Which came first: Composition or Theory? A Musical Chicken and Egg Conundrum

Hello all!

The blog is finally back up and running after far too many months. I’m planning on posting a list of all of the musical/life events that occured over the past two seasons (I miss the Texas winter and spring more and more as we slowly approach surface of the sun temperatures), but I figured a purely musical post would be appropriate to get the ball rolling again.

Anyways, on to the music:

This past Monday, Lindby’s bassist and my good friend, Kyle Claset,  gave his Theory Capstone Presentation. For those of you who haven’t delved too deeply into the world of Music Theory majors, a capstone is the equivalent of a senior recital.

Performance majors put on concerts to show their skills. Composition majors (like myself) have a bunch of different people perform their portfolio of works. Theory majors write epic papers (backed up by powerful powerpoint presentations) and argue a certain, specific point in a certain realm of the musical world.

As an example, Kyle tried to persuade his audience of professors and peers that a new type of sonata should be acknowledged and classified alongside the existing five types. The meat of his argument came from providing musical examples that fit into multiple categories and could not be constrained by one classification.

It was certainly a compelling argument and really got me thinking about the nature of compositon versus theory. Creation versus definition. Chaos versus order.

As a composer, I have a natural bias that would have me leaning towards the idea that compostion came before theory. The first mental image I conjure up is that of our ancient ancestors sitting around creating rhythms with primitive drums and perhaps singing in form or another.

However, if I look at it from Kyle’s point of view, I would have to admit that the very act of defining rhythm and providing even the most basic of structures would reside in the world of theory.

It’s very much in the vein of which came first, the chicken or the egg.

Kyle and I have actually discussed how the ideas of composition and theory are essentially at war with each other. Composers create what they feel/think sounds good. Theorists try to make sense of it and define it. Of course, even though they’re at war with each other, one could never exist without the other.

And upon further thought, this conflict between the two arts actually helps both of them progress forward towards further innovation.  Composers always want to break new ground and come up with ideas that have never been tried. This partially stems from the fact that theory has defined and classified what has already been done. If a composer succeeds at this goal, then theorists suddenly have a plethera of new work ahead of them. It goes hand in hand, and one fire basically feeds the other.

It’s ying and yang. It’s life and death. It’s order and chaos. It’s the power and drive of opposites.

It’s theory and composition: the backbone of the musical world.



6 responses to “Which came first: Composition or Theory? A Musical Chicken and Egg Conundrum”

  1. Aaron Latchaw Avatar
    Aaron Latchaw

    Would you consider the idea of convergence? That perhaps our ancestors in their collective gatherings simultaneously composed and theorized at a magical moment causing a full blown mental break through (for them at the time) that laid the future groundwork for music and rhythm as we know it?

    Just a thought.

  2. Kyle Claset Avatar
    Kyle Claset

    Great topic, I look forward to reading more. To recollect my memories of music history, thank you Dr. Linton Powell, it was Guido d’ Arezzo, a medieval theorist, who developed essentially what become the current musical staff. The process of notating prior to this was vague, i believed it used dots and lines to represent if the pitch is lowered or raised.

    I would have to say that Composition came first, songs being passed on through oral practice. However, it was by the hand of a theorist that composers have their medium to better convey their musical thoughts. So next time you compose, or look at sheet music, give thanks to Mr. Arezzo.

    1. Mark Feezell Avatar
      Mark Feezell

      Hi, Kyle, this is Dr. Feezell. I’m putting together an alumni database. Could you email me at SMU with your current goings on?

  3. Terry Townson Avatar
    Terry Townson

    We should get together and discuss some compositional techniques! I could really use some pointers!

    1. Terry Townson Avatar
      Terry Townson

      And maybe a trombone lesson or two?

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