Theory vs creativity

Some people seem to believe that theory and creativity are somewhat at odds with each other. It seems the typical line of thinking is that a person who knows no theory is free to compose whatever she hears in her head. Unhampered by preconceived notions of “right” and “wrong”, the composer can get as close as possible to her ideal.

On the other hand, a composer who has studied theory is supposedly hindered by what is supposedly “right” or “wrong”. Perhaps she came up with an idea, but (consciously or subconsciously) rejected it because it didn’t fit within certain “rules”.

This is not necessarily incorrect – each person composes in their own way – but it doesn’t have to be like this.

There are two kinds of music theory that a composer may draw upon – general composition theory, and “genre” theory.

General Composition Theory is independent of style, instrumentation, size, etc. It is applicable to all composition. The important thing to remember is that it is not a set of rules. General composition theory is a set of tools, a set of techniques. It’s not what’s right or what’s wrong. It describes common practices and their effects upon the listener. It’s up to you, the composer, to decide what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” – depending on your own context. Feel free to ignore them, disobey them, break them. Feel free to embrace them, extend them, use them to make your own set of tools.

In my experience, learning general composition theory hasn’t limited my creative strength. On the contrary, it’s definately increased it. I still come up with whatever ideas I want, and I still arrange them according to whatever sounds good. But in addition to that, general composition theory has given me ways to develop and extend my ideas to form works of much larger scale. Being conscious of the tools and techniques has allowed me to arrange and develop the material so it is stronger, more complete, and has greater impact.

It’s commonly said that creativity is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Theory helps you get the most out of that 90%.

Remember though: as the composer, it’s up to you to learn from this. It’s up to you to integrate this knowledge into your own style of composition, into your own set of techniques. You have to own it. Remember: This is art, not science.

The other kind of theory is Genre Theory. This includes “how to write trance”, or “how to write the perfect pop song”. This also includes traditional theory as you may know it – the rules upon which “classical” music is composed. Genre Theory is much more often presented as a set of rules – and rightly so. If you want to compose awesome Trance music, you’d better get out that TR909 and stacked supersaw lead (or whatever the kids are using these days). If you want to compose classical music, you’d better brush up on your scales and cadences.

Unfortunately, many people incorrectly believe all theory is “classical” theory. I imagine this comes from some lower-school education, where this was the only type of theory that was tought. Unfortunate, really.


    • Danger Rat
    • June 22nd, 2009

    Hi Kim,
    can you recommend some further readings, especially about “General Composition Theory”?
    Great blog. Thanks.

  1. Alan Belkin’s Practical Guide to Musical Composition is a particularly good resource.

    Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a lot of resources for this – most composition books focus on specifics of classical music, and most web resources focus specifics of electronic music.


    • Danger Rat
    • June 25th, 2009

    Thanks. That looks quite interesting. I’m gonna check it out.

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