“When am I ever going to use this?” While I was getting my bachelors degree, more than one fellow student asked me this question. And it’s a fair point. If you’re going to invest any amount of time or tuition learning something, you at least want to know it’ll come in handy down the road. So what’s the big deal about key signatures and time signatures? Do I really have to sometimes call G “F double-sharp?” Why bother learning four-part writing when all I need for my song is a melody and a few chords?
In short, do I have to learn a mountain of rules––if rules are made to be broken?
The short answer is: rules are meant to be broken. But there’s a big difference between breaking a rule and never knowing it.
Stephen Sondheim is a good person to start with. After being mentored by none other than Oscar Hammerstein, Sondheim went to Williams College with a well-fostered taste for the theater. He went on to study analysis and counterpoint with composer Milton Babbitt, who gave him a therapeutic dose of Bach. Sondheim learned that, even in the most chord-driven music, there is still counterpoint. Every note in a chord represents a different melodic voice, with its own progression into the next chord. And by learning the rules of voice-leading, Sondheim was able to add this sophistication to what would be some of his most enduring musicals.
And that’s where the rules come in. You can have absolute freedom from the rules without ever understanding what you’re doing. Or, like Sondheim, you can put in the study and reach a point where you know when to use the rules, and when to break them.
Claude Debussy broke the rules, no question. He laid out forbidden parallel fifths like telephone lines through a lush harmonic landscape, and he helped turn the function of tonal harmony on its head. But you’d better believe he had a thorough training in voice-leading first. He didn’t accidentally stumble on a way to pick apart centuries of Western tonality; he knew exactly what he was doing, and why.
Gifted vs. Skilled
Through training Sondheim learned one of the most critical truths in art:
You think it’s a talent. You think you’re born with this thing. What I’ve found out…is that everybody is talented. It’s just that some people get it developed and some don’t.Stephen Sondheim *
That’s music theory; it’s the why of music. You don’t just learn music––you learn how to learn it. Whatever your field––performer, songwriter, arranger––music becomes less about being talented and more about being skilled. And, gifted or not, anyone can become skilled.
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*Schiff, Stephen (2010), “Deconstructing Sondheim”. The Sondheim Review. Sondheim Review, Inc. XVII (2): 16. ISSN:1076-450X.
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Mary Ann Aschenbrenner says
Thank you for this post. In music as in poetry, understanding the rules before breaking them makes for much better music and poetry. I’m really appreciating your work.
Aron Bernstein says
Thank you so much, Mary Ann! And as a fellow poet, I’d be thrilled to read some of your work!