The topic of music theory pops up from time to time. While it would certainly be nice to help a singer find the exact notes needed for a harmony, I can’t say that I’ve had too many uses for music theory when I’m producing records. You don’t need music theory to tell a singer “MORE MORE MORE MORE!!!”. (That’s one of my favorite ones. It works better when you practically yell it in real life than when you type it.)
The point of this article is not to dog music theory. I realize that technical junk (such as music theory) is a vital part of certain aspects of the music creation and I have the utmost respect for those individuals have chosen to dig deeper into the technical side of music as long as it results in music I can relate to. With that said, a part of me has always felt like a musical….what’s the word…..dumb ass. I’m a musical dumbass.
Let me explain.
I know what I like when it comes to music. It’s easy to tell. When a song is amazing, my body starts to act funny. Goosebumps pop out of my skin. The back of my neck begins to tingle. I forget about my bills and the song consumes me. When this stuff isn’t happening, I clearly don’t like the music. I can’t explain it with math equations (there was a guy whipping out talks of Pythagarus on the forum the other day) and I have no idea what scales and all that junk were used. I wouldn’t know where to start. All I know is that I’m a “music fan” and when I hear something I like, I like it.
A part of me kinda feels guilty for being such a musical dumbass. I sometimes feel like “I’m a music guy and I should know this stuff”. I have to admit that there has always been this gut feeling to not want to dig any further on the technical side of music.
A Common Ear
When I attended the Michael Wagener Workshop back in 2006 I asked him what the secret was to having his name on 60,000,000 sold albums. I asked him if he had a golden ear or anything like that. He essentially responded with “Hell no! I just have a common ear.”.
In other words, the stuff, the sound, and the music that Michael Wagener likes tends to be quite similar to that of what a big section of the music buying public likes too. This felt comforting to me to say the least.
The Rick Rubin Method
There is 10 page article in the New York Times about Rick Rubin that everyone should check out. Even though he’s discovered or worked with stars as diverse as LL Cool J, Slayer, System of a Down, The Dixie Chicks, and Johnny Cash the rules are always the same. Make the music as effective as possible. He admits that he’s essentially an engineering dumbass. He simply wants to feel the music. He has no technical understanding of preamps, Eqs, etc. He says he’s not a “knob turner”.
I especially enjoyed the part where he talks about how he was a big Beatles fan growing up. He learned the power of the song. (That’s what I call it). When rap music began to take off in the early 80s he jumped on board and started working with LL Cool J early on. He didn’t understand the unstructured nature of most rap music at the time. It just felt right to have hooks. Instead of having 5 minutes of rapping over a beat, Rubin suggested the idea of making songs more along the lines of the Beatles.
Engineers and Producers Who Don’t Play Instruments
Of the years I’ve encountered several engineers and producers who have made important albums and can’t play a single instrument. In the latest Tape Op issue, Kevin Killen discusses how he can’t play a single instrument even though he’s worked on some of the important music of the past quarter century (in my opinion). The same could be said of John Leckie who produced Radiohead’s “The Bends” (my favorite Radiohead record).
So what are these producers doing if they can’t even play an instrument? They are obviously bring SOMETHING to the table! Right?
It seems that technical understanding whether it be of advanced music theory or multi-band compression isn’t excactly required to create a magical audio recording. It’s something else and this certain something if fairly difficult to write about because I’m not even exactly sure what it is.
So while us home recorders unfortunately do have to do deal with more of the non-musical stuff than we’d probably prefer, it’s important that each of us takes a step back every once in a while just to ponder on we need to do in order to make a recording that gives you and me goosebumps. After all, we are all music fans. Right?