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Learning the Rules of Music Theory in Order to Break Them

The Importance of Learning Music Theory Before Branching Out Your Style

Every now and then, an artist, writer, or musician comes along and changes the established rules in their mode of expression. Pablo Picasso created stunning and provocative works such as “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon” and “Guernica,” which used striking lines, disjointed human figures, and dark colors to create a new paradigm of beauty and emotion in painting. James Joyce redefined what was possible in fiction with his novel ULYSSES, which abandoned straight narrative almost from the beginning and created a pastiche of scenes, characters, and events previously unheard of in literature.

Music, too, has had its share of radicals. In the arena of rock music, artists like Frank Zappa and Don van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, had their own bizarre and unique artistic vision. They used everything at their disposal to create music that fit that vision. Ornette Coleman radicalized jazz by breaking the jazz norms of bebop and other then-popular subsets of jazz, helping to create the genre of “Free Jazz.” In the world of classical music, Stravinsky, Debussy, and many others redefined the boundaries of orchestral music.

What often gets overlooked when assessing the works of these great artists is this: They all began their careers doing much more conventional art. They studied the works of those that had come before them, and their early works were much more conventional. Picasso’s early work was technically brilliant, but hardly radical. (The same could be said for Andy Warhol and others in the Pop Art movement.) Joyce’s earlier work showed no signs of what was to come; it was hardly game-changing.

The same applies to the musicians listed above. Although they had a rare passion and drive behind their vision, it was not until they knew what their starting point was that they could break off and start virtual genres all their own. Put another way, they gained a thorough knowledge of the basics of music theory and composition and produced more conventional work before they redefined their art. They didn’t come out of nowhere with their unique work fully sprung anymore than they were born knowing how to play their instruments.

If you feel you have a truly unique musical vision, this article is not meant to discourage you. Quite the opposite; the world frequently reaches a point when someone in arts, literature, or music needs to drop by and shake things up (Elvis, anyone?). The point is that you need to understand the elements of melody, harmony, chords, and rhythm in order to figure out how you can modify the elements to suit you and still make cohesive music.

This is not going to be an easy journey, and it certainly won’t be quick. Realistically, it may take years of training, followed by years of experimentation. The good news is that you can begin experimenting with an element of music as soon as you know you’ve mastered it. The better news is, it’s completely doable, and you will undoubtedly find the journey rewarding.

It is important to learn the rules of music before you can break them. Be patient with yourself, but at the same time, don’t give up on your vision.

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