Who needs "rules"? What's this nonsense about "rules"? I'm a drifter born to walk the road!

Jun 17, 2019

This my take, and what I do when I write music, and how I judge others' music. Your mileage may vary.  Comments welcome.

“I don’t want to sound like Bach or Mozart — rules are for fools and drones with no imagination! I’m a rebel, like Joyce, Stravinsky, and Picasso!”

Who likes or needs “rules”? Who wants to be told where they can or can’t talk, use their cell phone, eat, or park for free? What is this nonsense about books full of “rules” for music, saying you “can’t” use two successive fifths, or sevenths not followed by the note below? Or that fugues “have to have” “expositions” and “episodes” and follow “rules’ preached by other books about what their notes are “allowed” to do?  Are music lovers so arrogant and condescending that they listen to music trying to play “gotcha” when notes don’t do what some damned music professor said they ought to, and laugh and reject that music? Or is this a scam to ensure salaries for “music teachers” who are paid for putting red “X”s on people’s scores? 

And didn’t tremendous artists like Schoenberg, Jackson Pollock and Allen Ginsberg become famous by “breaking rules” (as did Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart)? I never saw a music-police wagon pull up and arrest somebody for “breaking the rules”…. 
 
I see scores here every day, usually attempted complex contrapuntal forms such as fugues and canons, with “I know, I didn’t follow the rules! Sorry!” as a (lame) excuse for why they (almost invariably) sound amateurish, dissonant, and disjoint.

In the past, before the internet and easy-to-use, free score editors, musically sensitive people who went to concerts or church or listened to the vanished thing called “classical radio” would there hear great music of the past. The industrious among us might try to learn more about it by buying “phonograph records” (which, once invested in, had to be listened to many times to justify the acquisition), and scores, ditto, and perhaps trying to play the music they heard on a piano or simpler keyboard,. And maybe we might even buy some music paper, and pencils with erasers, and try to write some new music, and eventually arrive at the conclusion that this stuff was pretty complicated: as with stage magicians, the fact that serious music looks “simple" when done correctly is the very fruit of the art — if you do not learn how to be a magician-musician, the result on stage will be sad and transparent failure.

If you were lucky, you might have been near a good library (mine was almost an hour away) with a good section on music-theory books, or perhaps knew a professional musician, student, or teacher, who could explain how to write music that sounds, to whatever degree, like the music you heard and wanted to emulate. And you would learn that there are indeed methods, abstractions, technologies, and yes, “rules” (many of which differed from century to century and place to place) which causes the music of historical composers to sound the way it does, not like “old music”, but like well-written prose or a well-painted picture, where the parts contribute to the whole, each sentence expresses a logical idea, questions that are raised are answered, and there is no spattered paint or typos all over the piece.  That, not genius or matchless inspiration, is why their music sounds like classical music instead of the uninformed tinkering of beginners. But it is utterly possible to inform yourself, and, with care and diligence, move beyond being a beginner.

If you are a native English (for example, it’s true in any language) speaker, you don’t say “I write my sanata yesterday with C major”, because it’s not English. Any native English speaker knows that, and although we understand it, we use and prefer (reasonably) proper spelling and grammar. Grammar is not a scam to pay teachers; people who speak English (or French, Russian, Arabic, or Japanese) competently not only speak in credible grammar, but best understand and appreciate correct utterances in their respective languages. The same is true of classical music — if you want your creations to be understood with ears accustomed to the form, texture, gestural vocabulary, and overall idiom of that extremely broad genre, you must “do the same thing”, “speak in that language”, i.e., follow the same rules. Failure to do so will prevent your work from sounding like competent classical music.

These “rules” were devised by musician-composers skilled in teaching, in order to codify and transmit, to their pupils, and to us, what they knew about writing music, so that they and we could do it, too, and express our own creativity. The rules of tonal music are not a strait-jacket, but a power tool.

As with every other art, those who “broke the rules”, such as Picasso, Joyce, and Stravinsky, were fully competent in the traditions of their arts before creating iconoclastic work.

"Your mileage may vary."


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