The Art of Composing: The Importance of Music Theory

When teaching music theory, I'm often asked about the role of music theory in music composition. Students want to know if a composer sits down and uses music theory to compose a musical work. While it's certainly possible to construct a practical work using the guidelines from music theory, master composers tend to compose more intuitively. 

Quoting Arnold Schoenberg from his Theory of Harmony text: 
"To hell with all these theories, if they always serve only to block the evolution of art and if their positive achievement consists in nothing more than helping those who will compose badly anyway to learn it quickly."

Schoenberg's music is often performed poorly and misunderstood and is seen as overly formulaic. The procedure of 12-tone is not something Schoenberg invented; he discovered it through his own process of composing and analyzing his works. His texts on the process of composition are not intended to teach composers how to compose but instead offer models on the process of composition. Teaching would require showing a student how to compose music, but the composing process differs for each student. Composing should come naturally to a composer, and while a composition can be enhanced with theories, the resulting piece will come across as inauthentic. Models are intended to demonstrate the logic that other composers have used to compose music, but composition should not be limited to the techniques of past composers.

It may seem that I am against music theory, but it has a place in the composing process. Music theory can teach composers about the music that already exists. It also offers a common language to think about and discuss the abstract art of composing music. There are at least two ways to learn about what already exists in the world:

  • Composers can listen to music and study the scores of past composers to learn the craft of music composition. 
  • Composers can study music theory to get an efficient overview of the most common techniques used in music composition.
Composers should use both methods to develop their skills as a composer. By studying the theory and listening to music, it's possible to dive deep into what makes a composer unique. The theory allows a composer to quickly recognize the same ideas, making it easier to discover the unique aspects of a composer's work. I believe composers should write an initial composition through improvisation, intuition, and experimentation. Once the piece has formed and taken shape, the composer can analyze the music to discover what makes the piece work and find ways to create an original composition. 

Music theory teaches the logic of music and helps composers develop their own process for editing a musical work. Understanding music theory also makes it possible to determine if your work is derivative or original. For my own compositions, I believe that all of the elements of music composition should work together to create larger aspects of a musical work. Still, there are many ways to compose music. It's up to the composer to find a style that speaks to them and then work to refine and polish that style. One way to learn about your own music is to study the theories and music of other composers.

Written by Kevin Ure


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