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Theory vs Expression in Art

explorAR

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I am interested to hear what other people think about learning theory and fundamentals of a given medium/art versus just feeling out a piece of art. In my mind I am always balancing whether I should spend time doing artistic endeavors in a structured way or just jazz it. In my more comfortable media, visual arts, I have done tons of pieces using either approach; also using different combinations of structuring the overall piece and then feeling out the details or vice-versa.

The reason I am thinking about this in the first place, is that I am starting my personal journey to try and make music for a project of mine. This isn't my first time having interest in creating music, since I am an avid music fan (we're on a vaporwave forum for christ sake). I have a huge discomfort with making music at the moment, however, and this is what has prevented me from making music during my past attempts. Not to say that I can't make small little beats and things like that (I feel like anyone can), but when it comes to actually calling things that I make "music" I feel that there needs to be something more to it. So I have been spending tons of time getting into music theory, so that I can understand the basics.

While I was at a local kava bar I ran into a musician who was making music on a synth/arranger and I was curious to pick his brain about music theory. His recommendation to me was that I don't need to learn theory at all. I assume that he is saying that from the position taking for granted the years of experience he has. So I considered ignoring his recommendation and just learning music theory anyways because it is helping me and interesting. On the other hand, I also think I shouldn't act like I know what's better as an amateur than someone who is farther along in the path of "being a musician." Regardless of what is the best way/fastest way for me to start producing music, I probably I am still going to absorb some more music theory just for fun, but I am curious if his recommendation of music theory being needless is right for a beginner.

Now a part of me thinks that standardized practices and fundamentals, when it comes to art, are kind of evil in a way. I think this must be some sort of ego-based thing, where somehow the alternative of toughing something out the hard way and not learning "the standard method" makes the final product somehow have more soul and will have the potential to reinvent the medium. Or maybe it's that by learning the proper methods and ways to go about things I am preventing myself from making outside art... or am I?

I am very generally conflicted about the whole things. I truly believe that if you don't learn fundamentals you are purposely and needlessly stunting yourself, but also overreliance on what is supposed to be 'good' also results in bad boring art. And boring is always worse than bad. I also think that thinking of this in terms of music is especially potent since there is always an air about creating music that seems like someone is laying their soul out for all to bare. Whereas with visual arts, which I am more used to, there are elements of that, but it isn't as performative. In visual arts the people who are extremely pretentious and don't know the fundamentals just suck and are way up their own ass. In music though you have people that can just fluke by and actually make really amazing music (that's atleast my perception I can't really think of any examples, so I could be completely wrong).

Just read the bold if you wanna ignore all the fluff/ramblings
 
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Pacing Tape

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As someone who has dabbled (really, truly dabbled, not any sort of hidden talent) in both music and art at points in my life, I'm inclined to agree with you on some levels. My one major agreement is certainly to ignore at least that specific advice from the musician you met. This kind of thing comes up all the time in people who are just starting to learn guitar and dream of being a phenom in the world of music, who want to be the next Jimi Hendrix or James Hetfield, and these most stubborn of people, (who are really just frustrated at their lack of initial progress in learning how music works) like to shift the blame off of themselves by mentioning that Jimi Hendrix, one of the greatest guitar players of all time, couldn't read notes and didn't really know music theory. But the key thing there is, and the thing that pisses me off so much about advice like that is that Jimi Hendrix was an exception. He had an exceptional and incredibly rare talent for guitar playing. Next to no one has that, in any field whatsoever.
(I'll admit that my hatred of this type of person is a little personal, since I've always had self-esteem issues about my lack of talent at most things, and have had to work really hard to be any good at most things.)

So, TLDR there is just to keep learning music theory. It's gonna help the shit out of you, even if you're just using MIDI and putting little piano lines into a program. Understanding rhythm, tempo and timbre is going to make getting to a more advanced level a hell of a lot easier, even though it's difficult. Once you get over the understanding slope and reach a certain level of knowledge and proficiency in a skill, it gets a whole hell of a lot easier from there.
In any case, to your other point about standard art practices being "evil", that's actually quite a dilemma, and something of an ouroboros in the art world. I'm going to shift over to paintings and other drawn art, since I've grown up around it, and I just have more knowledge and experience with it.

So, generally I'm inclined to agree with you, as would I'm sure most of contemporary artists. As a very well known and widely accepted example, take the founder of Cubism, Pablo Picasso. "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child." As he got older, and as early in his life as his Rose Period, you can see the abstract ideas and breaking of rules begin to take place. But, the key thing to Picasso's story, and how it is separated from many contemporary "abstract artists" is that he first mastered the founding styles, which comes to an idea I've had drilled into my head in every art class I've taken, both music and painting. You must first know the rules before you can break them. Before I really took the time to learn about art, I absolutely despised modern art, and saw it as nothing more than a tax evasion scheme, which is where we get to the ouroboros bit. See, in my eyes, there is limit to how hipster one can be about art. Case in point, Kazimir Malevich's "Black Square". Even after taking the time to learn all about art and color theory, I still hate this painting, because to me it is an example of how the rules of art are not always evil. There is beauty to be found in the abstract, meaning to be discovered in the simplest art. But Black Square is where I draw the line. To me, Black Square showcases how you can go too far in breaking the rules. The point of rules and standards in art is to have tools, and a medium with which to paint meaning onto a canvas. Black Square ignores this, because frankly, it's a fucking black square of paint on a canvas. Artists and art are self consuming in their yearning for the ultimate, pure expression of meaning.

Instead of just diving into an endless rant about Black Square and the dystopia that is Suprematist art, I'll cut it here.
TLDR: there are limits to breaking art rules, but they aren't everything. Learn the rules before you break them, and don't be a hipster piece of shit and get caught up in the ego fest that is absolute abstract art.
 
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shinobu

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My thoughts on the matter are also scattered, but I think that we all approach some art medium as a tool to express some idea or some concept. Therefore, we start some work with a why at least vaguely defined. Fundamentals are common subskills that pop up while doing any kind of work in the medium, and I consider them how you can achieve your why.
Usually these kinds of discussion are too abstract, so I always searched for more concrete definitions of fundamentals in all the types of art I wanted to make (illustration, classical composition, game development, game design, writing).
Some of these fundamentals are:
Drawing: lines, shape accuracy, angle accuracy, use of references, perspective, color theory, how light works, anatomy, gesture, sketching, model construction in 3D on the 2D page, penmanship/physical technique, proportions, shading, painting/coloring, etc.
Composing: harmony, rhythm, textures, counterpoint, common forms, development of melody, orchestration, improvisation, etc.
Writing: plot (conflicts, structure, internal consistency), narration (including dialogue), characters, worldbuilding, etc.

So I thought that since these subskills are universally applicable any time you're writing a story, or illustrating something, or composing a piece of music, then they should be my main focus for quite some time. However, anyone who tries this approach will likely see that it's easy to burn out just doing theory. I mean, I got into this stuff because I wanted to make cool stuff, not grind abstract exercises everyday. So there is some merit in "practicing like you play", which means focusing on that kind of real-world practice, since that's what matters during the production of a finished work

There's also another aspect of learning an art, which is the historical perspective. For centuries, skills like drawing, woodworking, construction, cooking, etc. were taught entirely by observation of masters (an apprenticeship) or by doing studies of masters' works in order to absorb their techniques by osmosis. In fact, Bach, the greatest composer of all time (in my opinion), spent his early years copying scores of other composers, and that provided some foundation for him to go and develop his music, which we listen 'till today. So that's another way to do it.

In the end, all of these methods should be stacking mileage in the skill in order to have some kind of progress. Recently, I watched this video (with english subtitles) by a Taiwanese artist called Krenz Cushart, who spends 3 hours explaining what he teaches in his beginner classes, and there he emphasizes practice of accuracy as the first fundamental to focus on, by doing many copies of pro's line art, so he gets his students producing something from day 1 (even if just copies)


In fact, 15 minutes into the class, he specifically says that beginners in his class don't focus on theory but entirely on copying (using a method of simplifying shapes and measuring angles). This actually has quite a few merits, like exposing you to good linework done by industry pros, which is confident (unlike a beginner's chicken scratch drawing), and he later emphasizes that once you get a good grasp on accuracy, you try more complex subjects that require you to deduce perspective information. Then you move into simplifying references (of people) into a small number of pieces of information: angle of the head, gesture, simplified shapes of each body part, which you then have to recall on the side from imagination, which trains your visual library by exposing you to the pre-construction workflow of constructing a 2D body in any angle. It's hard to explain, so maybe watch the video

I've been reading a lot about this, and the conclusion I've found is that art as a tool is learned by first acquiring a small base of weak skills and then focusing on refining them, trying to find a workflow that takes you from idea to finished work effectively. Studies on other people's work need to be done in a smart way: don't just copy their final product but try to deduce all of the steps they took to reach it, and retread them. We all have a certain standard we want our art to reach, influenced by our inspirations, and a lot of learning materials aim as if you wanted to reach the peak in skill, so always keep in mind the skill level you're aiming for (maybe keep your influences in a large canvas in Photoshop or something, some way to remind you of what you want). Also having fun and not dreading your practice is probably the most important thing to solve early on :p

Other useful resources to help an artist decide what to do are this pdf (I don't remember where I found it but it provides an interesting perspective), and this video
 
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ExtremelyDisinteradish

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I always found music a bit different from art in this respect. All art is all sourced from some point in reality. Which is why fundamentals are so emphasised there. You need to know what real looks like so you can create your deviations from reality. There's a certain baseline there which is generally what fundamentals cover.

But music doesn't have a "reality". Some people have their own overarching theories and sets of fundamentals, but there's nothing inherently more fundamental about any of them, every monolithic baseline is really just a human constructed edifice. It's all just an endless chain of people reinterpreting other peoples reinterpretations and every point along that chain is valid in it's own right.
 

SolidStateSurvivor

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I'd have to agree with Pacing Tape in regards to this point:
You must first know the rules before you can break them.
I feel that having a grip on the basic principles will help you troubleshoot and have some sort of standard to look towards in times of doubt during the creative process. But experience through messing around hands on afterwards will prove far more enlightening than sticking to reading instructional material. Joe Rogan always drones about how seriously he takes the art/principles of "comedy," but from what I've seen of his standup routines have been kinda mid.

But I wouldn't go as far to call them rules, theory is the better word. In theory there's a lot of individual things one is advised against doing in the various creative mediums, but inversely there are ways/contexts to get away with breaking these rules, it's just a matter of how creative you get with things, and it is in finding ways to blend this that one can avoid having their work be brushed off as either boring/incompetent/overly pretentious. This still will require a basic grip on the principles prior.

To give an example from literature, has anyone here read Flowers for Algernon? About the first tenth of the book starts off as a diary of the protagonist, who is severely mentally challenged/slow. As a result, this gave the author an excuse to break all sorts of standards regarding writing.
Progris riport 2 - martch 4.
I had a test today. I think I faled it and I think mabye now they wont use me.
Of course in any other book, this writing style would be laughed off at the publisher's office, but from a narrative context it works far better than had the author strictly adhered to standard principles.


I wish I could offer some sort of advice regarding music specifically, but it's unfortunately just not a field I have really any experience in. But like you said, at least this is a music forum with plenty of artists here that might know a thing or two about it :MaximLove:
 
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nakadashi

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I would dare to say that a good understanding of the fundamentals is required in order to reinvent the wheel and attack its core. Now, I don't personally believe that this understanding must be formalized. Particularly, some exponents of blues and electronic music didn't deeply study musical theory, but working only by "feeling" they aligned what felt right for them with what musical theory teaches, while being completely unaware of that. That is because we have born in a given culture and we have a perception of what "sounds good" regardless if we know anything about chords, keys and scales.
As such, I would say that some of the best exponents of experimental, savage, avant-garde music (Charles Mingus, Richard D. James, John Cage and Brian Eno) do have some heavy understanding of musical composition and that's how they were able to change it so radically.
 
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You need to learn the fundamentals of your discipline otherwise you're going to go down a lot of dumb paths. That being said, you might get lucky and stumble down an untrodden path that leads to gold. More than likely you'll waste years on a path that an instructor could have stopped you from instantly. I spun my wheels for years trying music stuff that a great teacher fixed in a month.


View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eFkIxIsNIfI
 
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