David Hicken ~ Pianist & Composer

Advice For Pianists

Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918) once said "Works of art make rules; rules don't make works of art."  He was of course absolutely correct, and his insistence on not following established rules led to his expulsion from the Paris Conservatoire.  This was a good thing for us because he turned his back on the traditional classical world, and continued to compose music in a completely different way.  Although mocked by critics at the time, he went on to help completely change the course of music as it was then known. 

Debussy played a more important role in music history than he is often credited for.  He is primarily known for his use of the whole tone scale, which due to the lack of half steps or leading notes, created an other-worldy sound, but his contribution was far greater than this alone.  Most people are familiar with his famous "Clair de Lune", but if you're not already familiar with them, check out Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, as well as La Mer and the Nocturnes.  These are all orchestral pieces, but he wrote a vast repertoire of piano music, and pieces such as La cathédrale engloutie are magnificent.

If Debussy were alive today, I'm sure he would agree that rules in music are important and should be studied diligently.  However, as his wonderful quote points out, these rules are derived from great works of art.  The "rules" can be thought of as roadmaps that point out what worked in a composition, or what was generally thought of as "pleasing".

Perhaps "rule" is too strong a word, and a better choice would be "guideline". 

Serious music students, and especially composers should study these guidelines carefully.  For example, it is important to have a good understanding as to why parallel fifths and octaves were avoided during the baroque era as well as much of the classical era, only to learn that Debussy and his contemporaries ignored this rule completely and used them all the time in their compositions.  Today's music uses parallel fifths all the time; in fact, where would rock and roll be today without a guitarist's power chords (parallel fifths)? Why did this rule apply at one time and then not at another?

Tastes changed over the centuries, and what was once thought of as unpleasant and avoided like the plague (the tritone is another example) was later embraced by composers and used regularly.  (Saint-Saëns deliberately used a tritone at the beginning of "Danse Macabre" due to its menacing sound).

Study the rules and understand how and why they came about, but don't take them too seriously unless you want to create the same type music to which those rules apply.  If you need to harmonize a chorale in the style of Bach (which I once had to do for an examination), then you'd better study and apply those rules carefully.

As for your own compositions, take from the rules whatever you want and discard the rest.  Rules can be helpful, such as in a situation where a chord is not quite working and you're not sure why. Your studies come to mind, and you realize that you have doubled the third of the chord rather than the root or the fifth and you make the necessary correction for the better.

Contrary to the belief of many music students, the great composers did not take rules too seriously, and ultimately they created works that pleased themselves first and foremost.

Listen to works by Debussy, and even take some time to read about his life.  Think about what "rules" in music really mean and why they came about.  Learn all you can about what composers have done before you.  Learn about what worked and what didn't work - what you like and what you don't like, and then write your own music in your own way.

Good luck and have fun!