I am a huge proponent of studying music theory. I have many reasons for this, but the main reasons really comes back to this – good music theory is written by very smart people thinking very deeply about what great composers have done. Sometimes they miss the mark. But sometimes they are able to describe the thought process of composers better than many composers could themselves.
Still, there has been a backlash against learning theory. There probably always will be. I hear it all the time, “Theory ruins creativity.” Hmmm, that’s pretty suspicious. One second you are this creative giant, and the next, you are some academic bore, covered in dust and not able to create new ideas… I am not buying it.
But if it is not true, then why is it repeated so often? Go to any major music department, internet forum, or facebook group, and you’ll find quite a few people who will tell you theory ruins creativity. My theory on… theory, is that most of the people who say this, don’t learn the theory well enough to let its concepts permeate their mind. Instead it stays, like a drop of water on top of scotch guarded khaki pants, unable to absorb into the fabric that is our imagination.
What is Creativity?
It is pretty difficult to find a decent definition of creativity, because there are so many. I suspect the people who are trying to get quoted on definitions of creativity are themselves trying to be creative… which just leads to confusion. None the less, there are a few definitions I like and actually help to illustrate my point.
“Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen, and thinking what no one else has thought.”
This one, attributed to Einstein, is actually not that creative, as it was also attributed to Albert Szent-Györgyi, the man that discovered vitamin C (the vitamin, not the singer), and to Jonathan Swift, the guy who wrote Gulliver’s Travels.
But the point it gets across is a good one.
For laughs, another great quote from Einstein. The man is just funny.
“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”
The other definition that I like is this one.
“Creativity is nothing more than seeing and acting on new relationships, thereby bringing them to life.”
Joseph V. Anderson
Creativity to me is not necessarily coming up with something groundbreaking for the world. Creativity is really about coming up with something that is groundbreaking in your world. It is about making a new connection with things that you already know.
My three year old son does not get caught up in thinking that he needs to come up with something never before seen. He will take a spatula and use it as a sword. For him this is creative. He sees a sword, he sees a spatula, he puts them together, and voila! He has a sword.
Did he come up with the idea of the sword on his own… no. He was effectively taught about swords through society. The knowledge of “sword” was transmitted to him. As was the knowledge of “spatula”. He used his knowledge of both, to make a creative connection, and achieve his goal of hitting daddy with a sword.
How to Approach Creativity
I promise, I am going to get to melody in a little bit.
So how should you approach creativity? It is not something that you can just approach head on, and say you are going to be creative. Instead you have to trick it.
The best way to do this is to remove inhibition. By this I mean, you want to stop censoring yourself and accept the ideas you have created (this only applies to composing, I am not condoning anything that is in any way obscene or illegal).
The best way to do this is to not stop while your composing. When you get an idea, run with it. Write it down, and continue writing it down, until you have all of it. If you get the flash of a symphony in your mind… well it could be a long day. But I am going to say that most people don’t just get a flash of a symphony. Instead you get a melody.
Melody – Simple and Beautiful
Melody is natural. It is one line. It can be imagined. It can be heard in your mind. This means it is one of the greatest vehicles for unlocking creativity.
Melody to me is the heart and soul of music, because melody is something we can all relate to. It is what you hum to yourself when you are alone. It is what you remember from your favorite music.
Here is a test. I want you to hum your favorite symphonic work.
I am guessing you probably had trouble humming all of the harmony, doublings, foreground, middleground, and background. Makes sense as you only have one voice. I guess you could start working on your tuvan throat singing, but at most, you are talking about one other note.
Learning to Compose Melodies
You can learn to compose melodies. Ghast… did I just say, you can… learn… to compose melodies?! Yes I did.
I know this goes against the popular romantic ideas of genius. And many great composers have said, you can’t teach melody. But guess what, all of the great composers had hundreds, if not thousands of hours of instruction in counterpoint, and voice leading, as well as other experienced composers listening to, and critiquing their works.
So how do you go about learning to compose melodies, and what does this have to do with creativity? I hinted to it in the previous paragraph.
I am going to go out on a limb and say that you already have your own personal style of melody. It exists within you, and you have developed it over many years of just being a human. It is this melodic instinct – something that comes naturally, that is the key.
Learning to compose melodies is really about learning to free your own personal melodies from the chains of inhibition and censorship.
You have to be able to accurately describe, and understand what you hear in your head. This can only happen if you:
- Have a framework for describing the melody that is deeply ingrained in your mind.
- Have the ability to connect that framework with what you hear.
- Have the ability to transcribe that framework into a concrete form – either written notation or a recording (sequencing works as well).
The framework is the theory and notation. If you don’t understand notation, you will have no way of even conceiving what you are hearing. It is just sound at that point. Once you understand notation – then you can start to put it together. But even then, notation is relatively thin, without some kind of theoretical framework. I can probably transcribe a melody that goes from G to F, and then, F to E – but that means very little at this point.
It is only when I back that up with understanding of how single lines can actually outline harmony, and how that harmony dictates the way notes resolve to other notes… This is when I start to understand my melody. And when I understand, then I get feedback. And it is the feedback that ultimately informs my next melody and my creativity. It is within this framework that I could say
G to F to E. Well, that’s simple. It is outline a G7 chord moving to C chord.
The real creativity, is taking that natural melody in your mind – then accepting it, transcribing it, and understanding it. Allow that understanding to create new connections between ideas that were not previously connected. This is where you will find your creativity.
Melody is one of the few things that can start this process. It’s deceptive simplicity gives you the emotional permission to accept it. The fact that it is one line, makes the transcribing much easier than transcribing even a piano piece. Understanding is always hard, but is much more digestible when only one line is involved. And finally, making new connections will come on its own. That happens when you are showering, or running, or whatever you do that is in no way connected with actually composing.