I was having lunch recently with a fellow musician friend. At one point he told me that he was considering going back to school to study music theory. I like music theory, I've spent many hours navigating it. What struck me as odd about his comment, though, was that he cited as his main reason for taking theory courses the fact that he wants to learn how to compose. This makes very little sense to me. Theory as I see it is just a way to catalogue and describe all the different ways in which composers and musicians have put music together, all the names that they've given to the many conventions: the German 6th, the half-diminished scale, the breakbeat, . . . the two-five-one's of it, you might say.
I didn't dwell on it, but the fact that someone would use or even see theory as a "how to" is mildly amusing to me. Mechanistic composition. The root of serialism? Hmm. Duke said, "if it sounds right . . . it's right." I agree.
It makes me think about something T. S. Eliot wrote about the study of poetry.
I have never been able to retain the names of feet and meters, or to pay the proper respect to the accepted rules of scansion . . . . This is not to say that I consider the analytical study of metric, of the abstract forms which sound so extraordinarily different when handled by different poets, to be utter waste of time. It is only that a study of anatomy will not teach you how to make a hen lay eggs . . .
"The Music of Poetry"
amen to that . . .
I have a friend named Mark Manley who I haven't seen in years. He liked to play a flailing rubberband sounding bass guitar way back when I knew him. I remember that one of his favorite aphorisms was "A writer writes!". He would say it with a facetious tone.
He was indirectly poking fun at student mindset - people trying to learn to write by the book. If you want to learn about plot or character development, read some good work. That's the point. Although simple life experience is a better tutor, the reading we do is a pretty good teacher. The former provides us with content, the latter informs our forms. Delight in letters is what inspires the writer.
Who was it that said that a writer is nothing but a reader moved to emulation?
A wise fellow.