Are these two areas of music completely separate, or are they impossible to untangle? Is it possible to compose without any knowledge of music theory or vice versa, possible to understand music theory without being able to compose?
Music Composition Vs Music Theory
Music Theory, in a similar way to musical composition, is a branch of music that can stand very much on its own. If you have ever taken practical music examinations it was not possible to advance to the higher grades without first taking a music theory examination. Clearly, the thinking was that a musician aiming for grades 6, 7 or 8 should not be focusing only on practical music without also having a reasonable grasp of the fundamental principles of music.
These theory examinations were focused on the study of musical notation, key signatures, time signatures and what could be viewed as the building blocks of western music. The study of music theory can be more widely applied to include the analysis of musical compositions and their historical and cultural context.
For a composer, established or emerging, this can be a valuable pursuit. It brings the opportunity for a fuller and more complete understanding of how other composers have approached their compositions and also how these approaches have evolved through musical time. The ideas that come from the study can then inform the choices you make with your own work. They may serve as structural models, or even as exercises in pastiche to help with considerations like orchestration.
It could be argued that trying to compose music without a firm appreciation of its fundamental elements is like attempting to construct a house without knowing how to lay bricks and foundations. You may indeed produce a structure that resembles a house but it is highly likely to be structurally unstable and have a curious appearance. The curious appearance may have aesthetic merits whereas any compromise in structural integrity could be disastrous. This can be directly applied to musical composition. If the knowledge of tried and tested musical forms and conventions are not learned and applied, then it is probable that the composition will be weak.
This does depend in a sense, what you are aiming to achieve in your composition. If you are working on a symphonic piece then without having studied at least some symphonic compositions, you are going to find the task fairly challenging. If however, you are writing a song based on three chords the outcome may well be more satisfactory. Even this simpler composition does rely on some grasp of chords and keys as well as melody and lyric writing.
The reason I choose this as an example is that there are numerous songs written by ‘untrained’ musicians that have endured for decades and are truly wonderful works. I have yet to come across an example of a symphonic work that could be classed in the same way perhaps except for some Frank Zappa orchestral pieces or Paul McCartney’s foray into the world of classical music. McCartney had some significant help from the renowned composer Carl Davis with many of his works, so perhaps this does not count in this discussion.
This, in turn, leads to my second question regarding composition without theoretical knowledge. If we consider the work of some noteworthy jazz musicians. Duke Ellington is for me, one of the most important figures in the world of jazz. He not only composed some of the most requested songs from the jazz era but Ellington went considerably further.
Instead of being content with being celebrated as a great songwriter, Ellington took a different tac, in an attempt to merge classical, African and jazz worlds through extended musical forms. Ellington was not a formally trained musician although he was clearly very aware and interested in the world of classical music.
In collaboration with Billy Strayhorn, who had received classical training and was himself a remarkable tune-smith. Whilst Strayhorn no doubt assisted Ellington in matters of notation it was Ellington who had the ideas for works like The Black and Tan Fantasy where he clearly sort to develop and extend tradition jazz forms.
Other jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, and George Shearing to name a few greats, were not musicians who developed their remarkable musical gifts through the formal study of music theory, yet each of them was able to compose and improvise to an extraordinary standard. Their response to the draw of music took them along a different but equally productive and creative path.
In this sense, musical instinct and a not inconsiderable amount of practice carved these musicians into the legends they have become. It may well have been that if these or any other musician working in the pop or jazz world had undertaken formal musical training in music theory that their creations would not have had that uniqueness to them at all.
Often music theory comes as an expectation when you are looking at the study of the subject. The thinking is that it is of educational value to know why Haydn wrote any particular piece in the way that he did, with the aim that a student can apply their findings to their own composition. The same can hold true for the music of other genres too, and there are now degrees available in just about every type of music that you may wish to study.
My feeling is that it is about establishing a balance between the instinctive and the instructed. Theory can be useful in guiding you through the compositional process or deepening your understanding of the underlying processes of any musical composition, but it is not essential as we can see from the output of so many ‘untrained’ musicians across the world.
If you want to or need to move through your practical music examinations, then a little theory is not going to hinder your progress and may in the longer-term advance it in unexpected directions. Music theory on its own will not provide anyone with a magic formula for a successful composition. Many compositions that have been dismissed years ago as failures are today elevated to a more worthy status.
Expectations and conventions change and are not always reliable measures of quality. Perhaps the best advice might be to learn what you feel you need to achieve the outcome you want.