I never formally learned the basic rules of cookery but it has never stopped me from cooking. Over time you tend to pick up the basics, what works well together and if it doesn’t taste very good you don’t make it again.
If I’d known some of the fundamentals, it may have helped make a cake a bit lighter, cooked meat a bit more tender or help make a meal quicker but it didn’t stop me cooking.
The same is true with music theory. Some people are well versed, like Joe Satriani who knows an incredible amount of theory whereas others know little, like George Lynch. Both are still phenomenal guitarists and musicians.
I was very surprised when one of my mates informed me he knew no theory whatsoever. His tracks always sound well produced and, err, musical. I guess I mean it’s not experimental or avant-garde. He’s Narel on Soundcloud if you want to hear what I’m talking about.
The same is true with music theory. My guitar teacher advised me to learn the rules then forget them. After 3 weeks of struggling I didn’t think I’d ever understand them enough to forget them. At this time he also said that he had a cupboard full of herbs and spices but sometimes he just wanted a little bit of salt. So I was more confused than ever, but I stuck with it and the hard work paid off.
Over time I understood what he meant. The rules help you to write songs, melodies and solos but they can also be a constraint. If you’re not careful you tend to use the same Keys, chords and scales without experimenting or trying something new so they can actually limit your creativity. There’s often also a temptation to try and put all of this new found knowledge into practice in a song and sometimes a blistering lead solo (or two) sounds great but a handful of notes may also sound great there too. Equally there are some sounds that work well together even though theory says they shouldn’t. You’d never find these without breaking the rules.
So that’s why the other day I put some blueberries into my salad and added balsamic vinegar. It was surprising delicious. And I’d never have found that out if I’d stuck to the ‘rules’.