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Thread: Is it possible to be a legendary musician without an understanding of music theory?

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    Senior Member Albert7's Avatar
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    Default Is it possible to be a legendary musician without an understanding of music theory?

    To what extent does a musician need to master music theory in order to be a legendary musician? Or can one just play from the heart passionately?

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    Senior Member DavidA's Avatar
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    Did Irvin Berlin have an understanding of music theory? I don't believe he could read music!

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    It all helps. Basically, the more theory you know, the easier it becomes to memorize and analyse pieces. The more you know of a piece and the more aware you are of what the composer is trying to do, the easier is to convey that.

    It's not just a matter of technique plus passion. The whole point of technical exercises is to allow you to develop the techniques necessary to play pieces but you need to know which techniques to use and that's part of analysis or musical theory. Good sight reading is built on good theoretical knowledge both of harmony and of styles appropriate to the period and the composer as well as good technique.
    Music begins where words leave off. Music expresses the inexpressible.

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    Quote Originally Posted by albertfallickwang View Post
    To what extent does a musician need to master music theory in order to be a legendary musician? Or can one just play from the heart passionately?
    As long as you have a good ear, it is possible to create and play music effectively, as many uneducated bluesmen and rockers have demonstrated. If you are a genius, it will become apparent, like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Muddy Waters proved.

    But when musicians begin playing in groups, it helps to have a way of communicating. That's what theory is for. In Nashville, they use a "number system," which is basically the same thing as the Roman numeral system, for calling out chords, or using hand signals: 1-2-3-4-5, etc.
    "The way out is through the door. Why is it that no one will use this method?"
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    "We only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made us." -Jean-Paul Sartre

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    Senior Member Albert7's Avatar
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    I think that playing 20th century music requires a stronger knowledge of music theory than say playing Bach or Vivaldi? After all, playing Schoenberg from the heart would be lackluster because of the intellectual constructs involved.

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    Quote Originally Posted by albertfallickwang View Post
    I think that playing 20th century music requires a stronger knowledge of music theory than say playing Bach or Vivaldi? After all, playing Schoenberg from the heart would be lackluster because of the intellectual constructs involved.
    On the contrary, I think that a good too many performances of Schoenberg's music fail to get past the technical level (because the music is very difficult to play accurately) and need more expression.

    That said, you might be right that one needs more knowledge of theory to really be able to get deeper into the music, simply because it's not as far pre-digested by our culture as that of previous eras.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mahlerian View Post
    On the contrary, I think that a good too many performances of Schoenberg's music fail to get past the technical level (because the music is very difficult to play accurately) and need more expression.

    That said, you might be right that one needs more knowledge of theory to really be able to get deeper into the music, simply because it's not as far pre-digested by our culture as that of previous eras.
    Another question is can mere technical brilliance that is so superlative that it blocks having emotional expression. Music for its own sake of technical wizardry doesn't mean the performance is satisfying at the end.

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    Quote Originally Posted by albertfallickwang View Post
    Another question is can mere technical brilliance that is so superlative that it blocks having emotional expression. Music for its own sake of technical wizardry doesn't mean the performance is satisfying at the end.
    Liszt or Paganini would be reasonable counter examples. Both wrote demanding music that suited their own technical brilliance. Their performances were certainly not sterile displays of technique. Liszt learned from Czerny, doing many months of pure technical studies rather than pieces. He obviously appreciated the training - the Transcendental Etudes are dedicated to Czerny. His practice style was incredible - after seeing Paganini play and realising what was required: "I practise four to five hours of exercises (thirds, sixths, octaves, tremolos, repetition of notes, cadenzas, etc.) Ah! Provided I don’t go mad you will find in me an artist! Yes, an artist—such as is required today."

    Liszt sometimes practised for ten or twelve hours a day, and much of this labour was expended on endurance exercises — scales, arpeggios, trills, and repeated notes. He set great store by the absolute independence of each finger. Every scale was practised with the fingering of every other scale (using, say, C-major fingering for F-sharp major, and D-flat major fingering for C-major.) Despite all this technique, Liszt was a consummate showman - because of his theoretical understanding of the music.

    It was Liszt who finally put to rest the notion that the Hammerklavier sonata was unplayable. What is particularly interesting about Liszt playing the Hammerklavier is that the technique required to play it, especially the fugue, is not one that comes from simple mastering of the elements of scales, chords, arpeggios, etc.; the technique requires a complete freedom of the hands at the keyboard that is not locked into any conventional pianism. Technically, one might as well be playing the Sonata #2 of Boulez or the Klavierstuecke of Stockhausen.
    Music begins where words leave off. Music expresses the inexpressible.

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    Jimi Hendrix didn't read music. He's a "legendary musician."

    IIRC, I don't think gypsy-jazz legend Django Reinhardt read music either.

    But I don't think that there's such a thing as a "classical legendary musician" who didn't read music, understand (at least) the basics of musical theory.
    Blog Index of JACE's 100 Favorite Classical Recordings: 1 - 50 and 51 - 100

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    In my limited personal experience, I have found that theoretical knowledge correlates positively with excellence in performance. I once taught a theory course geared especially for performers in the artist diploma program of a conservatory, which is strange to begin with because such programs are expressly designed to protect promising performers from just such academic distractions. It was a difficult task because some of these excellent musicians were theoretically illiterate and others could analyze anything they heard by ear on the spot. The most outstanding of these players, including one that took second place in a major violin competition and now has a performing career, were in the latter category. But there were others for whom playing was as natural as speaking and, just like a fluent speaker, they didn't need to be able to diagram their sentences in order to make beautiful sense.

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    Quote Originally Posted by EdwardBast View Post
    In my limited personal experience, I have found that theoretical knowledge correlates positively with excellence in performance. I once taught a theory course geared especially for performers in the artist diploma program of a conservatory, which is strange to begin with because such programs are expressly designed to protect promising performers from just such academic distractions. It was a difficult task because some of these excellent musicians were theoretically illiterate and others could analyze anything they heard by ear on the spot. The most outstanding of these players, including one that took second place in a major violin competition and now has a performing career, were in the latter category. But there were others for whom playing was as natural as speaking and, just like a fluent speaker, they didn't need to be able to diagram their sentences in order to make beautiful sense.
    I am fascinated by the latter case where a pure genius with natural talent can come and just piay exceptionally on the instrument.

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    Stevie Ray Vaughan proved that you can be legendary without reading music.

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    Good musicians will always have an understanding of how music is put together, whether or not they can read music or know how to describe it in the language that we call "music theory."

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    Quote Originally Posted by albertfallickwang View Post
    To what extent does a musician need to master music theory in order to be a legendary musician? Or can one just play from the heart passionately?
    Well, this has been told about some really great Russian composers like Mussorgsky and Borodin, and we definitely know that Scriabin couldn't read (solfège) the notes perfectly... but I'd take them as exceptions. There are two factors, necessarily, to gather in one man or woman, in order to become a good artist: talent and technique. The result of one's absence is the other one not getting in a true line.
    Last edited by Il_Penseroso; Feb-27-2015 at 06:42.
    In a world which is ruled by gangsters and maniacs, art means nothing but just a junk food and there's no hope for human's salvation throughout... (Shāmlou)

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    Morton Feldman proved that it was not necessary to read music, as his graphic scores prove.

    "The way out is through the door. Why is it that no one will use this method?"
    -Confucious

    "In Spring! In the creation of art it must be as it is in Spring!" -Arnold Schoenberg

    "We only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made us." -Jean-Paul Sartre

    "I don't mind dying, as long as I can still breathe." ---Me

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