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