There seems to be a hard philosophical split among musicians when it comes to “learning the rules”.
“Rules” primarily fall into three categories. There are rules of music theory that explain why some notes work well together and some don’t. There are rules of technique – the right and wrong way to play. And then there are stylistic rules: what is and isn’t appropriate within a given genre.
The basic division is on the question of whether or not it’s important to learn “the rules”. Not everyone falls to one side or the other of the divide: as with most such philosophical splits, there’s a continuum. But there are fundamentalists on both sides.
1. Music theory
This is an oddly contentious subject, one that people tent to have strong opinions on. On the one hand, there’s the old saw about having to know the rules before you can break them. There are plenty of examples of self-taught musicians “breaking the rules” in very powerful and effective ways without any schooling on what those rules are. However, it’s worth pointing out that some rules matter more than others.
On the other hand, there are creative people that believe any formal knowledge is just a straitjacket. I had a student tell me about a successful songwriter that once told him something to the effect of “I don’t want to know about music, I gotta stay pure”. I applaud this person’s faith in his muse, but it seems needlessly self-limiting.
I think the truth lies somewhere between, as it often does. First of all, many people have a fundamental misunderstanding of what music theory is. The principles of music theory are not like traffic laws that need to be enforced. They are more like an explanation of natural phenomena. Rather than determining which notes are supposed to be used, these “rules” expain WHY certain combinations of notes work well together. Music theory is a system, a set of interconnected relationships. There are principles at work, but they’re far broader than the formulas might suggest.
When something seems to break the rules, it very often doesn’t.
If it sounds good, there is almost certainly a principle in music theory that explains why it works even if the math doesn’t seem to add up. Many naturally intuitive musicians simply hear these relationships, and their musical choices are guided by these principles even if they don’t realize it. For many others, theory gives us a way to classify and categorize the tools in our musical toolbox – something any craftsman can clearly see the value of.
It can be easy to fall into a trap and make the same choices again and again, but I would submit that this trap is more a symptom of creative laziness than any innate shortcoming of understanding music.
I don’t believe in “right vs wrong” when it comes to technique. There are great players I’ve admired all my life that use approaches no teacher would be likely to ever recommend. There may be disadvantages to a particular approach, though. There are two things to consider here: one is always a variable, and one isn’t.
For the most part, all humans and all guitars are made more or less the same way. There is a basic mechanical logic to the body, just as there is to the instrument. However, no two people are proportioned exactly alike, and guitars also come in different shapes and sizes. How you ergonomically relate to your instrument depends on the intersection of these two variables.
This directly impacts things like hand position, how high or low to wear a strap, and other mechanical questions. Since all mechanisms work according to the laws of physics, there’s definitely an optimal approach. From the ergonomic perspective, this means maximizing sound while minimizing effort. This makes a lot of sense, and it’s the approach I recommend as a teacher. However, one has to consider the variables: physical differences between people and guitars, and the demands of different musical situations.
Again, I would suggest that the most natural and intuitive players find this optimal approach because it’s the most physically fluid. Those that don’t are often simply distracted by the specifics of playing the notes. They don’t notice the how, only the what. But there’s no denying that sometimes something different just works. If you feel restricted by an approach, you can likely find a better one. If you don’t, as they say, it ain’t broke…
This is another contentious point for some people. How important is it to be true to a style? Where do we draw the line on what’s appropriate and what isn’t? The answer depends on your goals, and what you’re trying to accomplish.
If your goal is to replicate another player’s style as accurately as possible, the choice is obvious. We might choose to do this simply because we love it, and there’s a lot to be said for getting to know the ins and outs of an artist’s approach. The trap is when it becomes a creative straitjacket. For your average bar band or fan, this may not matter. It’s often more important to sound like the original because that’s what the player and the listener want to hear. But that’s not always the case.
The fact is, all innovation in music has come from people that found their own way of doing things. The history of music is full of artists who forged their own style and changed the sound of everyone who came after them. The great irony for the purist is that they may find themselves imitating and even trying to enforce the approach of a maverick.
Ultimately, the idea of “choosing a side” is self-defeating.
What we call “rules” are more often principles and guidelines. They exist because they work, but they aren’t monolithic and there are no penalties for breaking them. Learn the rules, they give you a framework and a path to follow. But you can also learn a lot from individuals that found their own way: don’t be afraid to be yourself.