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About Music Theory

StudyBass Video: About Music Theory

The Blind Men and the Elephant

There's an old parable from India: The blind men and the elephant.

A man brings an elephant to a small village.

A group of blind men, who have never encountered an elephant before, go to learn about the elephant.

Each blind man touches a different part of the elephant. Later, they discuss it with each other.

One blind man who felt the elephant's leg said, “An elephant is like a pillar.”

The blind man who felt the elephant's side disagreed saying, “No, an elephant is like a wall.”

A third blind man who felt the tail said, “You're both wrong. An elephant is like a broom.”

Another who felt the trunk says, “No, no, no. An elephant is like a rope.” And so on.

While all of their descriptions of the elephant were true, none of the blind men succeeded to describe the entire elephant.

As musicians, we are the blind men in the story. Music is the elephant. And, music theory is our attempts to describe the elephant. Music, itself, is abstract and untouchable. It's in the air for a split second and then lives in our minds. Music is an experience. Describing it and talking about it only go so far.

So then why do we bother trying to explain music? Shouldn't we just shut up and play it?

What is Music Theory?

The word 'theory' comes from the Greek theoria meaning to contemplate, speculate or view. The word theater has a close origin.

The term theory is used by people in a number of ways. In science a theory is a proven idea. To some, theory is a speculation of what might be true. And, to others, theory is a body of knowledge.

For us, that's what 'music theory' is. It means our body of musical knowledge. It's a blanket term for many musical topics.

Some topics are concrete facts like naming pitches, scales and rhythms. Other topics are subjective like one should never use “parallel fifths (consecutive fifths)” or “this is the way you play this instrument.”

Music theory is an observation of music. It's all made up. It's been made up and agreed upon by different groups of people and updated over time. Different cultures have different theories on music. There isn't one way to view it. So, music theory is not a hard truth as it is in science; it is a moving body of knowledge.

But, if music theory is all made up, why bother to learn it? Can't you just play random notes until you stumble on to something you like? Of course you can! But, with even a little bit of theory, you can do the same thing much more effectively.

Why Study Music Theory?

Giants

Think about this: Many thousands of musicians before you have studied, practiced and played music for millions of hours. The music theory—our body of knowledge—is a collection of that experience. Even if it is imperfect and incomplete, it is still a great launching point.

Sure you could work out many already-known things on your own and feel proud that you did, but you'll be wasting precious time. It's important for you to realize that your time to learn to play music is limited. It's finite. Instead of wasting time reinventing the wheel, you could learn what is already known and then take it further, or question it, or break the “rules.”

The old saying is: If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Speeds Learning

The next reason to learn music theory is understanding it helps you learn faster. Learning music is an incredible exercise in memory. Many people make the mistake of learning a song as a long series of notes one after another. First I play this note, then this one, and so on. This is like learning a speech phonetically, speaking one syllable at a time, but not knowing what the words mean.

If, instead, you learned the speech in larger, more meaningful pieces—words, phrases, and ideas—you would learn it much faster and express it better.

Similarly, when you understand larger, more meaningful musical structures, you will learn music much more quickly.

Instead of remembering three bits of information like C, E, and G, you can remember it is a single larger structure called a C major triad. That larger structure later becomes a piece of an even larger musical structure and so on. Your knowledge and understanding snowball.

The more of these structures you learn, the simpler learning each new song gets. I've taught thousands of students face-to-face. The ones who avoid the theory parts plateau and tread water. It takes them the same amount of time to learn each new song. The ones who work on the theory start to put things together more and more quickly and they advance much faster.

Theory helps organize what you hear, and it helps you hear things you didn't know were there or didn't know to listen for.

Communicating with Others

Another reason to know theory is it makes it easier to communicate with other musicians. It's important to be able to talk about music because you need to understand what other musicians want from you or how to tell other musicians what you want from them.

The more theory you know, the more accurately you can communicate with others. This can increase the number of musicians you play with and put you in broader musical circles.

How Do Musicians Use Music Theory?

In the beginning, music theory gives you focus helping you know what there is to learn. But, new musicians often wonder, “Do musicians really think about all of this stuff when they play?” No, they don't. Just like you don't think of the spelling of words or grammar as you speak. But, if you need to stop and think about it, you can.

In the same way, music theory won't be constantly running through your head as you play. With practice you will create and express music just like speaking. Afterwards, you can look back on it and understand why it works or be able to explain it to a fellow musician. And, if it doesn't work, theory can help you understand why.

Sometimes you create something great, but get stuck in one place. Getting stuck happens to the best. Sometimes theory can give you some ideas or solutions of where to go or how to get there. It's one more tool for musicians.

Will Theory Make Me Less Creative?

One of the sillier things I hear people say is they are worried learning theory will make them less creative.

You are a creative being. Nothing will destroy your creative abilities.

Wouldn't it be frightening if someone had the power to make you less creative simply by teaching you something. “Hey, Jaco! Did you know that was a B13 chord?”

If your creativity is that fragile, something else is wrong. You can't think all of the world's musicians who knew theory lacked creativity. So, don't fear learning theory.

If anything, theory allows you to be more creative. Instead of wasting time figuring out all of the things millions before you have, you can learn those parts quickly and have more time to find what lies beyond it.

So-and-So Doesn't Know Any Theory!

You will read about or hear about brilliant musicians who say they don't know any theory. It's true: there are examples of people who just pick up an instrument and play. But, here's the thing: they do know the theory; they know it on an intuitive level. They might not know the names for everything, but they know how music works.

We all have this intuition in different amounts for each element of music. You may be one of the ones who is off the charts in every aspect, but most people aren't. And, many of these people with off the charts musical intuition still learn the theory.

In Summary

The most important thing to remember about music theory is this: music created the theory. It wasn't the other way around. First, there was music, then people worked to describe it.

Musicians played something which sounded good and then gave it a name and organized it. Those names, that organization—the music theory—gives you a giant head start, and you're lucky to have it.

It is also essential to remember that theory is not music itself. It's hard to make good music with theory alone. I don't recommend it. Theory is only a tool. Ultimately, music has to come from the human spirit. But, this tool will organize music in your mind and ears, and it will give your human spirit more chances to express itself.

Theory will accelerate your learning, and it will help you communicate with other musicians.

Theory will help you know the elephant.

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