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Some people who make music don’t want to know anything about it. It’s something they do, not something they think about, and they will tell you so. One of my students told me a story once about a songwriter – one who is achieving some success – who said he didn’t want to learn about “any of that music theory stuff” because he wanted to stay “pure”. As if learning to speak the language of your chosen profession would somehow rob you of the ability to create.
I can’t claim to know how inspiration happens. It arrives at unlikely moments, so we carry notebooks and scribble on napkins or sing a few bars of a melody into a cell phone. Sometimes when I play it’s as if my hands and ears are being led. The ideas seem to be coming from somewhere else, and we’re always looking for a way to tap into their source.
But once that moment of inspiration has passed, we need tools and craftsmanship to work with the gift we were just given. No one thinks twice about the craft of lyric writing being worth serious study. Why not the craft of composition?
Now, everyone knows great musicians that never studied formally in their lives. But there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about where the gift and ability for greatness really lie. The gift is often not just the physical ability to play well, it’s an innate ability to explore and learn. Even if the process is unconscious, learning an instrument is an ongoing exploration, an exercise in trial and error. People who learn this way HAVE studied, but on their own….instead of being guided, they were able to guide themselves.
But imagine that as our gifted player works through exploration and trial and error, they learn the names of each distinct sound. They develop a conscious rather than an intuitive understanding of the materials of music: what a fifth sounds like, or the shift of a major chord into minor. This understanding has nothing to do with the source of inspiration, it’s a tool for craftsmanship.
Despite this, some people still believe that having command of these tools would hurt their creativity. I suspect that if you asked, though, they would say that inspiration and “the rules” come from two different places. So why, then, would learning about one hurt the other?
I have a theory about the source of this belief. I did not enjoy studying music theory in college, it just seemed like a list of do’s and dont’s – but one day I had an epiphany. These were not rules but principles, more like laws of nature. Not the reason music sounds good, but an explanation why. This was a revelation to me, and it changed everything: I realized that the “rules” tell us why some music works, but we’re not obligated to follow them!
You’ve probably heard the cliché “you have to know the rules before you can break them”. This isn’t actually true, because musical exploration doesn’t require any knowledge other than how to create sounds. If you can produce a sound and then experiment with putting different sounds together, you’re making music, and it may or may not break the rules. But since the principles of theory are as fundamental as gravity, we’re often likely to follow them anyway because it sounds right when we do. So we could say that you DO need to know when you’re following the rules if your ears and fingers can’t guide you outside the lines on their own. Once again, it comes back to the gift we were given: how much we can comprehend intuitively.
I believe that people spend way too much time thinking about these gifts, or their perceived lack thereof. “Talent” is not a useful word, and attempting to measure it is a waste of time. Yes, if you’re talented and work hard, you will learn and improve faster than someone who isn’t. But the person who supposedly lacks talent can also learn and improve if they work hard. Talent is a lot less important than a good work ethic, a willingness to learn, and a desire to be great. Desire and drive help us aim high again and again, despite whatever frustration we feel. Learning and study coupled with desire and drive is a powerful and unstoppable combination.
So what does all this mean to a creative person working their craft?
I would say that one can make a choice between two approaches. One is to stay “pure”: in other words, to rely upon your gifts to provide the tools you work with. The other is to be a student: formally or informally, it doesn’t really matter. Being a student means choosing to learn, to stay open to new ideas and new approaches. These lead to new tools, new skills, and ultimately more options. To me, it seems like a no-brainer. Most of the time, talent has its limits, but learning only stops when we stop paying attention. Paying attention and keeping an open mind keeps you from getting stuck. As a creative artist – a songwriter, musician, lyricist, or painter – the value and wisdom of this should be obvious.
So DO study, even informally. If you’ve never played songs you didn’t write, start. If you play but don’t practice, start asking yourself what you can improve. Read books, watch videos, and listen to music! Watch great players and listen to great writers. Keep your ears and mind open…and above all, don’t choose to view knowledge as a straitjacket when it should be a set of wings.