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Everyone (not only musicians) comes up with musical ideas in their heads. The proof is that you can ask anyone to hum an improvised melody over a chord progression ; and they probably sound nicer than the average musician improvising on his instrument.

Why? Because they don't have to know what notes they're singing. All their attention goes to creating the ideas rather than applying them.

The artistic part in a musician's work is coming up with the idea, the rest is petty much technical. The skills the musician develops (ear training, theory, technique...) to execute (play, write, arrange...) those ideas are purely technical. The only way this effort contributes to our musical imagination and creativity is by exposing us to way more music than the average person. If a child were born with these skills, it would not benefit him in terms of creativity, it would just allow him to express his ideas more easily.

Is harmonizing a melody by relying on 90% theory and 10% ears artistic? Is running mechanically up and down a scale artistic? Is memorizing what scales to play over which chords artistic? Would you think I'm a genius if I used secondary dominants just because I know about them?

Sure all musicians fall back on their knowledge of theory to fill up the gaps. And musicians have better ears and can recognize the sounds they hear (or some of them at least)... But where is the art in that?

I'm not arguing about the importance of music theory. And I'm certainly not arguing about the importance of ear training. My question is: are musicians more creative (musically) than non-musicians (people who only listen to music a lot)?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by American Luke, Dave, Dr Mayhem Aug 2 '13 at 21:15

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

How do you objectively measure artisticness or creativity? This question is hard to answer in the current form. –  American Luke Aug 2 '13 at 18:30
This is a very interesting topic, and one I would love to respond to, but this question seems more about entering into a dialogue where the emphasis will be defending artistic ideology than the actual pursuit of more information. I do not think the OP is looking for an objective quantitative measurement, but more of a relative, general comparison. –  jjmusicnotes Aug 2 '13 at 20:22
This is a somewhat philosophical question. What philosophers would do when studying those less tangible topics such as imagination and creativity, is try to find a subjective argument to prove their point. For example, I said that the practice and education of music continuously exposes the musician to new music thus enriching his imagination with new ideas. Is this an objective argument? Wouldn't you be interested in reading other such arguments? –  Anthony Aug 3 '13 at 8:41
I would be very interested in this as a philosophical discussion, but I don't think it's really the best use for this site. For example, that would be a great forum topic, but this site is primarily for concrete Q & A. –  jjmusicnotes Aug 3 '13 at 13:20
... they probably sound nicer than the average musician improvising on his instrument. {weasel-words} {citation-needed}. –  Kaz Aug 8 '13 at 0:38

2 Answers 2

Understanding musical theory makes you both a better Artist and Musician. I'll explain...

First we must understand that being a "musician" does not include being an artist, but being an "artist" does include being a musician. You can be a technical musician who can read music, and play it well, but that doesn't make you anything more. However, being an artist almost always means you can do technical stuff, but also create and adapt music. Musical theory will help in both of these cases.

For a musician, musical theory allows them to better understand why what they are playing works. This also lets them understand how to improvise and improve any given piece of music. This is especially necessary for professional musicians (people who play music that others write). Musical theory gives them the skills to differentiate themselves from other musicians.

However, many musicians don't need much musical theory at all, artists on the other hand almost certainly do. Musical theory gives an artist the tools to create what they are envisioning. Without musical theory, they may understand what they want to do, without understanding how to accomplish the task. In addition, artists don't usually just randomly play notes and pick what "sounds good". Of course, that's how they make the final decision, but they usually have a process for picking what could sound good.

So think of musical theory as an important tool for artists. This can be compared to some other occupations as well.

Take a chef. Obviously, they could throw some ingredients together in some mix and create something delicious, but without any idea of why what they did worked. But that won't make them a respected chef. An amazing chef would know why something tastes good. This makes the difference between a "chef" and you (or me) trying to cook something up. We know what tastes good (like a musician), but we don't know how (like an artist should).

So in conclusion, yes understanding musical theory makes you a better musician and artist. However, artists will benefit much more than a musician, since the later will eventually max-out their need for the theory. Artists on the other-hand have an infinite imagination of what they could create and therefore need to know how to tackle any potential issue they might encounter. You would never want to be an artist with an idea, but then ditch it because you think executing it is impossible.

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Knowing the alphabet and grammatical rules makes a big difference in speaking any language. When you learn the rules how a language works you understand it to a point were you can also play with those rules. Play with them or "against" them in a creative way. Like poetry, many poets play with those rules and find new subtle ways to express something.

Of course not knowing theory does not make anyone less musician. I know personally brilliant musicians (internationally successful) that don't know theory. But I see also how they have a bad time with it. If the rehearsal has a high technical/theoretical language everything gets done much faster. But without theory is like being an outsider when others communicate. Of course people adapt and speak in a common level but theory helps. Learning new songs, finding chords, voicings for it; making a new arrangement to a band/ensemble or just reading from music paper help so much. If you know the theory behind chords it's very clear how to find new voicings/melodies that will fit inside that harmony.

My father, apart from his professional music life, had a amateur choir. He worked with them 25 years. Because he was ambitious he took medium/advanced repertoire to the choir. Every new piece was an exercice of patience. Repeat, repeat until they could sing it by memory. Very time and energy consuming. When he retired from the choir he said to me: "imagine if I had thought them theory the first 2/3 years... then we would have had the other 23 of just sight reading new pieces..."

Learning "by doing" (without theory) has also advantages. I state two of them. 1. Memory playing is sometimes more developed in these artists (maybe to compensate the lack of sight reading) which means next time you need to sing/play that song it's still fresh. 2. Because of ignorance of theoretical rules I have heard singing and playing in ways that are wrong according to theory books, but(!) because they break the rules with artistic/creative elegance they are unique/sublime, original.

Some musicians are more "intuitional" and others are more theoretical, there is place for everyone. I would say Theory should back up the musical intuition while learning, not the opposite. But this is not a rule written in stone.

Someone said: "learn everything and then forget it". (someone please edit this if they know the right phrase)

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