when I started composing I didn't have any music theory background as I began learning I saw that I used intuitively many aspects of the way to compose like modulation etc... but now as my studying is getting deeper I fear that when I will compose I will be influenced by the theory, no more able to play like a child daring and inventing compositions that sound nice. even now when I play an old song of mine and I see all of a sudden the scale I used I get sad knowing what it is and then I force my brain to forget it. don't want to lose this innocence of not knowing.

can some one understand me, can some one ease my fears, is there a way to get deeper without losing this innocence, is there a way that knowing music theory will even increase creativity ?

  • 5
    Unfortunately, I think this is either opinion based or too broad. Anything can potentially sabotage or inspire creativity, depending on the artist, situation, culture, genre, etc. – Todd Wilcox Aug 29 '17 at 13:09
  • @ToddWilcox - although, he's asking for our experiences on this issue, which, true, may be subjective, but could produce insight into the 'problem'. – Tim Aug 29 '17 at 13:32
  • Related: music.stackexchange.com/q/4899/28 – user28 Aug 29 '17 at 14:29
  • 4
    Knowledge of theory did not seem to stifle the creativity of Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, for starters - or Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk or Frank Zappa either, for that matter. – Stinkfoot Aug 30 '17 at 3:46
  • 1
    @Stinkfoot - Leo Fender was a radio repairer, who knew little about music. Although I guess he relied on his guitar playing mates for advice - he was not a player, apparently. But point taken. – Tim Aug 30 '17 at 10:31

10 Answers 10


Several excellent answers have been posted about the general relationship of theory to creativity.

As to your situation in particular, it's entirely natural for you to feel the way you do because you are still at the beginning of your studies. You are dealing with a learning curve, which makes you feel constrained and encumbered.

That's only because it's still new material: Our brains have certain limitations regarding how much they can absorb and deal with at one time. If your mental resources are devoted to thinking about theory, naturally your creative energy will be diminished.

Once you get over the initial learning curve and become familiar and fluent with the fundamentals of theory, that will change. The theory will become instinctive - a natural part of your creative vocabulary. Then theory will become a tool to serve you, instead of an obstacle.

The stipulation is that you follow the advice given in some of the other answers, which perhaps could be distilled this way:

For musicians and composers (to exclude pedagogues and scholars) theory is a tool that helps you create music, not a goal unto itself - a "means", not an "end".

Bottom Line:

can some one understand me, can some one ease my fears, is there a way to get deeper without losing this innocence, is there a way that knowing music theory will even increase creativity ?

Not to worry: With the possible exception of a few very rare geniuses, everyone has to learn. Beethoven studied hard with several teachers when he was a teenager and young man, precisely because he was very aware of his boundless innate talent for composition, and knew he needed to learn the tools necessary to unlock it. He was never afraid of 'losing his innocence' - just the opposite.

Paul McCartney was musically illiterate in the traditional sense during the early Beatle years. But as he progressed, became rich and famous and had a chance to reflect on his unlocked potential and how much he didn't know, he learned how to read and write music and deal with theory. He even wrote some classical stuff. Many others have followed similar routes.

If you have talent, learning (with the correct approach - a different subject entirely) will not destroy your talent, although the learning process may sometimes mask it and seem to hold you back. "Innocence" is not the same as talent - that point might be confusing you, and it's you talent that's important, not your "innocence".

Once you have learned your lessons well, you will be able to leverage your talent to a far greater extent - writing music is not just an art, but also a craft - a skill. To get good at it requires study, training and practice.

  • 1
    +1 for the mention of theory becoming instinctive. Using theory or instructions can seem awkward when learning a creative task that is supposed to be authentic. With time and practice, I think this feeling usually disappears as one's talents grow. – jdjazz Aug 31 '17 at 0:26
  • @jdjazz - I noticed this sort of question is always asked (not here, but in general) by those just getting started with theory, or those who really know nothing about it all, and are too afraid (lazy?) to learn. The reason is because of the initial learning curve. There are a number of good answers here, from people who know their theory quite well: They have gotten over the learning curve and now understand theory's proper place. (BTW-u asked for info about the evolution of the leading tone in the melodic minor (?) - I learned about that and I keep forgetting to check my notes and post it.) – Stinkfoot Aug 31 '17 at 1:01

Music theory gives you more tools for composition. In effect, music theory does not tell you what's good or correct, it tells you what people have chosen to do in the past and what effects they achieved. You get more choices. If you were into some DIY project, having an extra hammer or drill never hurts even though you may choose not to use either.

Personally, I find theory most useful when I get stuck or when what I wrote isn't what I think I heard mentally. When things sound right, theory is not so necessary; when things don't sound right, theory gives me different options.


Can grammar sabotage speaking? Can road maps sabotage exploration? Well, is exploration actually a goal in itself if you are not actually getting anywhere?

Music theory helps you actually channel your creativity in ways leading somewhere interesting. It helps you not to waste it on matter that is already charted and well-understood.

  • 1
    Except my dictionary states that 'an explorer is a traveller into undiscovered territory'. If a map of it exists, it's not undiscovered. And, an awful lot of people seem to manage to talk a lot with little or no grammatical knowledge. However, it's not a bad analogy. – Tim Aug 30 '17 at 10:43
  • @Tim - The map tells you how to get from point A to point B. It doesn't tell you what's in between point A and point B. That remains undiscovered territory until you explore it. If you have a map that tells you how to cross the Alantic and on the way over you bump into an island where no-one has ever been, you can explore it. But if you don't have a map to get you to the other side, you will be f---kd. Very crude example: Theory would tell you how to get from the root to the 5th using 7 notes, but the order and accents of those notes - and which ones you chose to use - that's up to you. – Stinkfoot Aug 30 '17 at 12:47
  • @Stinkfoot - a map telling you how to cross the Atlantic. An interesting concept. 'Leave Canary Is., travel West, keep going till you hit land..., you'll have sea around you for some time... Keep following the line on the map...!' It made me smile, so thanks for that. – Tim Aug 30 '17 at 13:05
  • @Tim - OK well - on this side of the pond, "explorer" generally brings to mind Columbus. He had maps - they just just didn't tell him that on the way to India, he'd bump into a very large island after 'having sea around him for some time'. BTW, I'm not sure your dictionary is completely accurate: I'd replace "undiscovered" (a very sketchy, subjective term) with "uncharted" : Unmapped - all the water, and whatever else might be there, between A and B. – Stinkfoot Aug 30 '17 at 13:44

I can sympathise with that. A significant number of my students have said similar - 'I can't hear songs like I used to any more, now I'm analysing what's happening, and grinning 'cos I know exactly what that guitarist is doing at that point,' etc.

It's a mixed blessing. A double edged sword. Sometimes it's reassuring to actually know what's going on, others, it would be good just to relax and enjoy the ride.

It's true that a lot of music has been produced 'in ignorance', and nothing has got in the way of the creative process, but sometimes, the theory can come to the rescue at sticky moments. Knowing what chords work with each other, what 5/4 time really is, what triplets are, can help dig yourself out of the mire.

It's the same with some of the guys I have played with. I've held back from trying to explain why such and such works, as I'm aware that once they get bogged down, for want of a better term for them, with theory, the creative juices may not flow so freely.

  • 3
    One of the tricks is learning how / when to turn the "analyzing" ears off and to just enjoy the music for its own sake. – jjmusicnotes Aug 29 '17 at 13:58
  • as I'm aware that once they get bogged down... may not flow so freely - for the time being, because it's new. If they took the time to study and absorb, that would no longer be the case. Note that OP's question is often asked by those just beginning to plumb the depths of theory-there is a learning curve that slows you down, initially - A significant number of my students .. similar : but you aren't saying it. When you absorb things and they become automatic, it's different. The vast majority of theory-knowledgeable are not troubled by the question, as shown by other answers here. – Stinkfoot Aug 30 '17 at 8:35
  • 1
    @Stinkfoot - I answered partly from the standpoint of so many questions posed here - 'the theory says I can't do this...' etc. – Tim Aug 30 '17 at 10:35
  • @Tim - OK understood. I'm see that I'm actually giving the OP an answer to their question as much as a comment on your answer . – Stinkfoot Aug 30 '17 at 10:48
  • 1
    @Stinkfoot - go for it: we need many different points of view about this topic. It seems to have opened at least a little can of worms. – Tim Aug 30 '17 at 10:56

I'll answer the two questions separately:

is there a way that knowing music theory will even increase creativity ?

Yes: at least for me, learning Royal Conservatory of Music Grade 5 Harmony, History, and Analysis (probably called Advanced Harmony/History/Analysis nowadays) increased my creativity by exposing me to new chords and newly acceptable chord progressions. For example, I've noticed that I've never used Neapolitan chords or French Augmented 6ths in my compositions until I learned, in my Grade 5 Harmony classes, that they exist.

I'm also of the type where I need to know the structure of my piece or I won't be able to get that piece into a publishable state, so learning more musical forms in my music theory classes helped my publishable creativity in that way.

(Admittedly, I'm learning heavy metal music theory almost solely by listening to heavy metal. I've developing different sub-sections for power metal, neoclassical metal, and death metal, for example. One feature of power metal music theory that I've found out by myself is that it tends to be more consonant than other sub-genres of heavy metal.)

As for this question:

is there a way to get deeper without losing this innocence

Unfortunately, I suspect not. You may (eventually) be able to turn off your theory section of your brain while improvising/composing/analyzing others' works, but I haven't, so don't count on being able to.

One way I've lost that innocence is that I analyze the higher-level chord progressions of my compositions, so I'm currently taking a break from composing ragtime after finding out that the C and D sections of one of my most recent rags share their entire chord progression with the C and D sections of my very first rag. This implies that I'm less creative at improvising rags than I would like.

But the most important thing about that loss of innocence is this, IMO: Don't worry about losing that innocence. Don't worry that you'll lose your creativity because of it. And don't stop all your composing because you know the theory behind it.


Only if you make the mistake of treating theory as a set of permissions rather than a set of descriptions. Always remenber, when something that sounds good doesn't 'fit the theory', it's the theory that's lacking something, not the music. Or you haven't yet learned the bit of theory which describes that particular thing.

'Theory describes. It does not command'.


Great question. Ultimate creativity would be the ability to do something never done before even if it is using well known things in a different way. Music Theory, although it adds a caveat that anything is allowed or possible, mostly focuses on things that have been done before that had good results using a mixture of science, psychoacoustics, and culture. If you were a master of Music Theory, you could rule out everything that has been done before in order to find what is unique. Or you could use your vast knowledge of all existing ideas and use those ideas in a way that would be completely unique.

  • Ultimate creativity would be the ability to do something ... if it is using well known things in a different way - Not enough for music. What you've proposed might be good for making jig-saw puzzles or making a new kind of lottery. But great creativity in music means composing something with aesthetic value -born of inspiration and implemented by creating something expressive, not just different. Not all great composer were great because they did something new, but because they did something extraordinarily expressive with old forms and genres. "newness" is not the yardstick. – Stinkfoot Aug 30 '17 at 4:02
  • 1
    Thank you Mr. Stinkfoot. I can agree with the comment that "Not all great composer were great because they did something new." But the question is not about aesthetics, greatness, or being an extraordinary composer. It is about his concern with the effects that Music Theory may have on his creativity. Creativity is about originality and imagination. Aesthetics and greatness is completely subjective even if it is widely recognized. What I actually proposed was two ideas of how his creativity may be effected by Music Theory. I also agree that it would work for puzzles and lotteries. – Rolf Aug 31 '17 at 12:16
  • Creativity in music means musical creativity - not simply "originality and imagination" - one can compose really cruddy music that might be "original and imaginative". Musical talent is not the same talent that's needed for inventing a new sort of lottery. Greatness is not relevant, but aesthetics is - we're talking about an art form. [ Thank you for addressing me using the appropriate title - I appreciate the respect. Life can be hard carrying a name like Stinkfoot.... ] – – Stinkfoot Aug 31 '17 at 17:47
  • You're welcome Mr. Stinkfoot and I'm glad you took the time to reply. Once again, I agree with most of your comment. I have no idea what LoveIsHere considers to "sound nice." Could he be working to compose something that appeals to the majority? Philip Glass was physically attacked by people that claimed that he was writing cruddy music but he continued because he valued his new ideas that were not valued by others. This was a composer that had vast knowledge of Music Theory and intentionally tried things to simply be original. And the outcome swayed what people believed to be aesthetic. – Rolf Sep 1 '17 at 21:09
  • I am familiar with Glass and his ideas. (He was not the first to take that route) I never physically attacked him, but he did not succeed with me. I tend to doubt he truly succeeded with anyone. People like to talk themselves into thinking something that's cruddy is actually good, if it's cool and trendy to do so. There was a question up here a while back about that subject - 'can people really like cruddy music' (to paraphrase...) but for some reason it was deleted. I think I still have my answer (accepted at the time). Interesting topic. If you'd like, we can chat about that. – Stinkfoot Sep 1 '17 at 21:24

Music theory won't sabotage creativity, so long as you abide by a particular conception of what "theory" actually is. Note that this particular conception (which I ascribe to) differs from what some accept to be good theory.

There are certain aspects of accepted music theory which I think stifle both thought and creativity.

To eschew theory requires musical talent.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Doktor Mayhem Sep 1 '17 at 20:48
  • 1
    Please enlighten us... what is theory? Isn't this a relevant part of your answer? – jdjazz Sep 4 '17 at 14:50
  • 2
    Theory does not "stifle both thought and creativity". Theory just gives you the ability to talk about, understand, and pick apart what you play and hear. – Dom Sep 4 '17 at 21:32

I have struggled with the same concern, and have concluded that although it is unfortunate it is unavoidable that you must learn theory to progress.

First, I must explain why it is unfortunate. There are many stable states for harmony, many more in fact than are considered stable by the theory. The limitations of our 12-tone system and the dominating force of the standard triad based forms of analysis tend to make it difficult to hear other equally valid ways of interpreting the music. I say that there are many stable states because mathematically there "should be" more stable states. People hear them all the time and then fit them into theory in increasing obscure ways, like a tone row, when there "should be" a more concise way of explaining why the composition sounds good. I have quoted "should be" because I can't really do justice to by I think this is the case, and that means this proposition is almost a statement of faith for me. Read about just intonation to get a feel for what I mean. All this goes to say that there are patterns and relationships that you may be hearing that do not fit easily into music theory, especially basic music theory, and as you study music theory there will be a strong tendency to loose those intuitions as you adopt a more standard understanding and train your ear to hear in the same way as everybody else.

However, it is unavoidable because so much of what you hear intuitively has been explored by others before you and reproducing what you are hearing can be very difficult without learning enough theory to be able to understand what you are hearing. There will be a mix of already well-explored ideas, erroneous ideas and subtly new ideas in what you hear intuitively as good. Teasing apart what is good and what is new from what is bad and what is well known requires developing a language that allows you to communicate with others, and that language is music theory.


If you are relying solely on "Music Theory" to create music, then it can hinder the creative aspect. Creating means doing. Thinking about doing is just thinking. And Theory is thinking.

  • And Theory is thinking Playing or composing music is also "thinking" - but you don't notice it because you've practiced so that it becomes reflex. If you start thinking a lot about your technique - nothing to do with theory - you'll also get screwed up - it's a distraction. You think about that at practice time, not when you're playing. It's the same with theory. Absorb it until it becomes reflexive - then it becomes an integral part of your music - not "thinking" per se. – Stinkfoot Aug 30 '17 at 11:26

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.