To Mars, The Red Planet: Perfect For The Blues

mars approachHopefully you are enjoying the sensation of musical weightlessness after this past week of improvising! No written notes to hem you in, rather the opportunity to play almost anything you want, whenever you want. Within a few necessary guidelines (like keeping your spacesuit on), you are free to improvise, to create, to express yourself. You never have to play the same thing twice, if you don’t want to.

And now you want to reach higher, try out some other tools in your arsenal.

The next place to explore, the most logical next step on our odyssey is:


The red planet. The god of war. The best movement of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” and the home of Marvin the Martian.

Mars. The planet of strife, of clashing, and of dissonance. This is absolutely the best next place for us to go. Continue reading “To Mars, The Red Planet: Perfect For The Blues”

Exploring The Music Theory Solar System

Earth to the moonWe talked recently about creating a song out of three basic chords. How simple can you create harmony and still have a functional tonal center?

Let me take you in another direction this week. How can we envision and pigeon-hole every progression that ever was or will be? What kind of structure would we need to wrap our minds around all the possibilities?

We’ve talked about rings of growth representing more and more tonal material, but they are pretty static. We need an analogy that’s more dynamic, more inspiring.

Feels like we’re shooting for the stars. Hey – that’s it! We’ll look at exploring music theory as an ever-expanding set of skills and concepts which we will call the Music Theory Solar System.

Our first goal in exploring this Music Theory Solar System (stay with me) will be to actually escape the earth’s gravitational pull by playing some simple songs with just a few chords. Then we’ll start to improvise lead lines as we explore the moon (I know, sounds a little like PBS. Patience.)

Escaping Earth’s Gravity

Now if we’re going to explore the universe, we’ve got to master some fundamentals. If we don’t, our efforts have no chance of success. None. So we start small and simple.

For this metaphor, I’ll assume you have an instrument (which could be your voice). I will also assume you know how to play to some degree. After all, the Wright brothers knew a little something about mechanical engineering, gravity and physics before they flew, too.

So our first direct effort toward exploring the Music Theory Solar System is to escape the earth’s gravitational field. For the guitar player, this will mean playing a few chords and changing from one to another without dropping a beat.

It means playing clear tones with the tips of your fingers. It means knowing what a major scale is and how to build it.

And it means learning bar chords.

Being able to play a series of chords, that is, a “chord progression” is absolutely foundational. The simplest chord progression to build upon is a I IV V progression. For a more in-depth discussion of this type of chord pattern, check out When You’ve Only Got 3 Chords To Use…, and try a few songs from the list you find there. These are not all I IV V, but most are. And they will be great songs to build on.

These chords will allow you to play simple folk, country, and rock & roll styles. I’m sure there are others. But these three chords are where we start.

So if you’ve got those first techniques learned and you’re playing some I IV V songs (even if you still make mistakes), we can proceed. Next stop: the Moon.

To The Moon

To make it to the moon in this analogy is to add simple melodies over the I IV V progressions you know. To do that, you’ll need to learn a simple scale pattern as a basis for improvising (making it up as you go along). The simplest scale pattern to use? The major pentatonic mode.

One of the early fundamentals is to know how to build major scales (each major scale is a series of 8 tones in a whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half step pattern). We assign numbers to the scale tones so that we are now talking about a major scale as 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8.

The major pentatonic mode is really a partial scale. Pentatonic means “5-tone”, and the tones we’ll use are the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th. A mode is simply an altered scale.

Now to improvise on a I IV V song, the best place to start is thinking about the major pentatonic mode that complements each of the chords. We’ll use the key of C as an example. The I chord is C major, the IV chord is F major, and the V chord is G major.

When the I chord happens, improvise using the 1 2 3 5 6 1 of I (C), that is, C D E G A C.

When the IV chord happens, we’ll use the 1 2 3 5 6 1 of IV. IV is F major, so the mode will turn out to be F G A C D F.

And when we hear the V chord, G major, we’ll improvise using the 1 2 3 5 6 1 of V, which is G A B D E G.

Record yourself playing a single chord, let’s say C, for 2 minutes. Or if you’ve got recording software, program the chord in and loop it to repeat. Then, listening to that chord, find the notes in the C major pentatonic mode on your instrument, and make it up as you go along. As long as you stay on those 5 letter names, you can’t play a wrong note!

Do the same for F, then for G.

The next step is to combine chords and create progressions. Loop 2 measures of C going into 2 measures of F, then improvise to each chord, making sure to change your mode exactly when the chord changes. Now combine C and G in the same manner, and improvise using the C and the G major pentatonic modes.

Finally, put all 3 chords together in some repeatable pattern. Like one of those 3-chord songs. Making sure you are always playing the mode that matches the chord you’re hearing, improvise your way through the song. Have fun, explore, jam out!

And when you look over your shoulder, don’t be surprised to see Earth in the distance.

Have you escaped the Earth’s gravity and learned to improvise yet? What aspect of it do you find the most fun?

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions you have about improvisation, music theory or Next-Step Musicianship to [email protected].

© 2015 Steve Case

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

Clarify, Simplify: Music Theory Doesn’t Have To Be Complicated

20130531_115102 I sat down with a music student the other day, a young man who plays very well but still is not where he wants to be musically. He writes his own music, but needs help thinking out of the box; he would also like to have his band play his songs. Though he is without a significant theory base to pull from and lacking the tools to rewrite and hone his work, he has done pretty well. He is a fun student for me to work with – I get to explain the whys behind his music, why some things work and some don’t, and I get to watch his face light up when he gets to an “aha” moment!

He has taken theory courses in school, but honestly, the courses he mentioned haven’t helped much, and probably won’t, because he isn’t interested in analyzing Bach and Beethoven. I remember being in his shoes.

One of the first things he and I did was to make sure we were speaking the same language. There are at least two key principles here that his previous music courses overlooked:

1) One term = one meaning

If you call a particular fruit an “apple”, that name has to be exclusive. There are, of course, many varieties of apples, but you’ll never see a carrot or a mushroom being labeled as an apple at your farmer’s market. An apple is always an apple.

For example, we can assign numbers to the major scale (you remember, “do re me fa so la ti do”… just like in The Sound Of Music…) A major scale then becomes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. And it is the basis for any discussion of music theory in our culture, it is foundational. But if we say a major scale is 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, then I start talking about a minor scale being 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, I have just added to the student’s confusion and torpedoed my integrity as a communicator. A minor scale is not 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, rather, it is 1 2 flat-3 4 5 flat-6 flat-7 8 (the natural minor scale). And this is just one instance.

Music is subjective enough that in order to talk about it intelligently, the terms we use really need to be consistent. But if we can’t be consistent about a musical idea, then we need to admit it up front. Take music genre terms for example. There are definite criteria for some styles of music: swing tunes always have uneven (swung) eighth notes, while pure rock will always have even eighths. Jazz will emphasize embellished chords (like Cma7 or G13), Latin beats are syncopated (emphasizing the off-beat).

But other terms we have to admit won’t always fit our preconceived mold. Try to define what “pop” music is, or even “classical”. Our definitions may be different.

Nailing down music theory can feel like trying to nail jello to a tree. And so as often as we can, let’s be consistent and give one term one meaning. As your own lexicon develops, you’ll be able to decide for yourself how to define the elusive terms.

2) Streamline your thinking

20130705_164455Music theory can be complicated and subjective, just as any sorts of theories are. If the theory is to help you write or perform, it has to be usable, meaning it’s uncomplicated and dependable.

When I’m trying to rip through my guitar lead or jam out a new chord progression on my keyboard, I’m not going to think, “I need to increase the frequency of audible vibration, increase the perceived amplitude while decreasing the duration of the envelope of…” Not if I want to make music any time this week. I will, on the other hand, think, “I want to go higher, louder, faster”. Those terms are usable and practical.

The first way of thinking is not incorrect. But it is unhelpful when I’m trying to play.

My student laughed and nodded when I pointed out that he did, in fact, know a lot about the terms we were defining. But the key for him, and for each of us, will be to simplify how we think about the nuts and bolts of music. This is a topic we’ll be returning to again and again, it is critical for us to be successful with our music.

How can I help you simplify and streamline? If you have any questions about music, music theory or its application, please email me at [email protected]. And while you’re thinking about that, let me ask you one:

What has your experience with music theory been like so far? Has it been helpful or not? Simple or confusing? I’d love to hear from you, and hopefully we can help each other sharpen our skills!

© 2013 Steve Case