The 9 Rings Of Music Theory

tree rings

How do you get out of your musical ruts? How do you break free from repeating all the same things you’ve been doing over and over, and inject some new life into your music?

Glad you asked. As a matter of fact, I can think of several ways.

You can make a point of listening to artists and styles you don’t normally listen to. You can play with other people and have them show you licks. You can find a teacher who inspires you.

And those are all good ways.

But the clearest way, to me, is to get a handle on the big picture, locate yourself in it, then take the next step toward something better. First get some basics down, then add something more advanced to spice things up a little.

 Growth Rings

tree rings closeupOne way to think of music theory is as a series of concentric circles, like the annual rings or growth rings of a tree. At the center are the foundations, the basic elements for life and health. Each ring moving outward adds new tonal material or a new way of looking at the relationships within the previous ring.

In the center, it is simple, it is predictable, and it is safe. At the outermost ring, the relationships are cutting edge with the rest of the world, beaten and railed against by the storms of artistic whim and public opinion. It is not safe out at the edge. Exciting, yes. But not safe.

Here is how I envision the skeleton of 21st century American (western) music theory. Just like the growth rings of a tree.

At the core:

Simple major chords (I IV V) and pentatonic melodies (for simple folk, country, and rock & roll styles)

Layer 2:

Alter a couple of tones to create minor pentatonic melodies (Blues)

Layer 3:

Add more scale tones to create the triads generated from a major scale. Use major and minor pentatonic melodies (for all of the above styles as well as Pop)

Layer 4:

Add more scale tones at a time for embellished chords, and and use the entire major scale for more sophisticated melodies (approaching Jazz, as well as developing all the others)

Layer 5:

Displace roots within the major scale for various modalities (i.e. Dorian, Phrygian modes, et al)

Layer 6:

Add an additional tone outside the scale for secondary dominants and altered chords

Layer 7:

Dysfunctional Harmony explores relationships not based on tension and resolution as all the previous levels are

Layer 8:

Full Chromaticism uses every 1/2 step for more complex, but still explainable, progressions and melodies

Layer 9:

Out Of The Blue. This is where I use whatever tonal material I want, whenever I want, simply because I can

This is a pretty good analogy, and it has served me very well over the years. Doubtless, I’m leaving something out, but I think as a basic structure, it works.

Make It Your Own

You can, of course, add to it and refine it as you wish. You can move along historical lines if that makes more sense to you, from Gregorian Chant to Renaissance, to Baroque and Rococo to Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic, Modern, 20th Century. Then (thanks to technological improvements from the Gramophone to the iPhone), you can feel free to trace through Jazz, Country & Western, Rock & Roll, Easy Listening, Opera, Broadway, Disco, Alternative Rock, Grunge, Indi, Electronica, Rap, and many other small distinctions that get tedious, to say the least.

The goal of an analogy like this is to give you an idea of what’s out there. How much of this do you know and use? If you recognize elements on one ring but not on another, it may help you know what to explore next.

The more simply I can think about music theory, the more helpful it is to me. And as I consider these growth rings for my own music, each one inspires me to learn more, to grow my expertise and ability on each level.

Do these music theory rings make sense to you? How far can you go in finding and playing songs on every ring?

Please leave a comment below if you’d like, or you can email your questions on music theory or next-step musicianship to [email protected].
© 2014 Steve Case

How To Make A Living As A Next-Step Musician

“If you’re gigging on weekends but pumping gas during the week to pay the bills, you’re not a professional musician, you’re a professional gas-pumper.”

This is as close to paraphrasing my own guitar teacher as I can remember, back in the dark ages when I was 16 and there were actual people employed at gas stations to fill your tank with gasoline as you waited comfortably inside your vehicle. It was (and still is, if there are any left anywhere) an honorable profession.

But his point was simply to face reality. In his view, a professional is a person who makes his or her living doing whatever it is they call themselves. A professional musician was, therefore, an artist who supported himself through his music. I’ve taken his statement as a personal challenge ever since I first heard him say it.

Gordon would tell me, “if you can make a living doing anything else, do it.” Then we would share a laugh about our inability to find a real job deteriorating into becoming a guitar teacher.

And it hasn’t been easy. Rewarding, but not easy. And I have been blessed with a decent amount of talent, with a good work ethic from my parents, and with a very understanding, very hard-working wife. More than anyone else, she has been my support and strength over the years as I have pursued my music.

But I agree with Gordon. If you can figure out a day job that works for you and you save your art just for fun, you’ll save a lot of stress. Having said that, it has served me well over the years, from teaching and performing to becoming a worship pastor. It can be done! You will most certainly have to be creative in your approach.

Making It Work

Often we can mix our music with other skills and make it work. The music reviewer who is first a musician writes with authority and experience in the field. The restaurant manager who is a musician might better understand the artistic temperament of the creative chefs, space designers and entertainment he hires. And the pastor with the music background will have a head start in taking supernatural truth and translating it into daily life for his pastorate.

Musicians have several strikes against them right out of the box when they choose to go pro. Their artistic temperament, the overwhelming competition from everybody else, and the business of being involved with selling art in one form or another. None of these make it easy.

And yet, there are ways, if you’re ready. My advice, for what it’s worth, is to ease into it. You’ve got to make sure your bills get paid, so don’t give up your day job just yet. But when it only seems logical that you go pro, when you can see where the income is going to come from and you know it will be enough, that’s when you can make the leap.

Jon Acuff wrote a really good book on the subject of knowing when to give up your day job in order to pursue your dream job, in Quitter. Great read, worth the time, get it. It may help you make better and clearer decisions.

How To Approach Taking The Next Step

Do you know what you would like your next step to be with your music? Maybe your next step is to learn enough songs that you could actually start doing gigs. Maybe it’s to get an agent who will find performance opportunities for you. Maybe your next step is to teach and actually do it professionally.

Here is a thumbnail sketch of the process to intentionally go pro with your music.

1. Know who and where you are

  • Assess your artistic abilities as they are right now. Know what you are capable of. Ask someone else to give you feedback – an objective voice will help you immensely.
  • Live as frugally as possible. The smaller your financial commitments are every month, the more nimble your ability to respond to opportunities.
  • Understand your temperament. If you are disorganized and like it that way, you’ll need a partner who will put up with you. If you are lazy, none of this will work, so get your backside in gear. If you are a workaholic, you’ll need to figure out how to relax without being restless.

2. Know where you want to go

  • Research various aspects of the dream life you envision. Where will you perform? Who would you teach? Is recording part of the picture?
  • Where will you record and how will you pay for it? None of these are deal-breakers, you simply need information at this point.
  • Interview people who are doing what you want to do. Have them tell you their stories and give you a view of the landscape from their perspective.
  • Be patient, yet with eager anticipation. Formulate your plan of action when the time comes, then be ready to jump without the nerves (if that’s possible).

3. Count the cost

  • Determine where the money will come from. What do you have to sell?
  • How will your life have to change in order to live the life you envision as a professional musician?
  • Keep your ambition under control. Start small, one project, one student, one performance at a time. Be faithful with every small thing now, and you’ll find that bigger opportunities come your way in time.

4. Pull the trigger

  • Take the step. At some point, when you’ve done the homework and made some changes, you need to say yes. Make it happen, take the next step into the professional musician world.
  • Celebrate it. This is a big deal. You should feel great! Mark the moment through dinner with friends or through a special concert where you invite everyone you know and all their friends.
  • Then burn the ships. Like Cortez burning the ships after his arrival in the new world, decide you are now a professional musician and there is no going back. Make it work. No plan B. Variations on plan A maybe, but no plan B.

If you are a professional musician, what was the biggest step for you? If you aren’t a pro yet but want to be, what is the step that holds you back?

Please leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case

Some Next-Step Musicians Who Are Raising The Bar

footsteps in Trebuchet font

I’ve been having a ball over the past few months helping a (mostly) young worship team at a nearby church. I want to highlight them today because the team members are great examples of Next-Step Musicians.

When we at CaseTunes (okay, that’s really Mike and me) talk about Next-Step Musicianship, we are referring to an attitude, a drive, a perspective that is always looking to creatively improve the music we generate.

Doesn’t matter if you’re a singer or instrumentalist, a novice or a pro. Something inside you makes you unable to settle for being only as good at your music as you are now. You want to stretch. You know you can do better. You’ve got it in you, and you need to figure out how to release it.

I’m not trying to make this sound epic, although for some of us (including you), it certainly may be. Next-step musicians are always trying to raise the bar, to create music that expresses the soul a little more clearly, a little more passionately. We are constantly seeking to improve our art by getting better at what we do.

The Next-Step Music Team

So back to this worship team. They asked me to lead some rehearsals and help them get better at what they do.

It has been a tremendous experience for all of us.

Now the church is small, yet eight musicians came to the last rehearsal. That speaks well of their attitude by itself. The team has been playing every other week, though I think that is changing. They rehearse two or three times for any service they lead. And when they show up for rehearsal, they come ready to make it happen!

I have to admit, I had some reservations when I first met them. Not personally, they are really great people. But musically, they are quite the eclectic mix. Their rhythm section consists of a keyboard, a drum kit and an accordion. Two to five vocalists will lead worship from the stage.

And last week, they blew me away again with their attitude.

My Job Was To Paint

During rehearsal, I would listen, teach a little, suggest some techniques and strategies so the songs come out more cohesively and artistically. Using the instruments and vocals as the musical palette, I began to paint. A little here, a little there. And to a person, they did their best to give me what I was looking for.

I suggested to Al, who plays the accordion, to think about his role in the band – should he be like the glue holding it together, or rhythmically punctuating the chords, or sometimes playing scales and fills to keep it interesting? He’s a really fine player, and he took my suggestions and ran.

The keyboard player, a sophomore in high school (I think, so when she reads this, she can correct me if I’m wrong) has taught herself how to play chord progressions and read charts. And she has come quite far! I get to suggest different techniques for her to try, or key changes, or different approaches to rhythm. Then she buckles down and gets to work. I’ve stretched her thinking a couple of times, and she without exception rises to the occasion.

I suggested to one of the vocalists (who I had just met) that she try singing an obligato vocal part, that is, kind of a free-form echo of the melody and lyrics in between the phrases everyone else is singing. I didn’t have to ask twice. She started adding those in, and it sounded wonderful. Really nice.

The drummer is a another high school musician, and he’s got some chops. For him, it’s a matter of choosing when to blend in and when to drive it, when to lay out and when to lay it down. And he does great.

In fact, every single person on the team (and I plan to write more about them in the future, so for those of you I didn’t mention yet, you’re on my hit list) brings a combination of talent, determination and a commitment to the team that is really cool. They will continue to serve their church with more and more excellence if they keep doing what they are doing now.

And I have the privilege of working with them. What an honor. What a blast!

You Can Adopt The Next-Step Attitude

Let me encourage you today to very intentionally be a next-step musician. If you’re getting stuck, you may want to download our audio guide and infographic, “10 Reasons You Aren’t Thriving As A Musician”. We all get stuck at times in our musical journey. But a little encouragement can go a long way to get you unstuck. We hope these ideas help you!

Try each of these next steps with your own music. Each one will add value to your art and your life:
  • Always, always, always be learning new songs. Search the web for resources, for charts and videos to help you.
  • Pursue a more systematic approach and find a teacher. If you find a good one who isn’t near you, think about using Skype for lessons.
  • Play with someone else, maybe a band or a worship team at your church. It’s very rewarding, and your approach to music will change as your experiences feed your creativity.
  • Write some of your own songs. They don’t have to be #1 hit songs, they just have to be yours.
  • Take on a student, teach someone more about music. Find a musician who is not as developed yet as you are, and work with them – you’ll be surprised at how much you learn, and you’ll be investing in someone else. It’s a double win!

So what are the next steps for you? Are you looking for ways to stretch yourself and refine your art?

You can leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected] with any questions you may have. I look forward to hearing from you!

© 2014 Steve Case


Getting Ready For The Fall: 5 Ways To Keep Your Life In Balance When There’s So Much To Do

First bus of the year
First bus of the year

For weeks, I have been joyfully anticipating this morning. I’m out on our front porch watching and listening as the gentle rain comes and goes. I hear occasional voices of neighbors making preparations for the day even as our house begins to come alive. The air is cool, the coffee is good.

And here it comes. The first school bus of the season.

I snap a picture as it picks up a neighbor in front of my house. Then I raise my cup in a quiet salute as it closes its door and starts down the road again. Another school year is starting. Another bus has made its way through our neighborhood. And I’m not on it! Woo-hoo!

I love this time of year.

Navigating the Busyness

Now the Fall is, for me, a fairly intense time, when I need to personally generate a lot of stuff. Over the summer (where did it go?), I’ve sharpened the tools I use, taken some time to see people (two weddings and a family reunion), finished a home project in the back yard (okay, still needs some cosmetic work, but it’s MOSTLY done), and produced a major event.

Aren’t things were supposed to slow down in the summer?

At any rate, for as haphazard as my schedule became over the past few months, it’s about to ramp up. New projects in music and at home, special events at church and my students returning from vacations will all serve to compress my time, scream for my attention, and sap my energy. I’ve been here before, and I have an idea how exhausting it will be.

I need a strategy. I need it now. And I’m not alone.

Tactics for Keeping On Track

Many of us face the ramping up of activity this time of year. Might be due to your job or your hobbies, maybe school activities, certainly the holidays. And as we see it coming, we still have a chance to shape it, to manage it well, to balance the time, effort and attention in a healthy way.

Here are some primary tactical priorities for me as I head into the Fall:

1. Intentionally looking for inspiration for my writing and composing. I’ll create a new playlist for myself that I call “composition inspiration”, then go through my library to find songs I really like but have something in them that draws me, that tickles my fancy. I also keep a list of recommended songs from friends, and now is a good time to go through that list as well.

2. Keeping track of how many hours I spend in various professional activities. When you need to budget something – time, money, exercise – writing it down really helps. At the end of the day or end of the week, you have given yourself a snapshot of how you did in that area. Then you have the ability to tweak what you’re tracking based on real data, not just your feeling.

3. Making sure time for my family, for health pursuits and for rest do not get neglected. For these, even tracking it isn’t enough. I need accountability. My family members and co-workers are really helpful in this. Gently reminding (not badgering) each other about our goals and what a healthy lifestyle looks like helps us stay focused and motivated. And together we cheer for every success, large or small.

4, Paying attention to our finances so that we avoid pitfalls and so that financial worries don’t become a distraction. Sue and I make financial decisions of any weight together, and that alone de-stresses our financial life. The biggest thing though, for me, is staying on top of the day to day bill paying, cash flow and budget. I’ve developed a system that works well for keeping track of our largely unpredictable finances, but it only works when I give it regular attention every couple of days. If I wait a week or two, I’ll have a mess to contend with. Just a little update time and we’re good.

5. Scheduling time for thinking, musing, creating. Many people are depending on me to do this, from my students to my church. And you. I find it difficult to produce anything coherent, cohesive, logical, or helpful unless I protect time on my calendar when I will be distraction-free, clear-minded, energized and usually quiet. Although Baroque music can help me write.

What tactics do you find helpful to keep your personal and professional life on target?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about music, musicianship, and keeping a level head when things get busy to [email protected]. I’ll do my best to offer some helpful advice!

©2014 Steve Case