My Theory On Music Theory

Before you read this, please know: I am not a teacher. I don’t have a degree in anything. What I am saying could be dangerous, but so could soda-pop, I guess. Read at your own discretion and take what you will from this. The content here is based solely on the opinion of someone with a very intricate and sometimes complex thought process (or so he’s been told).

I learned to read basic notation in grade school, but it was forgotten over the years because I didn’t use it. I didn’t need it because my life didn’t depend on it. I wasn’t trying to make a living in the music field so it fell by the wayside. It’s the same with everything else – if you don’t use it, you lose it. I’m at the point in life where it’s fly or die, and in an industry where the chance of making it is slim, I need to be versatile.  Don’t get me wrong, many make it without learning this stuff. I’ve been composing without it all my life and I do believe it’s better (at least at first) to make music without knowing theory. In the beginning, when learning this craft, developing your ear is the most important thing you can do. By not getting too caught up in text, you’re focusing on writing using just your heart and soul; which in songs have the most impact.

Theory is nothing more than science. Science is a bunch of theories. Ever heard of the “Theory of Gravity” by Sir Issac Newton? Yeah, theory explains things. However, knowing the “whys” is not always a good thing. Basically – it takes the mystery away. Take love for example. Science has a theory of what is love,and if you read the science you may get bummed and not even love at all. Science (theory) removes all romance. The awe, fun, and mystery is gone. It becomes boring and stale. When you know the why then it becomes predictable and predictability in music is not always a good thing. Not knowing the science behind love doesn’t mean you can’t love. It doesn’t mean you can’t express, show, make, share or recognize love. Beautiful love can definitely be made without knowing the how or why.Right? It most certainly can! .

Don’t get so caught up in the science that you miss the moment. Sometimes loving is the point and not thinking if you’re doing it correctly. You’ll know if you’re doing it correct or not. You’ll feel it. You’ll see it in the expressions others. Do you get what I’m trying to say? Making music is the same as love. We can explain the theory. We can dissect a song and see the actual DNA of it, but it’s the emotion, the feeling and the captivating aurora that I rather use as my guide. I know what works when I hear and feel it; not when I see the theory. That’s my driving force in music and it hasn’t let me down yet. If you can make music based on emotion then you’re already ahead of the game and on your way. Music is about feeling – Chords are either “happy” or “sad” sounding. It’s instinctively knowing how each emotion affects a listener that is the key in songwriting. If you don’t have something that moves the heart, questions the mind, or diverts attention for 3 minutes then you have nothing but noise.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not 100% against theory. After all, I am learning it for a reason. Explaining parts becomes easier and reading it will never hurt your resume. It lets you write scores, transpose keys and communicate your intentions better. It can also expose you to new styles and modes of feeling.  If all you want to do is play other people’s music then reading music can speed up that process, but do know: reading and composing are two different things entirely.

So, depending on how you utilize theory, it can either slow you down or speed you up. I’ll always create with my ear and gut first. It’s my compass, referring only to a map when things get hectic or when I want to discover new places to sail. Are you tired of the metaphors yet?  Let me end with this: You absolutely do you not need to learn theory to make excellent music. Countless mainstream / platinum artists have proved that. And you definitely don’t need to know theory to love 🙂

Make love through Harmony,
Rocky Bourgoyne

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