This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.

There's commonly two very separate trajectories in musicians’ growth as they become proficient in their musicianship. A classically trained student learns every rule but ignores the emotional part of performance. As they get older, they learn to play with an emotion that gives their performance a feeling that becomes more appealing to listen to instead of sounding like a quantized MIDI performance. The opposite end of the spectrum is the punk kid who wants to express their anger by figuring out three chords on a guitar while screaming out of key with a ton of passion but little musicality or technical accuracy. As years go on, they learn music theory, honing this anger into a melding of the two into music that has both intense emotion and refined songwriting.

Musicians who don’t know music theory are convinced they're better for it, just as those who do are convinced they're in a superior camp. There’s an argument to be made for both sides using the example of the thousands of great musicians on both sides of the aisle. What I’d argue is that this is a false dichotomy. Instead, what they have in common is they're both proficient in two different but essential parts of music.

The musicians who don't know music theory are listening to their heart, but at times they don't know a solution to why an element isn't working that someone who knows theory can easily spot. They get plagued by frustrating bouts of not being able to fix small problems, such as rhythms not locking up or an out of key harmony in their music that seems daunting to fix. Their heart allows them to make emotionally resonant music, but their lack of knowledge prevents them from fixing glaring flaws that would be easily spotted by a more educated musician.

But those who know theory get caught in doing "what's right in theory" while being unaware that they're following musical rules that are boring and not at all emotionally resonant. Many classical musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma first learned to be technically proficient at an instrument, later learning to play it emotionally as they progressed as a musician. They learn strict rules they're afraid to break since they're constantly reciting instead of feeling, using far too much head and not enough heart. Amazingly enough, many of the top music schools in America spend little to no time teaching emotional expression.

The artist who doesn't know theory eventually figures it out, even if they don't know the proper terms or how to write it on paper. The theory-trained musician usually has to train themselves to turn off their head to listen to their heart. When both sides come to this stage, they're able to make emotionally resonant work. Part of making great music is evaluating where you are on this spectrum of theory (head) and emotion (heart), to make sure you compensate for the other side. Learning to balance the head and heart by not letting either overtake the process is one of the most crucial skills of creativity. Letting your emotions guide you by allowing your head to sort these emotions into a tangible work can come naturally to some and take years of work for others. Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, it's important to consider how you can improve this relationship in your work.

Believing Stories Instead Of Reacting To What You Hear

Sadly, the "facts" of how records get made are filled with inaccurate half-truths. Look no further than the widespread acceptance of producer Joe Barresi punking listeners into believing he recorded Tool's drums in a helium-filled room or a whole Queens Of The Stone Age record with a single microphone. If that weren't enough, there's a long line of musicians assuming what someone uses live is what they use in the studio despite the two rarely being the same. Today musicians see a synth in a producer’s rack and assume that’s the reason a song sounds great, when it’s actually been broken for five years but looks great sitting there. Musicians fall into the trap of trying to emulate inaccurate accounts instead of trusting their instincts by reacting to what they hear when trying to find the sounds that'll give them the emotional response they're looking for. They neglect that the way their idols find the gear they use is utilizing the same imitation, with an added check to make sure the tool can get them sounds that will paint the emotional picture they want to make.

There's nothing wrong with reading interviews, but far too many musicians follow myths they hear about their music instead of analyzing the techniques they hear about and seeing if they help further their emotional intent. The head tries to solve problems to save us the process of reacting, but the reaction is the most essential part of making emotionally resonant music. When it does this, it turns off our reactions, causing us to forgo checking to make sure we’re getting the result we think we’re getting.

This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.