Hey, artists! Has anybody ever told you to "learn the rules before you break them"?
I think this is extremely poisonous advice.
As a young artist, it hurts to hear that your work has no value until you spend years learning the right way to do it. The implication that you should refrain from even trying until then is nothing but discouragement.
I've been there, heard that advice, and stubbornly blown it off. I'm pretty happy with the result.
Sophomore fall term, I enrolled in "Harmony and Counterpoint I", my first serious music theory class since elementary school. I rapidly got the impression that for the previous 13 years or so, I'd had no clue what I'd been doing. However, I gradually realized over the 4-course sequence that my prior experience did count for something. Much of what I was learning already had some fuzzy shape in my intuition, and the rules that I had to be taught could draw on plenty of empirical evidence to back up their usefulness.
In some sense it couldn't have happened too differently. There were rules that I first saw before I had the experience to appreciate them and recognize the limits of their applicability; I rejected them all as arbitrary. You can see some evidence of that; up through summer 2008, my work was full of lowered leading tones and parallel fifths and octaves.
Now, two years later, where do I stand? Well, one thing I'd like to do is return to some old music and make new arrangements, incorporating what I've learned—for instance, excising the parallel fifths and octaves where they weren't an essential part of a piece's flavor. Preserving said flavor is going to be a challenge, but I'll take it on gladly.
Oh, in case you wondered—because I definitely wondered—I was just about as slow at writing music for class as I always am. Fortunately, (1) this seems to be near the pace at which the composition classes proceed, and (2) understanding the rules helped me work almost formulaically where I'd previously had to feel around half-blindly. I still prefer doing music without deadlines, but at least my fear of acquiring a distaste for music composition (like my distaste for essay composition) never came true. In fact, my interest in it is alive and well. I have two new projects getting started—watch for the names "City of Light" and "Currents"—and I intend to edit the assignments I turned in for my classes into a post-worthy state soon.
If I may take a moment to preach to younger artists, I'll say this: go ahead and be adventurous. The rules are really helpful, but if you're serious, you'll inevitably learn them sometime, somehow. Until then, experimenting isn't going to do you harm and may even teach you something. (Don't worry about wasting ideas while you experiment; you'll get plenty of ideas in your life, and you can always come back to something you really like.)
EDIT 2010-07-23 00:00 - Content reordered for better flow.