Updated: Mar 14, 2021
I enjoy discussing music theory like any nerdy musician does, but what role does it have when composing music? DOES it have a role? Arguments are on both sides of the coin. When I was still figuring out how to compose, theory was beneficial for figuring out why composers wrote a certain way. As I started really delve into my own writing, I realized that music theory, in a lot of ways, is very restrictive when you have to follow the “rules.
"How dare you use parallel octaves?" [or fifths or fourths]
"You have minor 9ths in your chord stack?!"
"What you don’t believe in the leading tone? (more on that one in a later article)
"You can’t reharmonize a chord progression like that!"
Well, you see, I can, and do, all of those things. After studying and applying many different orchestration concepts, I discovered long ago that these rules are meant to be broken.
So, change my mind: Music Theory Is Not A Compositional Tool.
I know, I know, for some, this is an ideal that goes against the grain, but I believe it to be absolutely true. In most cases, I do NOT use music theory when composing; on the contrary, I use music fact. What is music fact? Well, that’s easy: what I say it is. Let’s look at it in terms of time travel. In every universe of story-telling in which time travel is a practical action and not just a theoretical concept, there are different “rules,” right? The people who generate the script have the say as to what the rules are…what the FACTS are. And therefore, THEY decide how they want time travel to be justified in their universe. A mentor of mine I had many years ago said, “if you don’t like the facts, change the facts.” And that’s what I do. An original composition is MY universe. I enjoy discussing music theory as any nerdy musician does, but what role does it have when composing music? DOES it have a role? Arguments are on both sides of the coin. When I was still figuring out how to compose, theory was beneficial for figuring out why composers wrote a certain way. As I started really delve into my own writing, I realized that music theory, in a lot of ways, is very restrictive when you have to follow the “rules.” I only really use music theory to orchestrate, especially in regard to voice leading, the observance of low interval limits, and obviously instrument ranges. Everything else is on the table.
So, let’s get into that for a minute: music arrangements. If you’re trying to “cover” a song, do it differently, especially when it’s iconic music; otherwise, it WILL fall short because you’re not that iconic group and it won’t REALLY work unless you really lean into treating it differently. Leave the lyrics the same because that’s the connective glue that engages the audience, and then pick and choose what elements from the original need to be there, if any, and what doesn’t. Can you change the chords, can you change the supporting lines (horns or background vocals), can you change EVERYTHING except the vocalist? Absolutely. In fact, you’re encouraged to do so.
But! That’s just like my opinion, man!
As always, I hope this is helpful for someone out there!
Michael is a music composer and audio engineer who likes to write articles about his craft…sometimes. Sometimes he writes about leadership, space, dogs, and other cool things that might pique interest.
Check out his website: www.michaelandrewnewell.com