You know how they say there are no rules in recording? Well, that’s kind of true.

In college, one of my favorite classes was music theory. I took piano lessons as a kid. I learned guitar as a teenager, and I knew the basics of chord structure, sight-reading music, harmony, etc.

However, I never knew the deeper reasons behind all of these things. I didn’t know why I liked to go from a five chord to the sixth minor chord. I never knew why the five chord likes to resolve to the one chord, and so on.

One of the things we learned in that theory class was the “proper” way to write a choral arrangement. We studied the great composers like Bach and how he would take a single melody and develop a four-part choral arrangement around it. What was so interesting is that all of the choral arrangements of this particular period followed a certain, fairly strict, set of rules.

For example, you could never have what’s called parallel fifths, where two notes are a fifth apart and they move in the same direction. Another rule was that the leading tone, or the seventh note of a scale, always resolved upward. If you’re playing a song in C-major and you had a B-natural note, it could never go anywhere but up to the C.

Doing exercises for this class proved to be quite frustrating. Why? Because in my head, I wanted to do all of these really interesting harmonies, but the more I would branch out, I realized I was beginning to break a lot of rules.

So how does this apply to recording? I’ve said it before, there are no rules in recording; just do what sounds good.

Sometimes, though, it helps to learn what the standard is, so you can understand the process better. Once you understand the process, it becomes much easier to know when it makes sense to obey the rules…when it makes sense to deviate from them.

So the new “rule” for today is this: learn the rules and THEN break them.

Just like with the choral arrangements in my college theory class, I had to learn the strict rules of choral arrangement and learn why they existed before I could then break those rules into something new and creative and beautiful. With recording, you should know the different mic techniques that have been used over the past several decades to get a good drum sound. Once you know those, and have mastered those, then you can try other things.

You can try little deviations here and there and come up with your own rules. BUT, if you don’t listen to the experience of those who have gone before you, it’s very difficult to make any sort of progress without being constantly in a state of confusion.

So, what do you think? Do you follow the rules?

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  • OH MAN! it helps so much! 
    i have been researching this stuff on my own and after only like 4 weeks, i have already learned all the things hat make harmonies great and why they fit in one place and not in another, and different chord voicing to mix up the sound so its not “ALWAYS that closed G chord up at the top.. ”
    LOVE IT. and my Composing has gotten better from it. took and old song i recorded, recorded a new version.. DANG! huge difference! 
    Its definitely a huge help to know the rules, JUST have to MAKE SURE you don’t get stuck in the rules… i have a friend who is stuck there and cant break em.. sad stuff cause of all the potentials. 

  • Hey Joe,

    I was in the same boat re: music theory going through university and all. My writing started to get stifled and frustrating when I was starting to think of music theory as “rules”.

    Once I branched out into jazz/contemporary theory and other alternate music theories, then things started opening up. What you were describing is the traditional “classical music theory” – which is never positioned properly. What would you think of a school of medicine actively teach its’ students 18th century medical procedures? I’m sure they touch on the history of medicine, but in the context of “but this is what we do now…”

    Now that I teach theory to young minds fresh out of high-school, I’m always cogniscent of telling them (constantly) that music theory is NOT a set of rules. But rather, it’s a tool that can be employed in a number of situations to assist your ears and your creativity.

    It’s there to help you understand what you just did and why it sounds like it does. It helps you capture, notate music, and read music so that you can communicate with other musicians.  It may also be used to provide options and ideas when your stuck. But – and I always stress this – it will never tell you what and how you should write music – that’s the job of your ears.

    Sorry, I’ll get off my soap-box now. So, to answer your question, yes, I “break the rules” – but I don’t really think of them as rules anymore.

    • I totally agree. I only took Theory I and II, so we only covered the
      18th-century chorale stuff. Would’ve been nice to get into jazz/contemporary
      theory for sure. 🙂

  • I know nothing of anything about the theory of musical composition. I can’t even tell you what each note on a keyboard is. I can, however, hear a song and play it off the top of my head. I can also write and arrange my own music, solely based on what sounds correct and not conflicting. I just never really had “rules”. I use techniques that have been taught to me, but no technique has influenced the actual melody of my songs. I just make sure everything fits. To me, it’s like building a Lego house without instructions.

  • Same story here: I never understood why I needed to learn scales. Why would I need them if I wanted to solo? But then I figured out all my heroes were using scales to solo so I quickly changed my attitude.

  • I follow the rules until i want to do something interesting, then I break them. And sometimes i crush them! Haha!
    Great article, it´s so helpful to have a fundament when u write and play. That´s what makes good musicians and musicwriters!

  • Frank Adrian

    Short answer: Yes.

    Long answer: Rules are rules because what they specify generally works and works well. As such, one would be a fool not to follow them most of the time. However, the “generally” there is the fly in the ointment. Sometimes following the rules doesn’t work. It can end up with sounds that don’t fit or a mix that feels uninspiring. At that point, you look for rules to break. Knowing which ones to break in the given circumstance in the context of the rest of the rules followed is what one gains from experience – I’m still at the trial and error stage there.

    As an aside, I just started reading some books on formal composition theory (d’Indy, Hindemith, Schoenberg). I don’t know how much of it is applicable to popular music writing (although notions of musical phrases as speech may help my prosody), but it’s opened my eyes to how classical composers approach a work.

  • Rob Sommerfeldt

    I completely agree with you on this.  Learn the “rules”, the guidelines that the majority of people follow (at the moment) and then do what works for you outside those rules.  The rules we have now were created after years and years of breaking the old rules.