It's a few different elements, and I admit that I'm probably full of BS.
1) At the time I was entering college, the instruments I played were
almost entirely non-melodic instruments - mostly tapes, effects and
contact microphones. The classes my college were offering focused
primarily on melody and harmony.
2) Any melodies in music I was making at the time were pretty basic
and minimal, and I didn't see any need to grow beyond that at the
time. (This was the time of techno, industrial and punk rock being
very popular.) Even now, I'm much more interested in the
characteristics of the sound than the actual melody, but I have to
admit that harmony and pitch have a lot to do with the
2) I had this thing in my head at the time that learning music theory
would = conformity. In the mind of an 19 year-old misfit like me,
conformity was a 4-letter word at the time.
3) It seemed at the time like it would be a lot of work for a little
gain. I was learning stuff at home that excited me a lot more.
Learning a new scale didn't seem that interesting compared to learning
how to make a chair shriek emotively across a cement floor.
4) I was afraid that the sounds I was interested in would be seen as
worthless in the music theory community. (That was probably not true.)
5) Part of me got all grumpy when I thought I discovered some great
new tone cluster or quirky melody through breaking a bunch of rules,
and then some music theory person would say "oh, that's just a
blankity blank scale". Part of me really wanted to believe I was the
first/only person doing it. Later, my perspective was "ok, everything
I do melodically is going to have a name in music theory, but that
doesn't mean I can't do it."
6) Somehow, learning the science behind how everything worked felt
like it was going to take all the wonder of discovery out of music.
Imagine that you're just about to see Star Wars for the first time,
but before doing so, you have to listen to a Joseph Cambell lecture
discussing everything that's going to happen in the movie and how
everything is a literature device that's been around for thousands of
years. That's what it felt it would be like.
7) And here's one that I thought was wise: I wanted to enter adulthood
with skills other than making music. I could always make music for
fun, but I didn't honestly think I was going to have a career making
the weird music I was interested in. I wanted to be an engineer
producer at the time, but was realizing that I didn't have the
patience to butt heads with people in bands.
So, anyway, now I'm a grown-up, about 17 years after the decision to
not major in music. What's it like now?
--Sometimes there's an assumption made that if you don't take music
theory, you don't learn *anything*. That's not true. I learned
--Whenever I hit a wall, I either worked around it or turned my focus
in a different direction. I don't think I'd be as sonically unique if
I didn't hit as many walls.
--I think I do ok as a musician. In the improvised music world, people
like playing with me because I'm unique and I've learned how to adapt
quickly to what they're doing.
--I think I'm slightly more successful as a musician than I would be
if my skills were more standardized. (If I was doing stuff that more
people did, I don't think I'd measure up as well.)
--I think I'm happier to be in a non-music related profession. I don't
rely on my artistic energy to pay my bills. All my artistic energy can
be spent doing the things I want.
--Many of the music majors I know are struggling to remain in a
music-related profession, as if it would be a failure if they did
--I don't make a huge amount of money at my day job, but I make more
than many of my professional musician friends.
--I don't depend on music to "defend my existence". That's kind of a
biggie. As a teen, that was my only perceived value about myself. Now
I have a lot of skills that are independent of that. I might do ok in
a zombie apocalypse.
--I'm musically naive - very much so. If I happen to stumble on a
great melody, it's usually by accident. I'm sure I play a lot of
things that sound great to me, but are old news to people who have the
training. I get stuck in ruts very easily.
--I can't communicate my musical ideas very well. I can't write sheet
music. The best I can do is play it myself and hope other people can
imitate it the way I hear it. If I can't play it myself, then I'm
--Sometimes when trying to get other musicians to play for me,
sometimes I'm frustrated that people don't think about things the same
way I do. For example, I want a written cue for: "Try to make it sound
like you're playing the drums from 16 feet away with 3 broomsticks
tied together. No, you're way too accurate. Really, you need to sound
like ... no, now you're just being silly. You need to sound like it's
a really clumsy interface, but you're doing the best you can with it."
--I'm the dumbest person in any band. Or at least I feel that way. I
learn pretty well by ear and trial & error, but that's a lot slower
than those who can read sheet music or be told "go from A chord to D
--I miss a lot of opportunities: I often have to miss out on playing
in improvised orchestras and other group-oriented projects because I
can't read their sheet music. Likewise, I've also been afraid to sign
up for collaborative residencies out of fear that I'd be the only one
there who doesn't speak the language.
--At this point of my life, it would be nice to know how to orchestrate.
So, why don't I drop everything I'm doing and learn to read western
notation? I simply don't like the system. I think the musical staff
should be written chromatically, rather than requiring the reader
pre-memorize a pattern of valid notes (and then breaking that rule
with sharps and flats). I want the symbol for a half-note rest to
actually look like it takes more time than a quarter note rest. I'd
like to see notes take up as much room on a bar as their duration. (A
1/4 note takes up 1/4 of the bar.) It would be nice if the shape of
the note represented the note's dynamics.
Lastly, I want intervals to be standardized. I want "a third" to be an
interval of 3 chromatic notes, not sometimes 5 notes and sometimes 4
notes. Then people could memorize a major scale as "2,2,1,2,2,2,1"
(which people already understand).
Teddy Kumpel <email@example.com> was all:
such an interesting topic...
Matt... Do you think you still find music interesting BECAUSE you decided to stay away from institutional learning? I think you would have stayed interested no matter what... you just found all the music school stuff too far away from your goal and you didn't see the point at the time. Totally understandable... there were things in school I pushed away for the same reasons.... like learning George VanEps chord solos.... zzzzzz
my thought about this whole thing is:
if your goal is to be really really good at a very focused thing that doesn't have harmony that changes quickly, like ambient music, you probably don't need music school.
if you want to have a diverse skill set, music school is probably right for you. I learned how to arrange for big band, how to compose a modal jazz song, how to hear every chord from every mode of the 4 main modal systems, all about jazz standards and chord substitutions, accompanying a singer in a duo, what swing is.... and a whole plethora of other things. I don't use them all every day now, 26 years later... but I sure have appreciated knowing all that stuff throughout the years.
and.... really the number one reason music school is great: the fellow students... if you're at the right school... I guess, like anything else, some schools suck and some are good and therefore the quality of students attracted follows.
Rick, your story is really awesome.... you sure are not a lazy man