Learning the Rules

“You have to learn the rules before you can break them.”

I have no idea where I first heard this phrase. I may have heard it so many times, in so many different contexts, that it’s lost all meaning. I’m sure I’ve uttered it myself without giving it much thought. But lately, what once seemed like an innocuous adage has started to feel more and more like a poisonous platitude, something completely inimical to the actual methodology of artistic practice. I’ll try to explain why.

Regardless of where I first heard it, for me the phrase is inextricably bound up with undergraduate music theory courses, specifically related to learning four-part voice leading in the style of the J.S. Bach chorales. Almost all music students go through this rite of passage, with varying degrees of resistance. (Composers usually like it, instrumentalists tolerate it, and singers generally hate it.) But every now and then, someone will stumble on a chorale that doesn’t conform, a clear instance of Bach himself committing contrapuntal heresy. Instead of the anticipated “gotcha” moment, however, the aforementioned truism is trotted out, shutting the student down. You see, Bach knew the rules of voice leading so well that he knew just when it was appropriate to ignore them. When you are as good as Bach, maybe you can break them too. But until then…

The first problem with this statement is that it isn’t quite true. Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum wasn’t published until Bach was 40, and even there, voice leading rules weren’t laid down in the same way they’re taught today, with the modern degree of specificity and meticulousness. My main problem with the whole learning-before-breaking thing, though, is more broad, and more applicable to the many other situations where I encounter it. It begins with the question, “Which rules?”

When I’m composing, I often find myself negotiating between many different, often contradictory sets of rules. This is the inherently challenging and (when I am in a good mood) fun part of the whole enterprise. It’s also what makes it fruitful and productive; when everything’s working right, the music has a relationship to the past without being slavishly devoted to it. It has meaning. This kind of negotiation isn’t limited to composition, either. In a certain sense, our system of equal temperament arose as a succession of compromises between various musical needs. (Should we all learn to play in just intonation before we play in equal temperament?)

The question of “which rules?” is one that, I think, composers have to decide on their own at some point or another. The fact that different composers have different models and sources of inspiration is part of what staves off stagnation. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, at least in the States, some of our most influential composers (Cage, Reich) drew many of their musical ideas from non-Western cultures.

I was reminded of this, in a roundabout way, when reading Ethan Iverson’s recent series of insightful posts on the music of Thelonious Monk. Even now, Monk’s compositions stick out a little like unruly splinters in the jazz catalog, and the natural impulse of many players (including, apparently, Miles Davis and Horace Silver) has been to sand down those spiky surfaces until they feel more like jazz orthodoxy. Make sure every chord has a seventh; change a chord if it strays too far from a ii-V-I; give the melody a more sensible contour. It’s likely that many of these changes are unintentional and unconscious on the part of the performers, and Iverson is absolutely right to call attention to them.

But paradoxically, Iverson finds himself in a position where he seems like a stickler for defending one set of rules—Monk’s rules—against another. At which point he states:

The point of all this, by the way, is not to slavishly imitate Monk when playing his music. The point is to find yourself through immersion in authentic canonical detail.

If this sounds suspiciously like learning rules before breaking them, I’d like to make a slightly finicky distinction myself. What I think Iverson is describing is actually breaking the rules while or even before learning them. When a set of musical rules becomes fully codified, it has a tendency to be rather generic and inexpressive, like the one-size-fits-all chord scale style of improvising that Iverson mentions. Learning the rules before breaking them can breed a certain timidity of thought, and it can actually teach students to mistrust their ears and instincts, which may be telling them something contrary to what the rules are saying. In fact, musical creativity demands that you immerse yourself in different sets of rules with your critical thinking skills and aural intuition fully active, in which case breaking the rules is not only possible—it’s an absolute certainty, at every stage of the process.

2 thoughts on “Learning the Rules

  1. Paul Paroczai

    Hi Isaac,

    I just wanted to offer something on what you put forward here since its a concept that all music enthusiasts have to deal – and often struggle – with. I began studying music academically two years ago partially as a result of the fact that I hated not being able to have an opinion of definitive, demonstrable value on the music I loved. I simply lacked the vocabulary and knowledge needed to asses the value of a given piece. As a result, I was extremely excited to learn the “rules” of composition and I spent hours reading harmony texts and making sure my chorale exercises didn’t contain any of the God-forbiddin parallels which would instantly knock my grade down a couple notches. However, as I continued in my studies and began taking composition and orchestration classes which involved complete “from scratch” creation as opposed to the sort of fill in the blanks of harmony, and as history classes began to move into a study of early 20th century works – particularly those of Debussy – I started to realize that to understand the concepts taught as “rules” in many music classes is to miss the point of what you’re actually learning, and that to teach the concepts as such is to direct students slightly askew in terms of how they negotiate future creativity.

    In the specific case of Debussy, I remember very clearly a history lesson at UC Berkeley where Richard Taruskin placed a transparency of one of the famous Frenchman’s scores on the projector (I believe it was “…des pas sur la nege”) and pointed to a measure asking if we noticed anything strange. The realization of “error” was immediate. Glaring, unadulterated, unhidden parallel 5ths – the grandaddy of all errors in a work which one of the worlds leading musicologists would later tell me he loved. How could this be?

    The answer is not difficult if we simply shift our focus on how we think about “rules” in composition. What I believe is truly taught in harmony classes is very similar to what would be taught in a basic English grammar class. That is, what we learn in these classes are not unbreakable rules (as the incredible proliferation of slang, dialect, and urbandictionary.com can attest) but lessons in effective communication. By filling in over and over again the missing parts of a chorale melody or bass line, we begin to understand that certain gestures denote closure, that some are angular and harsh while others work more smoothly, and that a wide range of effects is possible given a certain configuration.

    “Rules” of harmony have often and for some time been confused with what I will hesitantly call guidelines for beauty (here meaning smooth and easily palatable). Early Renaissance musicians would have burned Stravinsky at the stake for his devilish (meaning tritone-ish) octatonicism and indeed Bach was misunderstood in his time for his sometimes harsh dissonances and musical idioms. We often write these things off as gaffs or acceptable deviations in the works of masters, but I think this is foolish. As Bach, Debussy, Stravinsky, and all masters of music have realized, the palate of musical expression is inexhaustible. There are countless combinations of notes, rhythms, instrumentation and so on that are forbidden by “rules” which nonetheless are present in works we champion, and there is a reason for this. Each of these composers has mastered the communicative power of music, and in an effort to communicate most effectively, has disposed with the “rules” as their purpose requires.

    I believe that understanding this concept is essential to the development of all composers. Indeed music is very difficult to talk about and fully understand, and so the need to codify and restrain is undoubtedly helpful, but to label such things “rules” is of no assistance to anyone. We must instead understand that what we are being taught is – much like the lesson which teaches a 2nd grader to say “where were they” instead of “where was they” – that sounds, when used in certain ways, can generate relationships which as a result produce meaning, and that over the centuries certain combinations of sounds have been found to communicate certain things. For example, as V moves to I we are given a sense of closure whereas when V moves to vi we feel deceived. To teach as law in a harmony class that V may only go to I or vi by virtue of a historically essential “rule” is foolish. To foster an understanding of these guidelines as a tool to aid students in effective musical communication is essential.

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  2. Gregory Klug

    Thoughtful article. But what if a painter portrayed human anatomy abstractly without learning the “rules” of realistic anatomy? Wouldn’t it be *easier* to thus bypass than to learn and apply those rules? I think it’s important that if your craft challenges convention, it doesn’t do so merely due to lack of training. This applies to music too. It frankly TAKES MORE SKILL to avoid parallel fifths than otherwise. So learn how to avoid them, then use them as you wish. That way your contrapuntal skill will be more evident, even (in a general sense) when you do “rebel.”
    Anyway, this I think is where the adage comes from. But well said, Sir, that composers need to decide on their own what set of rules they will follow. I believe this is what it means to be a composer today.

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