Music Theory… Don’t be scared!

Apologies for the extended sabbatical, but the blog is back in town. Let’s begin with a question…

“What’s you opinion of music theory” seems to be a strange question to ask. At least is does to me. If you define “music theory” as having an understanding of what you’re doing on your instrument, then (to me, anyway) it seems bizarre that any musician would be less than enthusiastic about it.

It does seem to be a view that isn’t universally shared, though. Time & again, I read interviews with musicians, or see forum posts where people express suspicion of any form of understanding of the mechanics of music. Usually it’s couched in terms of “If I know the rules, I’ll be scared to break them…” or “I don’t want a text book telling me how to write a song…” or even “If I analyse what I play and understand it, it’ll rob my music of any feel or emotion…”

To make a couple of comparisons with branches of the arts other than music, let’s imagine a novelist saying “But if I understand grammar & spelling, it will hinder my ability to tell a good story…” Another parallel would be with a hobby of mine, watercolour painting: imagine setting out to paint a landscape without understanding that if you mix blue & yellow, you’ll get green, then if you add some red, you get brown, or that the way to make something seem distant is to make it smaller and more faint. Does knowing these rudiments rob an artist of their ability to be creative? Of course it doesn’t. Why, then, is this so often thought to be the case in music?

I get so exasperated when I encounter talented musicians, intelligent people, who glaze over when even the most rudimentary theory-speak enters the conversation. I might say “play the relative minor…” or something equally innocuous, and the shutters come down, metaphorically speaking. Even when I leave the jargon out & explain it in layman’s terms the response often veers between complete dis-interest and outright hostility. Here’s an example…

A few years ago, I was in a blues band & we were rehearsing a version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Need Your Love So Bad”. Anyone who’s ever played this song will know there is a diminished chord in the middle of the verse. The other guitarist in the band started by playing it as a minor chord, & when I pointed out that instead of Dm he should be playing D# diminished, his response was to play a D# power chord. Again, I pointed out that a power chord isn’t going to work as it contains a perfect 5th, and a diminished chord has a flattened 5th – although I phrased it as “Your chord has an A# in it, and it should be an A…” His response? “Well it’s still just an A isn’t it?”

So… a talented, capable musician with several years gigging under his belt, who is generally a nice guy and whose day job is as a software engineer – a profession which requires a logical mindset – who not only cannot tell the difference between A and A#, but is openly hostile to even being made aware of the difference! If I’d gone at it in some condescending way and tried to make the bloke feel small in front of the rest of the band, I could understand the belligerence. But all I did was have a quiet word when we took a coffee break & offered to show him how easy it would be to play the right fingering in return for him helping me with my backing vocals (I’m not a great singer & need all the advice I can get). In short, I approached him in a spirit of mutual assistance & I was accused of being “elitist”.

What do you do when confronted with that? What I did was quit the band. Not just because of this one incident, but because I was increasingly vilified for wanting to take a pride in the music we were playing and get it right – if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, basically. It amazes me that there are people who care about music & who claim that music is the most important thing in their lives and don’t share that opinion.

I’m not trying to say that music should be sterile, or that we should remove all the rough edges – I play jazz, for goodness sake! It’s a genre of music that celebrates the inclusion of “wrong” notes and taking an unorthodox attitude towards the “rules”. If no-one had ever broken the accepted norms of what is permissible, then we’d all still be listening to Gregorian Chant & Plainsong. All I’m saying is that if you understand what you’re doing, you can do it to order – you can create something which sounds angry & dissonant, or tuneful & melodic, or soothing & chilled out, or any other emotion you wish to express. You won’t have to rely on happen-stance & serendipity to land on the right notes or put the right chords into the right order to allow the emotions you feel inside find a voice through your music.

You may have noticed that whenever I’ve used the word “rules” throughout this little (or not so little) rant that I’ve put the word in inverted commas (“ “). This is because there are no “rules”… there is just an understanding of how things work. If something sounds odd & dissonant it doesn’t mean it’s “wrong” it just means it sounds odd & dissonant – which may just be the feel you’re looking for at that particular moment in the song. Where would Van Morrison’s “Baby Please Don’t Go” be without that guitar riff ? Or the first couple of bars of “Purple Haze”… or “Black Sabbath” or Gutav Holst’s “Mars – The Bringer of War”. All of these iconic pieces of music contain a flattened 5th interval – the biggest “no-no” in all of music. One thing you can be certain of though is that the people who wrote all of those tunes included that sound on purpose because it suited their needs and they did so out of an understanding of what they were doing.

Theory… it’s your friend. Don’t be scared of it!


1 Comment

  1. It may be tedious for some, but over the years, I have found that even a basic knowledge of music theory is very necessary for development and advancement.

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