A few years ago, a fellow who went by “Z.” moved into an upstairs apartment a few doors down from me. Z played keyboards, which are products of western music’s twelve-tone system, but he got irritable whenever somebody mentioned music theory in his presence. He saw himself as a musical innovator, and thought of theory as a set of rules that enslaves musicians, sucking away their creative spirit, leaving their works dry and lifeless.
I listened to Z’s tirade and accepted a CD-R of his music.
When I spun it in the player at home I found that Z. was harshly limited by the same systems that he railed against.
His methodology was obvious even from a brief, casual listen. To achieve pleasing sounds, he played only the white keys on his keyboard–probably not knowing that the piano, like most instruments, is built with music theory in mind. Every track on his CD featured melodies wandering aimlessly from the note “A” up and down the white keys until he’d land, accidentally, back on A again. Whenever that happened he would pause because instinct told him that he had arrived back “home.” Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. This meant that everything he played was in the key of A minor; subconsciously he was playing within a very common key.
With thousands of scales possible, Z played in only one: fumbling up and down the white keys in mechanical, wandering patterns again and again. No doubt he experienced music as appealingly mysterious and rewarding—but the techniques he’d developed independently sounded equivalent to two hours’ worth of by-the-book learning. In B’s case, ignorance played hell on the music he created, and his arrogance left him little chance of ever learning more…
Benefits of Learning Music Theory
Music theory is a language and a system for thinking about music; it names tones, rhythms, and other dimensions so that you can distinguish them, think clearly about them, notate them, and understand how notes and harmonies relate to one another. It also furnishes musicians with powerful tools for rapid ear development and makes them more aware of the myriad musical options at their disposal.
Music theory does not dictate what you choose to play. It just forms a starting point for understanding what you play, and why.
Whatever style of music you most enjoy, theory can help you understand it, imitate it, improvise in it, and, should you choose, you will understand its conventions thoroughly enough to be able to consciously depart—to innovate. What’s so stifling about that?