When it comes to music theory, the debate rages on between two distinct camps of players. On one side, there are those who dismiss it entirely, deeming it unnecessary on their musical journey. On the other side, there are those who treat it as the Holy Grail of musical mastery. However, both groups often find themselves frustrated by the labyrinthine nature of learning music theory independently.
In a recent episode of his podcast (transcribed by KillerGuitarRigs), Devin Townsend candidly shared his personal frustrations with the traditional approach to music theory. He acknowledged that for many, the language of music theory doesn't quite align with the emotional language of music itself.
"When I was younger, and having to learn music theory, I always thought that it was such a convoluted way, an inefficient way for me, of being able to understand what I was participating in."
Devin further illustrated the disconnect, comparing the theoretical terminology to a more emotional and intuitive understanding: "As opposed to saying, 'That combination of notes reminds me of my mom and a rainy day,' it was, 'No, it's a suspended second, and it’s in a Lydian mode. And you also like the ninth because it's the octave above the second… But on a practical level, for me, it's just what it reminds me of."
This realization led Devin to adopt an alternative perspective on music theory, one grounded in what he calls "ergonomics" and an absence of option paralysis. He explained: "And for me, not having to analyze where things are routed theoretically allows me to say, 'I want to feel this, those notes make me feel that, there we go.'"
Nevertheless, Townsend emphasized that the formal language of music theory is indeed "learnable" and that those who have mastered it may feel more comfortable thinking in its specific terms. He cites his own experiences, particularly when collaborating on his upcoming project, "The Moth," with symphonic instruments and orchestras.
"When I started working with symphonic instruments, and working with orchestras in Prague, or Norway, or Bulgaria, I've had to learn that, if I want to communicate with people who don't speak fluently the language that I speak creatively, it makes more sense for me to learn that language."
Beyond music theory, Townsend offers a unique perspective on genre, a concept that often confines and categorizes artists and their work. He challenges the conventional wisdom that artists should fit neatly into genre "boxes." According to him, it's a convenient but ultimately limiting approach. He advises aspiring musicians and artists to liberate themselves from such constraints.
"You can put an artist or musician into a box, into a genre box. But I think that's just done because it's convenient to compartmentalize people, music, genre. But if you're getting into it, if you're getting into making music, if you're getting into making art, my advice to you is — forget about it."
"Forget about the genre, forget about whether or not you should perceive music as colors or shapes or modes and numbers, it doesn't matter. The intent is the important thing. Identify your intent."
For Devin, music is a means of "documenting" his life, with no definitive endpoint or grand message. He understands that as life evolves, so does his music. In a world obsessed with categorization, he urges us to prioritize the essence and intent of our creative pursuits, transcending the limitations of genre and embracing the unique emotional language that music can convey.