I recently received an email from a composer who had been watching some of my score analysis videos on YouTube, and was asking me for advice on self-doubt and not feeling like their music was creative enough. They felt like after learning music theory and studying scores from great composers like John Williams, that their ability to write creative music was hindered, and felt comparatively insignificant. I thought I would share part of my response here, and I’d love to hear what you all have to say about this as well! (Note that this person specifically mentioned in the email that John Williams was their inspiration, which is why I referenced him so much here!)

Hello (name)!

I’m so glad that you’re enjoying my analysis videos, and I appreciate you reaching out to me in an email. I’m happy to help in any way that I can!

First of all, I completely understand your feelings of anxiety, and feeling like your music isn’t “creative” enough. Ever since I began studying fantastic composers like John Williams, I began having those same thoughts, and I still struggle with that today. The fact is, neither of us are John Williams – and, to somewhat quote Judy Garland, it’s not worth trying to ultimately be a second place John Williams, when you could be a first place (insert your name here)! 

I would also share the sentiment of Mike Verta, who once stated in a masterclass that his goal is not to write music that SOUNDS like John Williams, but to write music AS WELL AS John Williams.

My advice to you in that regard is this – if you feel more comfortable writing music “intuitively,” as you say, rather than always thinking of the theory and rules, then do that! Don’t force yourself to write music in a manner which is uncomfortable to you. Most of the “rules” and “theory” that we have in music came to be because someone decided to break the previous rules! 

In the case of John Williams, there’s no doubt that his music is informed by decades of experience and score studies and theory, but that doesn’t stop him from breaking the rules!

My point is that I’m not going to encourage you to completely neglect theory, but you shouldn’t let it control you either. I’ve always looked at theory as being an “arsenal” of sorts, a “grab bag” of tools to use if you’re having trouble coming up with an idea. If I’m stuck on a film cue, for example, I may consult another score for some ideas, and more often than not, that will jumpstart my creative process a bit. 

A helpful exercise that my college professors would often have us do is to analyze a piece of music (much like my analysis videos), pick out some of the main theoretical concepts used in the piece, and write our own piece utilizing some of those techniques. The piece you write doesn’t necessarily have to be your proudest accomplishment, but it at least helps you to understand the concepts and how to apply them when you need them. 

Understand and control theory, use it to your advantage – don’t let the theory control you!