Theory and Composition

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by stephanie, Apr 24, 2002.

  1. stephanie


    Nov 14, 2000
    Scranton, PA
    A question I asked my bass teacher led me to go into deep thought about this. I asked a simple question: "How would you apply the harmonic minor scale (or other such minor) in writing a piece of music?". Then I realized: when I'm writing a song I don't write it thinking about theory (the big theory buff that I am). I go for the feeling/sound first. But if I'm stuck sometimes I will start thinking in terms of theory to figure out what could come next. When I'm done (or almost done) with the piece I look back and see it in terms of theory. I will go 'oh I wrote this in the key of C', or 'this is a G7 chord', not even thinking about it, but that's the way it came out.

    Everything that is written can be defined in terms of theory. It's just something I find fascinating.

    I was wondering, for how much I love to learn theory, but never seeming to apply it in my writing, is it done subconciously, you know, by itself? I never sit down and say 'ok I'm gonna write myself a song in the key of C'. The way I write I usually just start with a note or a series of notes that have either been ringing in my head made me feel a certain emotion or made me 'see' a specific blend of 'colors'. All of that...all comes back to theory. *sighs*.

    Just philosphizing...


    PS: Sorry if this post made no sense :D
  2. thrash_jazz


    Jan 11, 2002
    Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
    Artist: JAF Basses, Circle K Strings
    It makes all kinds of sense to me :)

    Seems like I write the same way as you do - go with ears and brain first. However, if you're hearing something in your head and you want to play it, a good sound knowledge of theory will help you to do that without messing around too much.

    Personally, (and I know who's gonna respond negatively to this) I find theory to be much more applicable when improvising, or trying to learn other people's songs. It seems to be more of an ear thing when writing - witness all the great songs written by players that didn't know one lick of theory (pun intended).

    My favourite, and most effective way of writing, is to think of a song title and an underlying concept, like, say "Man Getting Hit With Football", and try to write lines that would evoke that image in the listener's head. Unfortunately, music is so subjective that this can be quite tricky (also, too many people listen to the lyrics and nothing else :mad: )

    I suppose that if everyone based their songwriting solely on what theory specifically told them to do, we wouldn't have quite as much of a variety to choose from. ;)
  3. jvasquez18


    Sep 23, 2000
    S.E. 323, 13
    MTV audience?:D
  4. ldiezman


    Jul 11, 2001
    They aren't really listening to the lyrics even. they just listen...

    Steph I am a fellow theory lover. I find when writting tunes for my band.. I don't think about theory. In that setting, I write what feels and sounds good. Afterwards i'll look at it and will analyze. Then I use my theory to improve on my piece by putting in borrowed or altered chords.
  5. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    I think in many ways the two are mutually exclusive - something written as an exercise in theory is probably not going to be too satisfying for the listener - I mean OK - you can re-harmonise things using theory; but there's got to be some creative spark there in the first place - something that speaks directly to us as human beings.

    When I was writing songs I never thought about theory and now I study Jazz theory more I just don't write songs - there is so much stuff to learn about Jazz theory that it overwhelms you in a way and I find something in each Jazz tune I try that is unexpected and interesting - I just don't see how I can write anything half as interesting and it just makes me think I've got to really understand all this huge repertoire before I can write anything "worthy"!

    When I was writing tunes, I would usually start with an a interesting rhythm, programmed into my drum machine and work up! I think this might have been "selfish" on my part as it meant that as the bass player, I got some interesting grooves to work with

    Occasionally I would come up with an interesting riff, that sparked something off; but usually I would put together drum track, keyboards, bass and possibly guitar parts before taking it to whichever vocalist I was working with at the time to write the melody/lyrics - I've never been able to sing lead vocals - too low a range I think! ;)

    I never hear lyrics either - a lot of people think I'm weird, because they'll be talking about some wry line and I never heard it - whereas I was thinking ....hmmm interesting use of reverb on the snare! So a lot friends were really moved by Joy Division lyrics and there's me going - wow listen to the reverb on that! ;)
  6. thrash_jazz


    Jan 11, 2002
    Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
    Artist: JAF Basses, Circle K Strings
    The whole "fan of the lyrics only" concept really annoys me. I know a lot of people who say "oh, I only care about the words" and so on, and I wonder "Why not read some poetry instead, then? A book is usually cheaper than a CD!"...

    I hear all these "new" songs on the radio which are all I-IV-V and contain nothing musically interesting, yet everyone loves them because the lyrics are about new and exciting ways for some guy to do it with some girl... :mad:
  7. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY

    I'd pretty much have to go with what FUQHORN said in his post. Most of the time when I write, it comes from a fragment - be it melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic - which seems interesting enough to explore further and flesh out. All of my best tunes get started that way.

    This is a great subject for a thread, because it's an important question - to what extent is theory related to composition? I ended up getting two degrees in theory/comp in search of the answer, and what I learned is basically this:

    * Theory is a science and a craft, and composition is an art which involves craft.

    * Each person has their own intuitive sense of both art and craft. Where this natural proclivity ends is where the "craft" of theory can begin to be useful.

    * If anyone ever tells you they can teach you to compose or create any kind of art, run like hell in the opposite direction. Only craft can be must be absorbed into the bloodstream of your entire being before it begins to resurface.

    But remember, science facilitates art, so it's not like there's nothing you can do to make yourself a better songwriter or musician. Think of your ability as a CRAFTSMAN (craftsperson?) as a pipeline which carries your creative energy to fruition in the outside world. Do you want the diameter of this pipeline to be 10 millimeters, or 10 FEET? Because if it's 10 millimeters, then it will take forever for a gallon of creativity to get out, whereas a 10 foot diameter pipeline would put out the same amount in a fraction of a second. Bottom line - studying theory allows your creative ideas to flow more freely, because you don't always have to stop and figure out what each sound you may be hearing is and how to construct it.

    The only way I know of to improve the state of your ART is to surround yourself with the great art of others as often as possible so you can begin the process of absorbing it. After all, you are what you eat. :)
  8. chrisbs


    Jan 12, 2002
    I think it is a process of learning the theory, deconstructing it, and using it to your advantage in original work.
    When the masters, ie, Mozart, Beethoven composed, they half used theory, and half created the theory, if that makes sense.
  9. stephanie


    Nov 14, 2000
    Scranton, PA
    Ahhh...this is what I was trying to say. :) I've been thinking so much lately that perhaps I was going about the writing process incorrectly. I will put nothing over emotion. And also nothing is more important to me than the 'colors' I put into the music. But, I've been feeling I wasn't putting my knowledge of theory to use...'course now after thinking about things, and reading these replies here, I stand corrected.

    Oh well, I've been in a bit of a rut lately. I'm used to 'seeing' 'colors' when I play...and...well...I haven't been 'seeing' them lately. (*feels odd stares* :D). Also, the feeling...playing a note and just 'crawling' inside it. (*feels more stares* :D). Just stressed maybe? But anyway, I think 'colors' and theory go hand in hand. Like I said there's theory behind everything. Analyze a simple rock tune where even the bassist of the band said "I know no theory"'s still there...

    Just rambling...

  10. stephanie


    Nov 14, 2000
    Scranton, PA
    ...beautiful :) this is the answer I was looking for. I was asking myself: 'How do I apply this theory to my songwriting?' Thank you DURRL.

    Anyway, I'm loving all the replies to this thread. (Heh, a thread I made just rambling off to myself actually got replies. :D :))

  11. Player


    Dec 27, 1999
    USA Cincinnati, OH
    I like Piss HitsHarold’s explanation. ;)
    It’s definitely a two-part thing. I wrote a lot more when I was younger. (I was also a lot less critical) The tunes tended to be fairly simple, usually driven by a lyric/melody line that I would throw chords around on an acoustic guitar. I’ve pulled a few of em out recently (because I love arranging and haven’t had time or inspiration for too much raw stuff) and found that they become much more interesting when the “craft” is applied. You need theory to craft the song with interesting harmony, chord substitutions, etc. to make a good melody into a good song.
  12. Although I wouldn't classify myself as a "song writer" just yet (I haven't really put together more then a couple of riffs). But I've found that sometimes there's something that goes off in my head and I hear the riffs. Other times, I'll just be fumbling around and I'll play a couple of notes together and go "hey that sounds good, let me try this note"

    Admittedly I'm not a theory buff, I've been trying to learn it but it confuses me because it seems like many things can be played many different ways. Don't get me wrong, I'm not forsaking theory, but I need someone to instruct me with it to explain what I don't understand. That, or I simply need more time to spend on it :confused:

    As far as lyrics are concerned, I love lyrics...mainly because I consider myself to be writer slightly more then a musician. But I also understand that the greatest lyrics in the world are nothing without the song. I've read some people's posts about "writing lyrics first" and how many of them don't agree with it or something to that effect. All I can say about that is, Creativity is not something that can be ordered. I've found myself writing lyrics first, but with an idea of melody in my head as I'm writing them.

    I'm not sure if I've answered your question as I've just pretty much rambled about myself :p Basically I'm a very raw bass player, I play by what goes on in my head and pay little attention to what key I'm playing in. Perhaps once I get a bit more into theory I will analyize my work more. But for the time being, I'm satisfied with what I do. I think that's the most important thing, just to be satisfied with what you do and enjoy it. And to never stop learning.
  13. thrash_jazz


    Jan 11, 2002
    Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
    Artist: JAF Basses, Circle K Strings
    No no no, that isn't what I said at all! Of course there's nothing wrong with writing lyrics first - I don't find that there's much difference. What I do have a problem with is people (most of whom are not musicians) that listen to music ONLY "because they like the lyrics.". That is to say, they don't even notice what's going on besides the vocals. If that's the case, why don't they go to poetry readings instead of concerts? :mad:

    I don't want to sound like a "Music Snob", but even before I played, when I was a total and complete musical doofus, I listened to the complete package.
  14. Easy man, I didn't mean to imply you. And I fully understand what your saying when it comes to "only because of the lyrics".

    I'm one of those people who are a bit more focused on the lyrics. Don't get me wrong I have alot of songs I love that are instrumentals, but the lyrics are what relate people to the music. Now granted, lately music is, IMHO, too focused on the lyrics. When you got britney spears who puts out and album with basic rhythm's and no musical dynamics whatsoever...that's wrong.

    For me, it's not just the lyrics that draw me (otherwise I would, as you put it, got to more poetry readings). But it's the way in which the lyrics are presented. Not just body language, but voice inflections, and especially rhtymically within the song.

    Furthermore, if I offened anyone with anything I've said, please don't hesitate to let me know, I'll gladly make amends. Sometimes I don't present my views in the best of manners.
  15. thrash_jazz


    Jan 11, 2002
    Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
    Artist: JAF Basses, Circle K Strings
    I apologize - I wasn't offended at all, but my previous post made it seem that way. :cool:

    I agree with you - great lyrics are definitely part of the art and can make or break a song, and, as you say, it's all in the delivery. :)
  16. cassanova


    Sep 4, 2000
    Lady Ephiphany, I dont think much about theory when Im composing a piece. I more or less do it like you do, just start on a single note and play whatever melody im hearing in my head. Very seldom do I sit there and say ok, Im gonna compose something in a specific key. When its done and I like what I hear Ill go back over certain parts and say ok,,whatd I do there. Whyd that work, etc. I think that we apply the theory we know at a subconscious level and it all just comes out of us when we play. Unless of course you sit there and say ok, Im gonna write somethin in G for ex.