Our guest blogger is Layne Greene from Nova Scotia. He is in the process of recording a new EP with his new band line up. He has remarkable insights about music and we got a taste of one of those today.
Layne Greene writes an interesting essay about creating a sense of balance between musical theory and practice.
When Baxter asked me to write an essay I wasn’t really sure what to write about. My first thoughts were to write a bit about my approach to mixing and recording in general, but that’s a subject of volumes not a single essay. After a few days of mulling it over I decided that I would approach an argument that I see floating around a lot especially among guitarists.
What I’ll be talking about in this brief essay is my views on Music Theory and it’s practical applications as a composer/guitarist. The argument (for those of you who have somehow avoided seeing it around) is that music theory is useless and makes your playing mechanical and uninspired. I’m going to make it clear from the start that I whole-heartedly disagree with this viewpoint.
First off, theory is NOT a set of rules as people seem to think, it’s a language and like any language there are rules in how you write it and how to read it. You probably aren’t reading this sentence from right to left, and you’re probably not reading it upside down. That said, if you really wanted to you could probably do both of those things at the same time, and if you understand what I’ve written who’s to say that you’re doing it wrong? Theory is very much the same in this regard, there are conventions that as a community musicians need to agree upon, however theory isn’t always the right answer, sometimes you need to write things in an unconventional way, or play notes that aren’t really “right”. Nowhere in my studies thus far have I ever been told that I could not do something. I’ve been told fairly often that maybe I should take a different approach to some things, or that I’m not being the most efficient or effective, but never wrong.
Second, the arguments that “theory limits creativity” or that “theory doesn’t count for soul” have never really resonated with me. My experience with people who insist on these things is that they usually either haven’t taken the time to learn theory or that they’ve tried and they just don’t understand it. I’ve never heard someone say they regret learning to read music, or once they’ve learned some theory that they are a worse player for it. If anything understanding some theory lets you break away from limits that you place on your playing from not understanding. So many people are afraid of playing wrong notes that they always play it safe, where if they would expand their understanding a bit they could easily resolve a lot of “wrong” notes in interesting ways. When I’m recording guitar tracks my favorite ones are always the ones where I play “bad” notes by accident and manage to recover and build an idea around that note.
As a final point, if ever picking between two musicians to work with I’ll always pick the one who I can talk to about chords or harmony. I find nothing more frustrating than trying to work with a musician that I can’t talk to in musical terms. I think playing by ear and blindly going into passages is fine sometimes, and you can get some really great things happening in the music that way, but there needs to be a balance and theory is one way of being more prepared when you find yourself in unexpected situations.
I think it’s important for guitarists to stop hiding from theory and to really embrace what it can do for their playing. All that most people need is the basics to make music feel more accessible to them.
More here: http://laynegreene.bandcamp.com
Awesome post, guys! Though i’m still in the process of learning music theory, I have to agree with Layne Green. This past semester of college, I met some wonderful and talented people, some that understand music theory well and some that don’t, i’m somewhere in between. I do believe that everyone who is into composing and producing music, should take music theory, even a small amount of music theory can help. My music instructor had us do a 4 min piece of electronic music (any style and sub genre) and I was helping a classmate of mine do his sound world piece. I told him that I wasn’t going to do the work for him but that I would gave him some advice. The advice was that most of the sounds he was working on were in the key of F major and that he should utilize the F major scale for his piece. After listening to his piece when completed, It was obvious to me that he disregarded my advice, everything was unorganized, there was no sense of direction and to be honest, it was just noise. I didn’t know why he didn’t take my advice at the time but he did tell me after class the he did not understand what I was talking about.
I was in a hurry while typing this, hope it made sense.
Thank you for the feedback Carlos. I met a wonderful Humanities teacher in college who gave me access to books about music history and also those that touch about theory. I think if you REALLY love music then you need to embrace all its aspect, including everything that makes it sound good. Your friend should have taken your advice. I am into that idea that ‘you don’t have to love the style but you gotta admire the craft”. I love music and that is why I became a music blogger 🙂
Been there too Carlos! It’s really not fun. for 5 or 6 years now I’ve been actively learning as much theory as I can, once I built some foundations I started exploring just things I find relevant or interesting. Thanks for taking the time to reply! AND THANK YOU BAXTER FOR ASKING ME TO DO THIS!
You two are awesome people in my community, the electronic and acoustic! I am seriously planning to expand the community.
You know I realize this: People who take the academic aspect of music or writing seriously are the ones who are not even confident to put their works out there for fear of rejection. You won’t know unless you try. And trying rocks! And..well balance isn’t bad at all .