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.