The Trouble With Theory

author: frigginjerk date: 02/16/2009 category: music theory
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Why Is Theory Both Praised And Loathed?

So there have been a lot of folks around UG asking about the usefulness of Music Theory. Should I learn theory? What is theory? I play _____ kind of music, should I learn theory? Will theory stifle my creativity? Is theory hard? As soon as someone hears a music teacher say something like a dominant seventh chord must have a major third, and cannot have a major seventh, they start to feel boxed in because they don't understand it right away. They are hit with the sudden realization that there are rules on how to notate every little sound in music. They jump to the conclusion that theory is only going to prevent them from making the music they want to, by defining some absolutes. They feel as if doors are being closed on musical possibilities. It's often young and inexperienced players who exhibit this trait. I think it's due to a natural sense of youthful rebellion, and a desire to prove the establishment wrong. They see these rules as a gag on free expression, a tool of the old musical establishment trying to cling to their outdated standards of what sounds good and what sounds wrong. Music was built on revolution, man! This would all be very convincing and inspiring if it were not completely stupid. Pardon my bluntness, but it must be clearly stated that music theory is not a set of rules that dictate how music is to be written and played, and it does not apply any more or less to ANY genre of style of music. Music theory accounts for all conceivable sounds, melodies and harmonies in music, and provides a way to quickly recall, describe and manipulate the most commonly preferred and repeated sounds, as judged by thousands of years of human observation. The music people prefer changes over time, but the theory does not - it just explains the sounds. Although theory is not the rules of how to write and play, it has within itself its own set of rules. Why? Because if people want to discuss music in universally understandable way, we must accept that a chord containing certain notes and not others will always be referred to by the same name. We must make sure we have words that distinguish one scale or set of intervals from another. We are not saying that any notes or chords are better or worse than others, we are just naming the ones we discover. Why have two names for the same chord? This is where people get hung up on just what theory actually is. Music theory is best thought of as the alphabet of music. We have 12 notes/intervals instead of 26 letters, but the concepts are the same. What if you did not know the alphabet? Or how to type? What if you had to guess at the spelling of every single word you typed, even if you've typed similar words and phrases hundreds of times before? It would be pretty tough, right? Lots of guesswork, too. But if musicians and bands know music theory, they can all use the same alphabet to write words and phrases that sound good together. Now, theory is much like the written English language. You can alter words in certain ways, and people will still recognize what you're talking about. For shizzle, dawg! But if people didn't understand the original word and how it was constructed, it would be very difficult for them to express themselves in ways that they want. Working on music with no idea how it functions would be like trying to modify a word by adding random letters. You can't take the word guitar and just throw a Q in there, can you? Gquitar? Guiqtar? Guitarq? Exactly. It might take you quite a while to find a letter that works, and just as long to know where in the word to insert it. So why would the concept be any different if you try to modify a guitar chord by adding or changing one of its notes?

But What About Jimi Hendrix?

Theory as a whole tries to describe and define the relationships between intervals heard in music. Read that sentence again. The intervals heard in music. Theory describes what is heard, it does not prescribe what is to be played. Some people are auditory learners. They learn best by having something told to them, or by hearing audio playback of the subject matter. It's no surprise that many of these auditory learners become musicians. If you can figure out how to make sense compositionally of 6 strings and 22 frets just by listening to the tones for a little while, you'll be miles ahead of the game when your physical technique comes into its own. The evidence that theory can be learned and understood by ear alone is right in front of us. Any famous musician who was not formally trained in music was still able to play with just about anyone. Music theory is a universal language of music that all proper musicians understand. Whether they know the language by ear or by book, the proof is in the pudding - they can play, and play well. They can communicate effectively with their instrument and are able to do so in a group setting with other musicians who do know theory. Jimi Hendrix had no formal education in music theory, but he was still one of the most brilliant and innovative musicians of all time. This little tidbit of information (or similar ones about Slash and Kurt Cobain) is what fuels most of the I don't need to know theory to play incredible music movement. The problem with this movement is that Jimi Hendrix did know theory. He just knew it by ear, and by practice and observation. Though he may have never known about modes and how to describe key modulation, he understood the concepts.

So How Does Music Theory Actually Work?

In a very short definition, music theory is the explanation of the sounds heard in music. Music theory seeks to describe the many possible relationships between different notes. The main "unit" of music theory is the interval. An interval is simply the distance between two notes. It's good to mention that one note, one semitone and one fret all refer to the same distance. You always name the interval in relation to the lowest note played. You can play intervals one note at a time (melodies, riffs, leads) or you can play several intervals at once (chords, harmonies). There are 12 notes in music, so there are 12 different intervals. The way intervals work is simple. You choose a note to use as your root note. Any note at all. All keys work in the same way, so it does not matter which note you choose, as long as you remember that it's your root note. We'll stay on just one string for now. Each fret along your string is one semi-tone, and each of the 12 semi-tones can be described as an interval with a name in relation to the root note. We'll go fret by fret. root note (any fret, any string) minor 2nd (one fret up from root) major 2nd (two frets up from root) minor 3rd (three frets up) major 3rd (four frets up) perfect 4th (five frets) augmented 4th / diminished 5th (six frets) perfect 5th (seven frets) minor 6th (eight frets) major 6th (nine frets) minor 7th (ten frets) major 7th (eleven frets) And the next fret is your octave; the same note as the root, but higher. As you can see, you can also describe intervals in terms of how many semitones or frets are between the two notes. For example, a minor 2nd is only one semitone, and a 4th is five semitones. A major 7th is eleven semitones from the root. But remember that the notes / intervals always repeat, and they go in both directions. Looking at the whole string, it would be more like: minor seventh major seventh root note minor 2nd major 2nd minor 3rd etc, etc, etc... minor 7th major 7th root / octave minor 2nd major 2nd etc... You could say that going from a root note to a lower major seventh is actually a descending minor 2nd, because that's the actual distance between the two frets. But when you're dealing with playing in key and remembering interval patterns, it's easier to stick with calling it a major seventh and simply be aware that you're going lower than the root when you play it like that. When looking at one tiny little bit of a melody, or when analyzing a chord, it's better to think of each interval individually by distance from the note preceding it. You might have heard of the concept of "stacking thirds" to form the chords in a key. This simply means you play a root note, then a third, and then a third from THAT third. Whether you play major or minor thirds will determine what kind of chord you make. Playing all over the neck is as simple as being able to locate the different places on the fretboard where your root note occurs, and just keep landing on a different root position when you want to change up what you're playing. The more you become familiar with moving intervallically in all four directions from any root note, the better you will be at playing all over the neck. I won't go into the details, but suffice to say this: intervals are the building block of all other theory. Scales are just intervals. For example, a minor scale is a root, major 2nd, minor 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, minor 6th, and minor 7th. Chords are also just intervals. A major chord consists of a root, a major third and a perfect fifth, all played at once. Harmonies are described with intervals. You can harmonize a riff by playing the same pattern with another instrument, but moved up by a minor third or a major sixth, or what-have-you. I should explain how the guitar is tuned in intervals, too. This might go without saying for some, but when I realized how important intervals are, I also realized how important tuning is, too. Going from the low E string to the high E string, the guitar is tuned in 4ths. That means that when you play a note on the low E string, and then play the note on the same fret of the A string, you've just played a 4th. If you'd started on the A string and went to the D string, it would also be a 4th. There is an exception, and it's a big one. Going from the G string to the B string is a major third. Sorry folks, it's just the way it is. But it's a 4th between all other strings, even from the B to the high E. Check out the following example to see how you can find intervals pretty easily if you know your root notes and how the intervals work from string to string. I've bolded the root notes. Take notice of how the interval pattern always repeats, and how all 12 intervals can be found within the same four or five frets and the same 4 or five strings. Also notice how the root notes on the low E and D strings have only one fret between them (one is on fret 5, one is on fret 7).
e|-----|-----|-----|-----|-----|-----|-----|-----|--4--|
b|-----|-----|-----|-----|-----|-----|-----|-----|--R--|
g|-----|-----|-----|-----|--3--|--4--|-b5--|--5--|-----|
d|-----|-----|-----|--b7-|--7--|--R--|-b2--|--2--|-----|
a|-----|--b3-|--3--|--4--|-b5--|--5--|-b6--|--6--|-b7--|
E|--6--|--b7-|--7--|--R--|-b2--|--2--|-b3--|--3--|--4--|
Also notice how the root note on the B string is TWO frets away from the root on the D string. This is because of that exception from earlier. The B string is tuned to a major third. If you are trying to take a pattern that is formed on the other strings (tuned in 4ths), you must make an adjustment when moving it to the B string. A major third is one semitone lower than a 4th, so to compensate, you play your b-string notes one fret higher than you would on the other strings. Here's another quick example with some power chords (which are actually built from only a root and a fifth):
e|----   e|----  e|----  e|-8--
b|----   b|-8--  b|----  b|-8--
g|----   g|-7--  g|-5--  g|-5--
d|-5--   d|-5--  d|-5--  d|----
a|-5--   a|----  a|-3--  a|----
E|-3--   E|----  E|----  E|----
Look at the first two chords above. They contain identical notes (G, D and another G), but you can see that the fingering pattern is not quite the same. Both chords start on a G note, and then move one string higher and two frets higher. The first chord then includes another root note, which happens to be on the same fret as the second note, just one string higher (a 4th higher, actually). The chord which is played using the B string has to take into account that the B string is tuned to a major third, and so the note was moved one fret up. You've still got G, D and another G, though. The fingering only changed because the interval between the strings changed. You can work the notes out manually if you want to check. How about the third and fourth chords in the example? It's the same concept as the first two, except we're starting on the A string. Both chords have the same notes (C, G and another C). Because chord #3 is not played using the B string, all the strings used are tuned to 4ths, and so the chord is formed in the same way as chord #1. But chord #4 looks different. It's not even the same shape as chord #2. This is because of that pesky B string again. Even though that string is tuned to a major third, the next highest string is still tuned to a 4th, but it's a 4th from the B string. So if you're trying to match a pattern that starts on the G string and goes onto the E string, you must take the B string into account yet again. Check the notes out manually if you want, but they are the same notes in each chord. So hopefully you can see that if you understand the 12 intervals, and how they are used to easily describe chords and scales, you can play anything you want in any key you want, as long as you know your where your root notes are. It's important to mention that there is no western music that cannot be explained with these 12 intervals. To know them is not to limit yourself, but to give yourself a complete toolkit to build with, a complete palette to paint with, an adjective noun to verb with... you get the idea.

Conclusions

So what do you take away from this article? Whatever you like, I guess. It depends on who you are. If you are a person who learns by ear and have never needed theory to play what you want to play, or to be able to play with others, then great. If you are a guitarist who is struggling with understanding the fretboard, or struggling with understanding how to consistently make the sounds you want, then I hope you have been motivated to start learning theory. If you're a stubborn jerk who refuses to learn theory, but doesn't understand why nobody wants to play with you, well hopefully this article explained why. The End
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