textbook.
Do you believe that is possible?
When Music Theory can be practical
There are times when knowledge of musical theory is practical.
But this is the kind of knowledge you can get in an afternoon online.
Knowing some basic jargon does wonders for your musical communication skills.
Imagine you’re trying to have a conversation about music with another musician. It becomes way easier to do this if you’re both using the same words to refer to the same things.
Conversely, describing a concept in beat-making can be hella confusing if you’re using pre-existing terms incorrectly.
Just imagine an artist trying to describe their art using the world ‘blue’ for the color yellow, or saying ‘red’ for the color white. That paints a very jarring picture.
Learning basic musical jargon is not hard.
If you are reading this blog post, you’ll be able to learn the musical jargon with no problems.
The second scenario in which I believe music theory can help you is in the area of problem solving.
If you’re consistently struggling with bass lines, for instance, then learning a little bit about bass lines can give you some clues on where you may be getting stuck.
If you struggle writing chords, then reading a little bit about chord progressions might give you some ideas on what to try next.
But hear me when I say the following:
When I say “read a little bit about chord progressions” I do not mean quit making beats for a year while you look at that thick music theory book that cost you $50 thinking :”Oh no this is so hard and complicated, how will I ever learn?”.
No no, just google ‘how to write a bassline’, or google ‘how to build a basic chord progression”. Choose 3 links. That’s IT!
Take a small piece of information, apply it, and move on with your own creative process.
That's all it really takes.
A Final Word
Part of the reason I feel so strongly that no one needs music theory to make great beats is because so many people use not knowing music theory as an excuse for not making any music at all.
“Not knowing music theory” can become a limiting belief that stops you from growing in your craft.
And that simply isn’t true, because if you’re reading this, you are only limited by your own beliefs about yourself and what you can achieve.
You can solve your musical problems through trial and error and that’s why I still believe you don’t need music theory to make a great song.
At the end of the day it’s you, your curiosity and your own experiments that will give you a feel for what works and what doesn’t.
You can’t get a feel for that by reading a textbook.
So keep moving forward!
By all means learn as you go, but YOU’RE the secret sauce and not some textbook you haven’t memorized yet.
Lots of love,
lil miss beats