If rules are made to be broken, then why are they made? Breaking rules is often viewed as a positive artistic and cultural attribute. So popular is the image of the rule breaker that one is hard-pressed to find famous quotations praising the idea of following rules. It is simple, however, to find quotations such as Ansel Adams's assertion “There are no rules for good photography, only good photography” or Katharine Hepburn's sly comment “If you obey all of the rules, you miss all of the fun.”
If so many people are so down on rules, where do the rules come from and of what use are they? Some individuals would argue that rules stem from fear and are of no use whatsoever; that conclusion, however, seems too pat. Where they come from is the easier question to tackle: rules are imposed either by a single person or a small group of people onto others, or they are the result of some form of agreement between people.
Usefulness is a more complex and interesting question, and I think that context has a lot to do with the answer. For example, some rules are fundamental to our basic ability to function. Laws are rules that are deemed so important to society that they are designated as compulsory and penalties are imposed on those people who break them.
In the world of creativity and art, that is not necessary, as it is relatively rare for anyone to get hurt by rules being broken. Sure, there were riots at the premiere of Stravinsky's “Le Sacre du Printemps” but, by and large, rule breaking in music and sound is at least physically benign. In fact, it is in breaking the rules that a great deal of artistic material is generated.
For musicians, the situation is often closer to the qualification that is given by Captain Barbossa when he describes the pirate's code in the film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. He says, “The code is more what you'd call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”
Rules serve as jumping-off points for explorations of boundaries and limits. Baseball impresario Bill Veeck — not, to my knowledge, a musician — captured that spirit perfectly when he said, “I try not to break the rules, but merely to test their elasticity.”
Ironically, what underlies all of these sentiments is an implicit emphasis on the importance of actually following rules. Sounds crazy, doesn't it? But bending or breaking rules is of no interest to people unless the rules are not only known but familiar. Without that familiarity, one can receive no impact in deviating from them. So, it would therefore seem that one use for rules is as a stalking horse for disobedience. In the words of the immortal Leo Durocher: “I believe in rules. Sure I do. If there weren't any rules, how could you break them?”
Working backward logically, if breaking a rule is interesting because of the resulting deviation, then it stands to reason that following a rule should produce an expected and a more or less predictable outcome. In fact, that proves to be another use for rules, in that they allow specific needs to be met by design. This is a common demand in film and television music, for example. There are many ways to score a love scene, but sweet strings have worked so often that many directors want to use them simply because they are known to work. Similarly, epic battle scenes are frequently scored with lots of brass, while urban action scenes employ drums and percussion, distorted guitars, and funky electric bass. The particulars of musical style vary to some degree with fashion but, paradoxically, when someone breaks a rule successfully, others often imitate that, quickly making the technique into a new rule.
Distinguishing good from evil requires having both, yet most of life comes in shades of gray. We find the world of rules to be much the same in the arts. Ultimately, it is a mistake to think that the rules will always accomplish what is needed or that breaking them is necessarily clever. Sometimes it is better not even to concern oneself with the concept of rules. Or, as Thomas Edison growled, “Hell, there are no rules here — we're trying to accomplish something.”