There's no question that modular synthesis has lowered the barrier to entry for droves of people interested in synthesizers and sound design. There are the financial reasons: A modular (especially Eurorack) system can be built up a paycheck at a time in very affordable increments, as opposed to spending $1,000, $2,000, or much more on an all-in-one "slab" synth or workstation.
Then there's the spirit that all comers are welcome: Sequencers, arpeggiators, random event generators, modules that convert cosmic rays or SETI telemetry into CV information, and more reinforce the democratic ideal that anyone can make music -- or at least, cool sounds. By contrast, slap even a couple of octaves of traditional black-and-white keys on something and you imply that the player has to know how to use them, at least a little. The "West Coast" school of synthesis, whose patron saint is Don Buchla, famously held that the timbral possibilities of synthesizers were artificially and arbitrarily constricted by the 12-note keyboard interface. The "East Coast" school, by contrast, thought that synthesis' best chance of success was tied to integration with existing musical paradigms, e.g. you could sell a Minimoog in a music store as something a gigging keyboardist could perch atop their Hammond or Rhodes. In a comment I never published until now, Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO pointed to his Memorymoog as I was visiting is studio in 2009 and said, "It's really sort of a glorified organ," flagging a West Coast leaning.
So what I want to consider in this piece is: How much should synth enthusiasts, particularly modular synth enthusiasts, consider a baseline knowledge of music theory -- melody, harmony, orchestration, arrangement -- important?
I'll give full disclosure about my own bias: I'm an East Coast kind of guy, an '80s kid raised on Thomas Dolby, Human League, and Depeche Mode.
As a teenager I gigged with professional cover bands in venues I technically wasn’t of legal age to be in, because I could not only play, but also make the tunes “sound like the record.” But I recognize that’s not the only point of entry into synthesis, and again, that democratization and access have been huge boons of the modular phenomenon.
That said, while attending the Superbooth and Knobcon synth conventions this year, I noticed a particular trend at both: The exhibitors that drew the largest crowds tended to have (A) some kind of keyboard interface at their booth, and (B) an audio demo that had a modicum of melody and rhythm. That could be as simple as a wormy techno bass line or Vangelis-like swelling pad, but it was something.
By contrast, and I won’t name names, some booths were manned by folks who could talk with great erudition about synthesis and probably particle physics, but their audio output consisted largely of drones, glitches, and what I personally experienced as unlistenable noise.
I’m not denying the existence of great experimental and ambient electronic music that’s all about breaking the rules of harmony, melody, and rhythm. I’ve been engaged by many such evolving soundscapes, and the best of them had an emotional curve that developed in such a way as to imply that the composers certainly knew which rules they were breaking. I guarantee that artists such as Eno, Richard Devine, and DEVO do, even at their most “outside.” I know because I’ve asked them.
The neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin (author of the New York Times best-seller Your Brain on Music) holds that for physiological reasons, the most engaging music strikes a balance between meeting listeners’ expectations and delivering surprises. I’d add that balance is best struck if you’re at least moderately versed in the musical conventions in which the expectations lie.
Also supporting this view is that lately, there has also been a surge in products that help the not-traditionally-trained synthesist create musical sounding riffs, arpeggios, and chord progressions that would satisfy any ruler-wielding piano teacher. The NDLR and TheoryBoard (covered in last week’s New Gear roundup) are just two of many examples.
I’d like this editorial to be the beginning of a conversation rather than the end, so what do you think? Should all modular enthusiasts put some effort into learning music theory, or does any view other than “anything goes” amount to “get off my lawn”?