Going beyond music theory into pure expression?
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Music Theory & Composition Questions & comments about composition, arrangement, and music theory. Music rules and how to follow or break them.

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Old 19-07-2017, 08:25 AM   #1
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Going beyond music theory into pure expression?

Hi everybody, so I've been thinking recently about how, on some occasions, music theory seems to completely disappear while composing, some sort of "flow state" that I came upon a few times.

If any of you experience it also.

it's pretty much similar to someone who haven't learned about music theory but still can make something sound good, the difference here is knowledge and awareness.

So while I'm not a theory expert by any stretch of the imagination, I have learned enough theory, harmony and I have practiced a lot, playing "instrumental" music for most of my life (from metal to jazz, soul, R&B and so on) so I'm definitely not oblivious to music theory.

But things have changed for me when I began working on classical, more specifically romantic and neo romantic pieces (mostly stuff from Mahler)

By working on such music, I really feel I had a peak into what true talent, if not genius is. While the melodies and harmonies feel effortless to the ears, working on them made me realize that they were extremely advanced, theorically, to a degree that most of it is barely supposed to sound right, but not only it does, but it also carries with it worlds of emotion.

But it felt that all of it was much beyond theory, it was pure expression.

Having spent time working and learning about this kind of music, a few times, it occured to me while composing, there were no more questions about which chord would sound right, or which note would create the best melody, it felt as easy and natural as breathing, empty mind, musical flow state.

In that, it helped me compose some of my best work (in all humility, I'm not "that" good lol)


I guess my question would be, to those of you who experienced this, how did you get there, and can you replicate the process to do so?

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Old 19-07-2017, 10:29 AM   #2
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Re: Going beyond music theory into pure expression?

I think the flow-state is kind of built on exploration, so you created the right environment for it to thrive. You can't force a flow state, it comes from the opposite of forcing anything. You can only be blindsided by it - but if you learn how to better create the conditions for it, let me know.

Actually though, this happens to me frequently when I work on certain genres (like dark ambient) so maybe we just have our own thing that makes the clock tick way too fast.

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Old 19-07-2017, 01:51 PM   #3
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Re: Going beyond music theory into pure expression?

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Originally Posted by Vault O))) View Post
I think the flow-state is kind of built on exploration, so you created the right environment for it to thrive. You can't force a flow state, it comes from the opposite of forcing anything. You can only be blindsided by it - but if you learn how to better create the conditions for it, let me know.

Actually though, this happens to me frequently when I work on certain genres (like dark ambient) so maybe we just have our own thing that makes the clock tick way too fast.
I agree. I do experience this with music occasionally, but have more so with writing. When I was in my studio program in graduate school and honing my craft six days a week it was very easy to find myself getting a lot of good, publishable writing done.

It was all about making the art a practice and doing it every day. When you retrain the connections in your brain to change to facilitate the creative process (look into brain placisicity for the science of it) it is much easier to achieve this so-called "flow state".

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Old 19-07-2017, 03:43 PM   #4
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Re: Going beyond music theory into pure expression?

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Originally Posted by A.M View Post
Jez..there must be something wrong with me, then..I'm constantly in the "flow state"..I always thought everyone was like this, too. I don't think it's a by-product of Theory..it can't be, as I've always worked like this and have little if any music theory under my belt.

It's always felt like a frame of mind I just slip into..a way of "feeling" things in my mind and seeing a mental image at the same time. Then all I do is try to reflect what I see and feel back into the music I compose as a result.

Sometimes the end result is pretty solid..most times what I end up with is filed away for future work at some point.
it's not exactly that, I'm not saying flow state requires theory (as a matter of fact, I think I wrote the opposite)

but I guess what I was trying to say was that when learning theory, I would have to focus on it to use it and little if any of what theory I've learned came up during a flow state, but after working on classical/romantic music, I found out that not only did it come up, but it actually went beyond what was learned and allowed me to do types of music that I never thought I was able to.

most musicians/artist experience flow state, but in the case of that discussion, it was about having learned a good amount of theory, being first unable to use it very creatively (felt and sounded forced), and then being able not only to use it, but also go beyond it.


While most artists, with or without theory, experience flow states, this is more about "unlocking" some potential that was first awakened by learning theory, then working and studying "complicated" pieces.

Of course, people don't need to learn theory to make music, I see it as a personal choice, to learn at least some, so I have vocabulary to express myself, but in these particular states, it's like everything I've learned accounts for almost nothing in what comes up, at first glance, but may rather be some sort of "fundation" upon and also beyond which creativity builds.
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Old 19-07-2017, 08:48 PM   #5
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Re: Going beyond music theory into pure expression?

yeah, great comments here!
I also feel it's best to not overanalyse this stuff.
music theory is a bunch of "rules" and in true music, many rules should be broken.


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Old 19-07-2017, 09:49 PM   #6
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Re: Going beyond music theory into pure expression?

to do truly new music you have to figure out old music. inspiration takes you only so far.

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Old 20-07-2017, 12:03 AM   #7
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Re: Going beyond music theory into pure expression?

dissonance is unexpected, it can be one of the nicest things if well executed.

theory should always be in the back of your head as a sort of reference frame, but exploration is key!
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Old 20-07-2017, 12:39 PM   #8
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Re: Going beyond music theory into pure expression?

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Originally Posted by _nanonoise_ View Post
dissonance is unexpected, it can be one of the nicest things if well executed.

theory should always be in the back of your head as a sort of reference frame, but exploration is key!
This is key in my opinion, about dissonance, it relies on the intent as well as the execution, Wagner and Mahler were master at this (amongst others, but these are the ones I place the highest according to my own taste, Wagner for the sheer epicness of his work, and Mahler for the ultra emotional and communicative music, both for their ability to make it seem effortless)

Learning theory helped me to better embody and understand some concepts to the point where I don't need them anymore to do music.

without learning theory, you just, In my opinion, condemn yourself to reinvent the wheel a million times and one.

Which doesn't have to be a bad thing in itself, and with the tools we have here, it can definitely create the opportunity to create new things all together, I just feel I'd better become aware of what's already there so I don't have to reinvent it all over again and I can focus on finding new ways to create music.

not saying that I have tho
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Old 20-07-2017, 03:31 PM   #9
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Re: Going beyond music theory into pure expression?

Very interesting question. I haven't gotten there myself because I don't study theory. But I have recorded interestingly accomplished and well trained jazz musicians who have expressed this. One person said he learns on a very deep level everything about music so his paint palette is full of everything he needs, but when he plays he forgets all of that and plays what feels right. He's beyond the theory. At a place that he uses it to play and improvise but no longer thinks about it.

This one piano player I work with spends 6 months playing his song and studying the tonal relationships of every chord. He continues to practice up until the day before the recording session, then he throws it all out and completely improvises on the general theme of the song. It can get pretty weird at times and to some doesn't sound musical but to him it is the exact sound he was looking for and capturing the tones in that moment is meaningful to him.

My mom is an artist. She used to do identical pencil drawings with great detail. Now she does collage appear art. She said she knows at any point she can do an exact repkica drawing of anything, with enough time. But she chooses to do paper collage because it is her expression and she's beyond technique.

All theee examples seem to be what your talking about. Oh and I should say in both the musician examples they continue to practice scales and chord inversions daily. So they can advance further, learn more and as a result become more free
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Old 20-07-2017, 06:34 PM   #10
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Re: Going beyond music theory into pure expression?

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Originally Posted by saneliv View Post
to do truly new music you have to figure out old music. inspiration takes you only so far.
This, I find the more I play the easier it is to come up with new things, it's just the sum of all you know flowing out in different arrangements.
At least that's what I think, it's like a saying "fake it till you make it" ie, use theory until you really know it and can subconsciously go beyond it.
There are 4 levels of mastery of a skill:
Unconscious incompetence: you don't know what you don't know
Conscious incompetence: you know that there's a ton you don't know, but you know what to learn
Conscious competence: you are good at doing something if you focus at it
Unconscious competence: that's the stuff you are talking about, you crush it with out having to think about it.

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Old 20-07-2017, 06:56 PM   #11
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Re: Going beyond music theory into pure expression?

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Originally Posted by Emmanuel G. View Post
Hi everybody, so I've been thinking recently about how, on some occasions, music theory seems to completely disappear while composing, some sort of "flow state" that I came upon a few times.

If any of you experience it also.

it's pretty much similar to someone who haven't learned about music theory but still can make something sound good, the difference here is knowledge and awareness.

So while I'm not a theory expert by any stretch of the imagination, I have learned enough theory, harmony and I have practiced a lot, playing "instrumental" music for most of my life (from metal to jazz, soul, R&B and so on) so I'm definitely not oblivious to music theory.

But things have changed for me when I began working on classical, more specifically romantic and neo romantic pieces (mostly stuff from Mahler)

By working on such music, I really feel I had a peak into what true talent, if not genius is. While the melodies and harmonies feel effortless to the ears, working on them made me realize that they were extremely advanced, theorically, to a degree that most of it is barely supposed to sound right, but not only it does, but it also carries with it worlds of emotion.

But it felt that all of it was much beyond theory, it was pure expression.

Having spent time working and learning about this kind of music, a few times, it occured to me while composing, there were no more questions about which chord would sound right, or which note would create the best melody, it felt as easy and natural as breathing, empty mind, musical flow state.

In that, it helped me compose some of my best work (in all humility, I'm not "that" good lol)


I guess my question would be, to those of you who experienced this, how did you get there, and can you replicate the process to do so?

excellent topic here! thanks!

for me, i resonate with this strongly. i had a rough childhood and barely remember anything till my preteen years and when i moved to my fathers i had some stability. i was able to stay in one school long enough to remember my music teacher, for example. mr daniels was the shit... he understood my problems and for some reason was just my friend. we talked about music and he taught me chopsticks on the piano and i still remember middle c and all the keys but i forget the chords and i dont know my scales... this applies to guitar too. i cannot read music but i can read guitar tabs. i cant tell you what chord or note is being played but i can tell you if it sounds good with the rest of the objects moving to my ears.

you said one thing that made me post... emotion.

emotion in latin literally means to disturb. i have suffered from emotional imbalances and have finally got things in control, to the best of my ability at least in the now. emotion is energy... thus it has a frequency... it resonates with your body... or at least mine. i "feel" the music. not just hear it... and this is where my greatest strength lies with music.

all the math, science and physics, the metaphysics, spirituality, of life and my experiences have helped me to feel people as well, simply because our hearts do project a field of energy. we all call this different things or different names but when we say what we think it is, we are usually talking about the same thing.

its like trying to close your eyes and weld... or drive, or walk. have you ever done that? try getting up in the night when you need a drink of water or to go to the bathroom... try getting there with your eyes closed, and FEEL your way thu the house. learn to use your OTHER senses.

i feel like im the luckiest person alive... idk why, i dont mean to boast or brag, cause im not... ive been thru hell and back. but all of that relates to music for me. in fact its how in part i felt anything at all.... it was the motion... with the emotion behind it that made it stand my hairs up, or my skin wrinkle up like ive got the shivers.

use your intuition of how it feels with how it sounds... when you play a large chord, I love reasons piano thingy cause im not good with chords, you shoul feel more energy than playing just the root key, or at least should.

when you scan thru sounds for something that RESONATES with you,... and you feel it, USE THAT SAMPLE...

thats what I do. i literally have no idea what im doing or what im going to do at any time in my music... till most recently... actually,

im focusing and simplifying my workflow and i have access to a home now... my life has changed and im able to focus more on my music and my emotions... so my music is getting better. my ears are learning and the rest is picking up pace VERY fast... i also have been playing with making music as a hobby for over fifteen years... its not like i just started. i cant play other peoples music either,,, on piano or guitar... though i try to learn fiona apple on piano and i still remember my deftones and korn tabs for my gibson.

idk if any of that makes any sense what so ever... im sorry... lol
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Old 21-07-2017, 04:59 AM   #12
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Re: Going beyond music theory into pure expression?

Great topic.

All of the theory is just an organizing and explanation. It can help and open your eyes but it can also crush the creativity out of your soul, roboticize and homogenize you.

It is a fine line that some people manage and many do not.

Two things come to mind. When Don Buchla designed his first synthesizers (around the same time as Robert Moog) he was adamant that there not be a piano like controller attached to his. His reasoning was that a new instrument shouldn't be bound to the confines of the old instruments. I can tell you as someone who comes from a traditional music background that making music is full of ruts, predisposition, and cliche. When I've moved away from familiar territory (such as using a controller like push) I have found it to be very liberating to dive into unknowns.

The other thing that comes to mind is a sax player named Cornelius Bumpus. I believe the story is that Donald Fagen found this guy looking homeless busking in the subway. He got him to join Steely Dan. Thing is that Cornelius didn't read music, no theory at all. He did however just jump in with these guys and kill it, making incredibly academic clever stuff arranged to the max. Sure he didn't understand a word the musical director said, but he knew how to just do it.
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Old 21-07-2017, 09:36 AM   #13
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Re: Going beyond music theory into pure expression?

academic clever stuff arranged to the max
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Old 22-07-2017, 01:51 AM   #14
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Re: Going beyond music theory into pure expression?

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academic clever stuff arranged to the max
I know I can count on you to catch the moment I've fully altered the alcohol/vocabulary ratio for the worse.
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Old 23-07-2017, 06:06 PM   #15
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Re: Going beyond music theory into pure expression?

i just thought that was fucking hilarious and fitting

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