I wanted to respond to the music theory thread but it got locked while I was typing it up.
Anyway, just wanted to share some thoughts on something less contentious on composition. Seems a fun thing to talk about and relevant to how a lot of people here work.
Playing with theory generates ideas as a long term toolbox for students, and encourages a disciplined mindset, but there needs to be an underlying inspiration first. To my mind, sound culture is more important to this initial inspiration and the context for original composition. Music theory as a formal process is more about documenting and interpreting things after the fact, and helping to develop ideas in full.
There are limitations and biases inherent in any system and trade-offs in its development. Performers of Franco-Flemish polyphony and Renaissance music often use modern editions from musicologists with Mensurstriche (bars between staves) for mensural and musica ficta notation.
Likewise, music theory that doesn’t successfully describe other traditions is an incomplete system to interpret natural phenomena, namely the latest composer on the scene.
Gunther Schuller’s system had to be supplemented with Harmolodics, but Ornette Coleman already had his raw gift, continually inspired by the latest thing he heard, using theoretical mindset to cultivate the fruits of that inspiration.
Can you imagine early Beethoven without his listening specifically to Mozart’s K. 466?
Or Goldberg Variations without Buxtehude’s BuxWV 249? This isn’t just learning counterpoint. Bach walked 400km from Arnstadt to Lübeck to hear him.
Think about Wagner hearing Weber’s Der Freischütz Wolf’s Glen scene. Must have knocked him off his ass.
No Debussy’s “Pagodas” without his being transfixed by gamelan at the Exposition Universelle 1889, or his Préludes II without the strangeness of Liszt’s Nuages gris, Ravel’s Jeux d’eau without Liszt’s “Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este” or Schoenberg without Liszt’s *Bagatelle sans tonalité. No Berg’s Violin Concerto without Mahler and a cosmopolitan sensibility.
You have Debussy’s “Hommage à Rameau” and Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. These are formal homages but also a conscious desire to move away from Wagner, to a more French tradition and sound world.
Individual composers respond to the personality and sound world of those who inspire them. While technical innovations in instrumentation occur with performance and orchestration, theories tend to be created after the fact to describe, analyze and remold what the hell just happened. A big exception to this is tuning systems and disputes about them in period performance, like Werckmeister III and so on.
A composer like Webern responds formally to the traditions of those who already inspired them, and to help develop the results of their own work, typically in a series of pieces drawing on the original inspiration. Before the composer gets bored, and moves on to a new process.
Or to give a practical example, theory can provide an inversion or modal change that you would not have otherwise thought of at that moment, but you still recognize and develop it further based on a sound world you know.
More recent music is no different. Sketches of Spain is infatuation with Spanish Flamenco and folk records, Herrmann fusing the German and French traditions with Vertigo, and Darmstadt for Morricone seems more about creative freedom and using noise, natural sounds in new ways rather than formal discipline.