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21 July 2010 @ 05:39 am
Sophomore and Junior Years in Review I: Learning the Rules of Music  

Hey, artists! Has anybody ever told you to "learn the rules before you break them"?

I think this is extremely poisonous advice.

As a young artist, it hurts to hear that your work has no value until you spend years learning the right way to do it. The implication that you should refrain from even trying until then is nothing but discouragement.

I've been there, heard that advice, and stubbornly blown it off. I'm pretty happy with the result.

Sophomore fall term, I enrolled in "Harmony and Counterpoint I", my first serious music theory class since elementary school. I rapidly got the impression that for the previous 13 years or so, I'd had no clue what I'd been doing. However, I gradually realized over the 4-course sequence that my prior experience did count for something. Much of what I was learning already had some fuzzy shape in my intuition, and the rules that I had to be taught could draw on plenty of empirical evidence to back up their usefulness.

In some sense it couldn't have happened too differently. There were rules that I first saw before I had the experience to appreciate them and recognize the limits of their applicability; I rejected them all as arbitrary. You can see some evidence of that; up through summer 2008, my work was full of lowered leading tones and parallel fifths and octaves.

Now, two years later, where do I stand? Well, one thing I'd like to do is return to some old music and make new arrangements, incorporating what I've learned—for instance, excising the parallel fifths and octaves where they weren't an essential part of a piece's flavor. Preserving said flavor is going to be a challenge, but I'll take it on gladly.

Oh, in case you wondered—because I definitely wondered—I was just about as slow at writing music for class as I always am. Fortunately, (1) this seems to be near the pace at which the composition classes proceed, and (2) understanding the rules helped me work almost formulaically where I'd previously had to feel around half-blindly. I still prefer doing music without deadlines, but at least my fear of acquiring a distaste for music composition (like my distaste for essay composition) never came true. In fact, my interest in it is alive and well. I have two new projects getting started—watch for the names "City of Light" and "Currents"—and I intend to edit the assignments I turned in for my classes into a post-worthy state soon.

If I may take a moment to preach to younger artists, I'll say this: go ahead and be adventurous. The rules are really helpful, but if you're serious, you'll inevitably learn them sometime, somehow. Until then, experimenting isn't going to do you harm and may even teach you something. (Don't worry about wasting ideas while you experiment; you'll get plenty of ideas in your life, and you can always come back to something you really like.)

EDIT 2010-07-23 00:00 - Content reordered for better flow.

Cesiumcesium12 on July 21st, 2010 03:41 pm (UTC)
What happened for me with drawing people is that I would occasionally try to imitate the style of some artist or webcomic, and thereby picked up some intuition. But if you deviate the tiniest bit from a decent human face, it looks subtly wrong (uncanny valley and all that), so I never managed to venture too far beyond that. Recently I started actually trying to learn some of the rules, which seems a far more effective method. (I took some drawing classes in high school, but skipped the first in the sequence, so I learned things like the rule of thirds more by osmosis than formally.) However, I never got the sense that not knowing the rules implied I shouldn't try, and I don't think that follows in any way. It's a sad thing if it is the sense that students get, and teachers should be nudging them in the direction of good practices rather than banging rules into their heads.
Pteromys Fortissimuspteromys on July 22nd, 2010 09:21 am (UTC)
My reasoning was that not knowing the rules makes it rather hard to avoid breaking them if you experiment at all, and so "learn the rules before you break them" becomes "learn the rules before you experiment".

To be fair, I've heard this a lot less from actual teachers than I did from, say, children's books or TV programs that had a lesson in mind. That, and there do exist similar-looking variants where the above reduction would be more of a stretch, e.g. "learn the rules so that you can break them properly". Those seem to mean something closer to what you observed—that learning the rules is often a much more effective way to improve than figuring everything out from trial and error.
in terms of dogs and babieslimitedcake on July 22nd, 2010 07:35 am (UTC)
YES. Thank you for writing this!

I'm currently obsessed with origami tessellations, which is still extremely young as a field (the first expository book came out, what, last year?). There are definitely rules, and these are mostly codified as vocabulary -- rabbit-ear collapses, open-backed triangular twists, rhombic twists, negative-space stars. But one thing I took some time to realise was that these rules only defined what had been done, not what was possible (and you are mostly limited by your own aesthetic and the physical constraints of the paper). If I had stuck to a prescribed set of rules and guided projects, I would probably be lagging far behind where I am now.
r33nar33na on July 24th, 2010 08:44 am (UTC)
:-) :-) :-)
Agreed agreed agreed!