The Crusade. Part 11: How To Practice Theory

date: 03/26/2008 category: features
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Brave soldiers! We're near the end of our quest. Actually, we're just at the beginning. But now I'm handing you the map, and a few last words of advice before you continue on into the vast wilderness of music theory. Ha, it's not that bad. We've been learning a lot, but a question might be sticking in your mind. How should I actually practice theory? Ah ha! A great question, indeed. Here's a few ideas for you.
  • Analyze Chord Progressions Why? Because once you can determine a key of a song, then you can solo over it, using the modes (scales) from that key. I like to practice doing this several ways. The most applicable way is to chart out the songs that your band is playing, and figure out how things are workin' in the theory world. The second way I like to do this is by using The Real Book, a collection of popular jazz tunes and standards. Google The Real Book and you're sure to get some hits. The advantage of incorporating this into your theory practice is a.) you'll see some odd chords that aren't usually found in rock, and b.) you'll learn some neat jazz songs!
  • Practice Your Intervals While this isn't strictly theory, using an ear training program such as Ricci Adam's is a fabulous way to put a link between paper and the real world. Practicing fifty intervals a day is an Arnold Schwarzenegger sized workout for your theory muscles. Don't be a girly man.
  • Be Able To Name Your Chords Quick! What's the flat nine of a D7(b9) chord? The 3rd of G7? Being able to name the notes in chords quickly will help your musicianship by allowing you to see how each chord fits the structure of the song. It's hard at first, but like anything, gets easier the more you do it. (Except paying taxes - I still can't make that easy.) How to practice this unusual skill of being a human chord machine? I suggest writing, and memorizing, the chords and their component notes found in the key of C. Add other keys, and by then, you'll be rockin' away.
  • Memorize The Circle Of Fifths You know you should!
  • Practice Writing Scales Hey! Can you name the notes in the Bb Major scale? 'Cause if you can, then you can name the chords in the scale, figure out the key, solo over it - and look really cool. OK, skip that last part, but it's still important!
  • Learn To Read We haven't covered the topic of music reading in this series, but there are many helpful books out there on the subject. Why bother? (Hey, if you're reading this, you're on a tab site, right?) Check it out: Reading notes gives you access to any piece of music, not just guitar music. Just reading tab is like speaking English. It's common, but if you end up in Spain, it ain't gonna do you much good. Spain, in this case, might be a jam session with jazz cats who read music. They ain't gonna have no tab for you, brotha! And the ability to transcribe any musical piece to the guitar opens up creative horizons heretofore unimagined. You can add a Celtic jig to your metal song. How about playing the entire score to The Simpsons? (The real thing, not the Green Day version.) Bach, anyone?
  • A Few Resources Websites: Interval, scale, and chord ear training: More ear training: Rhythm, Ear, and theory training: Books: Harmony and Theory The Jazz Theory Book The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory Teachers: Find a good theory teacher! They can make it a lot easier than reading off the 'net, and a heck of a lot more inspiring. The cool thing is - they don't have to play guitar. I've learned most of my theory from bass teachers, believe it or not.
  • Wrappin' Up I really want to thank you guys (and gals) for reading The Crusade. I hope you've gained at least a small bit of knowledge, and, if nothing else, an appreciation of what music theory can do for your playing. It's a fascinating subject with a dazzling array of information. Keep learning, and keep up your own crusade. Of course, if you have any questions, feel free to email me. Even if I don't write you back right away, I will eventually. Don't worry, there will be more articles and commentary. My next project is to put a book together! I'm very excited about that. Stay tuned for news... As always, there will be updates, commentary, and mini-articles posted on my blog several times a week. Drop by and visit at And my website can be found at (Bad hair days lead to nicknames!). Onward, brave crusaders! Copyright 2008 Josh Urban - All Rights Reserved Josh Urban (photo) is a musician with a unique perspective on music. Always a thinker, he gains insight wherever he can find it, be it in the clubs as a working musician, busking on the city streets, or teaching in the classroom. A naturally enthusiastic fellow, Josh is always fired up about bringing the lessons he's learned to his readers. Maintaining a website, a blog, and a monthly newsletter, he aims to make musicians stop, think, and play with a little more intensity, integrity, and inspiration. You never know who's listening.
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