#79 Music Theory, Do We Need It?

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What are your views, can you take or leave Theory, or is it a must have for you and all???

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Martin N says:

Santa Monica State Beach!

Geo Zero says:

There are 2 types of musicians:

The ones that create and are songwriters, and the others who are technically amazing and read music but can't create jack shit.

Semantic Samuel says:

I appreciate this an old video and the chance of my comment being read by anyone are slim, but I'm new to the channel (came from the live recording of the Tut score video on Spitfire Audio's channel). I watched this vlog with interest. I've really enjoyed your (Christian's) content over the past couple of weeks – it's a fascinating insight into the professional world of composing, as well as the technological aspects of it. I'm going to make a comment that comes with the greatest of respect for Christian's work, but you can tell that Christian doesn't have a particularly in-depth grasp of music theory from his scores. It's very safe with simple harmonies and melodies. I've got the full score of the Tut ITV miniseries and I followed it for the video. It's nice, pretty in places, and while I didn't see the show, I'm sure it works very well for it. It's not, however, interesting as music.

If I were to get a commission to score a show set in Egypt about the discovery of Tut's tomb, I'd immediately be thinking about using the phrygian mode. Could be a little cliché, maybe the Persian scale? That's a bit locrian, could sound horrible with a full orchestra. Byzantine? These all have that exotic sound we associate with the desert. That gives me an immediate framework I can use with which to improvise. I don't have to stick religiously in these keys or modes, but knowing some theory means I have a ready-made kit to write a Middle Eastern-sounding score. I might also be thinking about the 1920s when it's set. That might mean jazz elements or ragtime. Might be a bit American. Whatever, but it's stuff I can use. The score for the ITV series features some portamento strings, which gives it an Arab flair, but that's about it. It's serviceable. I appreciate this was an ITV drama, not Lord of the Rings, there are strict time and budgetary pressures to consider, but isn't landing a gig like Lord of the Rings or some other monster-budget film the ultimate goal of the film composer where you're handed a blank cheque and you're told to write something truly momentous?

If you like at the score for Lord of the Rings, you can tell that Howard Shore really knows his stuff. The way he uses leitmotif, developing themes, like the way he takes the happy, folksy Shire theme and turns it into something dark and nostalgic by the end of the film, playing with complex time signatures to lend a particular feel for a scene and all kinds of stuff. You need to know theory to do this. It doesn't just happen.

I realise there are only a handful of composers who are household names, but most of them have formal musical training or at least have a firm grasp of music theory. There some exceptions – Hans Zimmer being the obvious example (Interstellar is one of my favourite scores). Junkie XL is quickly rising too (I really enjoy the score for Mad Max: Fury Road, but Junkie XL is in his element with these sorts of films – he's not the most versatile, but what he does, he does well).

Something I'm rapidly learning is that a lot of 'mass market' composition is actually production. Anyone with the most rudimentary musical skills can hammer out some chords on a synth, then turn them into arpeggios on a harp, which sound pretty, or come up with some string ostinato rhythm with some timpani in the background and there you go, an epic score. However, to do this you need to know your software inside out, and in order to get samples to sound good that requires manipulating signals in certain ways. Musicians do this naturally; computers don't. That is a skill, something which Christian is very good at. From Christian's videos you can tell he really understands the orchestra and the practicalities of things. It's about creating something that just works efficiently. With the Tut score, the musicians were sight reading. They couldEnsuring files are in a usable state for the orchestrator, studio, musicians, etc. is all important, as is being able to do it quickly. Howard Shore and John Williams might be the best composers, but they'd be terrible contractors if they spent five years composing a beautiful score that's woefully impractical for anyone to use in a real-world setting.

My main takeaway here is, do you need to know theory to write something like the score for the ITV series? No. Does music theory help? Yes. Do you need music theory to write truly great scores? Yes (with a vanishingly small number of exceptions).

Music theory isn't a bad thing but it does make you a better performer and composer. It will not make you a better producer, and production seems to be at least 50%, if not 75%, of the art. Different skills for different applications.

Lawrence Ball says:

Mega bravo Christian, so succinct and on point.
Music theory also is not actual theory, it is the analysis of music of the past, its actually historical analysis theory, not of the laws or the possibilities of sound and instruments

asdf hjkl says:

The good stuff falls in your lap out of no where.

Aaron Francis says:

lmaoo that guy just standing over there 2:48 like " what's he saying who is he talking to?" Keep it moving BRUHH this doesn't concern you!

James Davies says:

An inspiring and interesting video for all who hope to make music a career or at least more than just a background noise…….

Supernova Sightseeing says:

Technology has certainly opened up composing for people who doesnt have a "traditional" education. Wich is wonderful. =) But I personally look at it like this: a sprinter works out in the gym. If he/she didnt, he/she wouldnt reach his full potential. For us composers, our gym is playing instruments and learning music theory. Its a foundation. And foundation is really important. I see no good reason to deprive yourself of that foundation. I dont think about musictheory when I compose. Just like a sprinter doesnt think about the gym while running. But without it, the results would suffer. Learning instruments and theory also has a huge secondary benefit… you can play with orchestras. For me that has really been the best school of all. =)

Christiaan de Marez Oyens says:

Fantastic rant! If you really want to hear the perfect answer to the question just jump to 10:37

Popcorn says:

That guy in the background standing behind you is the kind of guy who parks his car next to yours in an empty car park or sits next to you on an empty bus. The definition of a total wanker 🙂

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