As a composer and arranger, I tend to use theory as a writing tool more often than not. Even if I’m not conducting an orchestra, many large ensemble performances (in any genre) will require some kind of ‘script’ or guide to how all the individual pieces of the group should function. Coming from an orchestral background, having all the music written on a page was how I earnestly believed all music worked up until the ripe age of 12, when I first started playing the ukulele.
Since then, I’ve grown wise to the notion there are many different schools of thought used to understand music. Most rock and pop musicians today will perform their entire career without considering music theory important enough to learn in an in-depth fashion, yet many composers for large ensembles and virtually anyone writing in a more old-fashioned style will swear by it, making it the language of jazz, classical, progressive, and cinematic music. (Remember the film composers - they’re important in a few paragraphs).
The question is, is that a problem? Are these musicians missing out? Does it make them bad musicians?
Well the fact of the matter is you don’t NEED theory to be able to
- write a song
- get a band together
- play an instrument
- sell records
- enjoy complex music
Chord charts and lyric sheets communicate structure just fine, and computers/DAWs will generally offer a helping hand for arranging anything with a larger scope. What reason do we have to learn a stuffy and frankly ancient system of musical thought?
The biggest reasons have to do with the process of writing music by ‘feel’ (I.e. without technical understanding.) The “theory-ignorant” songwriter is generally forced to rely on the mantra ‘I’ll know it when I hear it’. This in itself is valuable as it demonstrates not technical, but intuitive understanding (the ability to ‘hear it’ is in itself an indication of a developed ear and sense of taste)
It’s important to understand here that theory does not necessarily mean reading music.
Reading music is just that, reading notes on a page (and performing the corresponding motor movement with your instrument). Theory helps with big-picture understanding, but you don’t need theory to read music - you just need to know where G is on your instrument, so to speak.
Reading music is to music theory as reading a street sign is to enjoying a series of novels.
Music theory’s ultimate value is its ability to directly describe musical expression of emotion. To extend the ‘reading’ analogy, theory is researching and developing a command of the (musical) language and an understanding of its idioms using established terminology.
This is a pain in the arse to visualise if you don’t know wtf I’m talking about. No coincidence that this is the point where one might reasonably ask “So what does all that have to do with film music? You said we were gonna talk about that all the way back in paragraph 2!”
Composers like John Williams, Danny Elfman and Michael Giacchino are engineers of musical emotion. For the film composer, the writing process begins not with a riff or a chord progression or a lyrical hook, but with an emotion. The composer will consider the emotion and feeling of a scene, and look for the corresponding melody, harmony, rhythm or texture to match said emotion.
With an understanding of technical terminology, the conversion of emotion to music is swift and efficient, with uncertainty of process kept to a minimum, allowing for music that still feels personal and human to be written at lightning speed (and with the turnover time for the film industry, this can be the difference between a composer being employed or not.)
As we enter the final lap of this concept, I urge you, the local musician, to consider the implications we learn from the film composers. In case the parallel isn’t staggeringly obvious, turning emotion into music is something that’s been done by quite literally everyone who has ever written music. The efficiency of that process is entirely immaterial in the context of a finished piece, and in the age of shared composition, small ensembles will create orchestrations intuitively where a songwriter’s knowledge falls short.
Whether you’re using theory or not, your task as a musician (of communicating emotion to your audience) is the same. Process is largely down to taste. Some musicians are doomed to never understand this (god knows there’s no shortage of boring music written by academics) and some do it naturally, with no training. At the risk of my head being impaled on the pitchfork of the university panels, the ends really do justify the means.