Should You Study Music on Your Own?

This afternoon, I volunteered to participate in a focus group by an anthropology major who designed questions for music majors. Initially, there was only me and another man, who was working on a Master’s Degree in vocal performance, along with the anthro major (we were later joined by two more music majors). After introducing ourselves, we were asked the question “Is a college degree necessary for your area of study?”

In short, the both of us answered no. I spoke first: not only is a degree unnecessary, but because a profession in music all depends upon the time you put forth in that field, which a school will not provide, it would actually be better to develop your talents out of school. Aaron Gervais writes an interesting article illustrating this viewpoint.

I’ve actually found joy in discovering compositional techniques on my own. I remember when creating the primary melody in “The Tour”, I had no knowledge of cadences and harmonic relationships. In fact I knew so little theory back then that I look back and it baffles me that my melody still works, because for the most part it didn’t change. However, not knowing how melodies end, I played some chords which resulted in my writing a ♭II-♮VII-I cadence. It wasn’t at all satisfying, ending an otherwise tuneful melody with a tritone. Then it occurred to me that by simply raising the penultimate note a semitone, the ending suddenly became a concordant progression. Though I still didn’t understand it, I had by chance finally ended on ♭II-V6-I: an imperfect authentic cadence. I wasn’t aware of the vocabulary, but after finally discovering the importance of the tonic/dominant, I began to use it extensively. At that point I began to look at famous works of art, and this pattern seemed so evident, so clear. I felt that I had finally unlocked the definition of music, and in many ways it’s true; nothing defines tonality like a PAC.

The purpose of this is to show, however, how one defines his own intelligence by what he discovers for himself; that is, this special topic is not a chapter in a theory textbook, but is a personal discovery that remains a characteristic of his music. This discovery is actually a reason why I do not want my music to become “academic”, or written experimentally or for the purpose of school. Schools seem to lay out all the tools available and let the composer choose the subject, and as a result the purpose of music is defeated. Picasso was not given a number of styles from which to choose, only to decide on cubism. Composers are given the choice to imitate traditional rules in music, or to try something completely new, and in the process music becomes unorganized, unplanned. There is a reason why performers are not always enthusiastic about playing the graduate student’s composition, and I feel that it has something to do with their education in school.

Some of you will shout hypocrite at this moment, and as this has been on my mind, I agree that this is ironic in my case. But there are many good reasons to attend a university: the performance opportunities, the connections to professors and colleagues, and of course the standardization of curriculum. It’s not all a bad thing, music school. But I still stand by the idea that you get the most out of what you learn on your own.

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