Classical training – a help or a hindrance?

edited November 2021 in Composition and Production

This is a question I have been pondering a lot recently…

During the 1980s I underwent a “classical” music education in the UK educational system. This involved studying music at O- and A-level as well as taking various practical instrumental exams. The syllabuses concentrated exclusively on classical music from the Renaissance to the early 20th Century, with almost no attention paid to “popular” music or the music of, for instance, Cage, Stockhausen, Reich, Glass and so on. Similarly, music from non-European areas was also largely ignored.

An education such as this was great for learning how harmony and rhythm work, although the harmony focussed exclusively on the purest form of Bach harmony. and how to understand and communicate music through notation (“the dots”). However, the rules which we learnt were extremely strict, were constantly drummed into us, and could not be diverged from if you wanted to pass the exams. Such rules were, for instance, that parallel fifths were completely forbidden and that a harmonic progression such as I – IV – V was good whilst I – V – IV was very bad, just to give two examples.

I often wonder whether having such a strict, rigid education was as much a hindrance as a help when it comes to composing my own music. Even now, many years later, I still find it very difficult to break those rules learnt so many years ago. It’s almost as if one of my old teachers is peering disapprovingly over my shoulder when I dare to write a parallel fifth! I appreciate that feeling inhibited in this way is something which is going on entirely in my head but I do wonder: do other people from a similar background feel the same?


  • Classical training for the wiiiiiiin. Part of my schooling focused on writing in different styles of different composers. Bach is the most strict to emulate, but there are so many things you can over analyze for any composer. I don't think I got any trauma from learning closed satb, but I also might not have been in it as long. I'd maybe exercise breaking those rules and study the newer composers that interest you. Find someone you like listening to; it only helps add to the unique style that you will eventually develop as your style. Artists say the same thing; you're a hodge podge of all the stuff you like and gravitate towards. Your unique style comes out by creating constantly, and others will probably see it before you do.

  • Russell
    edited June 2021

    That should say will but didn’t notice till after it was posted. 🤔

  • Classical training - a help or a hindrance? YES!

    I mean, both. It's a foundation. But when I took a course in Jazz Composition I started to see how parochial those classical "rules" are.

    Also, the term "classical" implies European music of the 18th and 19th centuries. What about INDIA? A rich, deep tradition of classical music with very different rules. What about Turkey, Iran, China, and the entire continent of Africa? There's a lot of great music that doesn't require the rules of the D.W.G. (dead white guys.)

  • How can knowing more about any subject have any effect but deepening one's understanding, appreciation, and mastery of it?

  • Agreed. The more you know about a subject, obviously the better. Breaking some rule is not bad as long as the outcome is good.

    Not just in music but in anything creative.

    If an arist paints in a traditional format, he will creat something beautiful yes but he will create just like everyone else in that format.

    It is down to him only to decide to change the rules a bit and create something new and fresh.

    Same for a car designer. He can either create a car like every other car designer or he can break the rules and create something new and fresh.

    That is how it has always been so breaking particular and strict rules in creating is not always a bad thing. The more knoweledge you have in your field, the better understanding of how and when to break those rules.

  • I just posted a whole bloody page and I had to edit it and the deit deleted the whole thing

    I will try posting what I said again after the Football 😂

  • Absolutely right. If I said anything dismissive about western classical music, I take it back. I posted the above, cranked the radio and went out to the garden. They put on Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, and it's as gorgeous as can be.

    It's all music, it's all good.

  • I think it would have been great for some training but I found I had more creative ideas than people with classical training as I basically started with a synth drum machine and a four track and created my little world now however writing more demanding music when it comes to string arrangements I wish I knew more

  • Not really being classically trained myself, beyond a theory class at community college, I can attest that it isn't necessary. But it probably would have helped move me along faster. I didn't know how much I didn't know (and still don't). And I'd kill for access to the score archives of a good academic library.

  • Agreed. Learning as much as you can in any subject can only improve your understanding of that subject.

    So, in any form of creativity, the more you know the better you become in that field and the better understanding you have of 'breaking the rules' in that field.

    Say an artist has a great knoweledge of art and how to paint, he can paint a lovely picture just like every other good artist but if he breaks the rules, he could create something unique.

    Same as a car designer, he learns his trade over the years and he can design cars like every other car designer but one day, he decides to break the rules and he ends up creating something unique.

    So it could be said that any form of art has it's general rules but if you know enough about your art, you will have a better understanding on how to 'break the rules' and create something unique and slightly different from everybody else.

  • No need to kill. You can browse tons and tons of scores at Download whatever you like!

    I have spent entire days in J.S. Bach. There is so much music, and more being added every day. Often you'll see a scan of an original manuscript, uploaded by a museum or university.

    If you dig Renaissance, check out

  • Interesting question 😁 and various friends often get together..(not in the last year obviously)and just jam...between us there are all sorts of instruments being played,one friend in particular is classically trained and plays the piano...funny thing.....he just can't jam along,however hard he tries!!!.....give him notation and off he goes 😁😁😁

  • Some interesting replies! And I think I'm still as divided as ever on the answer to my original question.

    Perhaps what I was trying to say (and didn't, at least not very well) is that when you're an impressionable kid, and being told all these "rules" by talented authority figures, they tend to go in deep and stick. It's similar to all the adults you'll see asiduously avoiding stepping on the cracks in the pavement in case the bears get them... Or maybe not :-)

    Anyway, by way of aversion therapy I'm off to write a five-hour drone consisting of a single sustained open fifth. I'll post the Soundcloud link on the forum unless someone pays me not to.

  • Maybe make it 10 hours and add a parallel fifth motion for the second half? Might do the trick

  • Those rules are generally a priori and not bad to know IF you want to write something "in the style of". I saw no reason to listen to the opinions of academics who write unlistenable music but then have the audacity to ask how you expect to earn a living.

    It's far more important to know how instruments work, assuming you plan on hearing your stuff performed live.

    Aesthetics are another matter. I love the sound of parallel 4ths/5ths. (which btw you hear all the time in 16th century music - if it's for the Lute :)

    Other things that went in the trash after music school - dodecaPHONY the music of mathematical peewees like Schoenberg, also prepared modulations (why spoil the surprise?) and the need to resolve dissonance downward by step. Or at all.

    It is good to have a system or systems, formulas if you will that help you become productive. Poisonous words whispered in your ear by old farts all those years ago can't get in the way of true inspiration, the real joy of creation. Burn some sage or something.

  • Sure helps to know how to read and write music notation. Especially when writing for orchestras. Nice to be able to conduct as well.

    It cant hurt to have as much knowlege as possible.

  • @Hill writes "Even now, many years later, I still find it very difficult to break those rules learnt so many years ago. It’s almost as if one of my old teachers is peering disapprovingly over my shoulder when I dare to write a parallel fifth! I appreciate that feeling inhibited in this way is something which is going on entirely in my head. . ."

    Probably every person who read your opening post relates to this, and, indeed, it IS in your head. It's not my aim to give you a pep talk, but I'll agree with other responders who wrote that the more one knows about a topic, the better. We are able to accept or reject any formalized lessons we have received over a lifetime. This is where critical thinking comes into play. If it helps, keep it; if it inhibits your artistic expression, the recycle bin awaits.

    Write as many parallel fifths as you can--and *keep* writing them until you have created something beautiful. (and as I mentioned in the above paragraph, feel free to accept or reject THIS advice 👍️)

  • Why are parallel fifths forbidden? Here is an explanation:

  • I am not classically trained but taught myself a lot of theory when learning guitar as a teenager. It definitely helped but as a few have said here I have found over the years that those who know little theory tend to be less constrained and thus don't FEEL the theoretical 'mistakes' they make and thus can be more creative. I have definitely felt the 'teacher looking over my shoulder' in this regard and found it distrubingly powerful...I even have trouble with accidentals sometimes!

    But like many others have said, it can't hurt knowing as much as possible.

  • Oh, the ever returning concerns regarding knowledge of rules and creative freedom, hehehe. Whether it is music theory or grammar in language, it teaches you known means for communication and everything you know becomes part of your toolset. That doesn't force you to restrain yourself, but it gives you the chance to have answers whenever the right questions come. A poet could possibly write a poem with 10 words, but knowing 1000s will surely provide him much greater freedom to get a rhyme that makes sense.

    As long as you put your music first, as long as you prioritize your senses, your desires, your impulses, the theory is only there to support you with the wisdom and experience from generations before and will help you weave even your wildest ideas into musical lines and structures that will be understood more immediately by your audience and it's very likely you will appreciate the results yourself. Well, if you didn't, then you wouldn't be done with it, right?

    I love learning about traditional forms, recognizing the tips and tricks of masters throughout time- or whatever was left for us to find. At the end I've gained enough confidence in the power of my choices that I'm not afraid to know what would be seen as wrong by any "rules". But that's the real question: Do you have enough confidence in your compositional choices? Do you know what music you wish to make? If you're still afraid of rules, you have to work on your confidence above all else. Theory can actually also help you with that, hahaha, seriously! Be playful!