Does Knowing Musical Theory Help Production?

I watch a lot of the Fact TV ‘Against the Clock’ series.  It’s a nice way to look at how other producers do things, and sometimes get some new ideas that can help your own approach and work.  One interesting observation from these videos is that there’s a fair variation between the formal practical and theoretical training that producers possess… I.e. you see some guys who seem to go for the ‘lots of random notes until something sounds OK’ approach on an Abelton Push-type device, and on the other hand, guys who get behind a keyboard and start dropping improvised parts like a jazz session musician.  I’m not making an elitist-type judgement here either… there’s not necessarily a correlation between the quality of the track ultimately produced, and the instrumental skills of the producer.  But it’s something that got me thinking, and something that I was aware of in my previous year of full time music production.

I always learnt instruments and formal music theory from a fairly early age… first through the AMEB and then through school and high school, and while I’ve been very grateful for that knowledge and how it can often help and expedite my music production, like other elements I’ve written about, it can sometimes be a double edged sword.  On the plus side, the benefits I see are that…

  • When trying to come up with new ideas for tracks and parts, an understanding of scales and their relationships can help you to more quickly come to potential parts that fit nicely with whatever you’ve already got.  I think without that understanding, you’d have to cycle through things a lot more randomly (like just trying every key in an octave until something sounds good).
  • I think it’s easier and more quick to translate ideas you hear in your head into a tangible sound, project, score, etc…

But, at the same time, there are lots of ideas that don’t fit into the formal bounds of music theory that can still sound interesting and/or good… and I feel like the problem is sometimes, that having those theoretical constraints ‘burned in’ to your thinking can stop you from accessing and finding these “don’t fit” ideas.

There’ve been several times over the last year, where I surprised myself by finding a sound, interval, or harmony which was a bit outside the boundaries of Western musical theory, but sounded good nonetheless in the context of the track I was working on.

I’ll try and go into detail on a couple of these over the coming weeks.

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