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How much theory should a musician know?

Discussion in 'Ask the Berklee Bass Department' started by Thomas Kievit, Jan 31, 2014.

  1. Thomas Kievit

    Thomas Kievit Thou shall not F*** up the groove Supporting Member

    Hello gentleman,

    I have some questions about music theory. I know I could have placed this in the General Instructions section, but I was hoping for some serious answers (from the pro's of course :p ).

    My biggest issue is music theory. I know if you want to have some success as a musician (or maybe better said, better understand things), you should atleast be able to read and write music notes and stuff like that.

    What else is something that a musician should really know to help him / her improve playing a instrument?

    P.S. pardon my English, it's not my native language :p
  2. I'm not one of the Berklee bass department folks, but I've been making a living with a bass in my hands for more than 40 years. I would respectfully suggest that everything matters - theory, history, technique, ear training and memorization . (Don't forget deportment, dress, language, attitude and hygiene). In my world, reading hasn't been nearly as important as theory and ear training; I'll only do one or two reading gigs a year, but pretty much every non-theater gig I play will have material I don't know. So a combination of theory (knowing what chords are likely to be used in any given key/progression), history (knowing tunes - lots of tunes - in all sorts of styles), ear training (being able to hear what's actually being played and moving to an appropriate note quickly) have kept me on more gigs than anything else.

    As an aside, though, being able to read pretty much whatever is put in front of me - notation (in both treble and bass clef), chord charts, number charts, piano scores or whatever - have been instrumental both in getting and keeping a heck of a lot of work over the years...
    Klonk likes this.
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  4. Steve Bailey

    Steve Bailey Supporting Member

    Feb 15, 2013
    Dave pretty much sums it up! Very eloquently I might add!
  5. JimmyM


    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Ampeg Amps
    For me, knowing how to read and write music is the only reason I'm able to keep making a decent living at it at age 52. At least 3 or 4 times a month, sometimes more, I have to read. Plus I make some extra scratch writing charts and arranging horns for my band and other acts I work with.

    Also, everyone asks what kind of shortcuts can you take to learning how to play music, and theory is the very best shortcut in the world. Things that take many others a good while to figure out will come much quicker to you if you know theory.
  6. Thomas Kievit

    Thomas Kievit Thou shall not F*** up the groove Supporting Member

    Great, I will keep that in mind. Thanks guys :)
  7. And I wouldn't want you to think that I implied that reading isn't important - quite a few gigs have come my way over the years specifically because I can read.

    It's just that for the last few years, it hasn't been a necessity in my day-to-day work. The vast majority of the charts that I see in the studio are number charts, with chord charts a distant second. I think I've only seen notation a couple of times in the last year.
  8. JimmyM


    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Ampeg Amps
    Didn't get that from your previous post at all, Dave. I took it to mean you weren't getting many reading gigs these days but you appreciated what it did for you.
  9. Nickweissmusic


    Jan 26, 2014
    How much "theory" you need to know to have success in music is an interesting question. Here is the simple answer: you need to know enough theory to explain, communicate, and remember the music you want to play or create.

    Here's the long answer:

    If you are looking for a serious career in music, I would make connecting ear training to theory a priority. Stop thinking about "theory" as a thing- think of it as a way to decode and document music that you hear. Music can and does exist without theory and written notes, but it can't exist without ears to ear it. A good instructor will put your ear training in terms of notes and chord progressions... AKA music theory.

    You must be able to figure out songs for yourself accurately. So do that... All the time. You simply can't get better without doing it, failing, repeatedly, trying harder, failing harder, and asking a lot of questions. And put it all on paper- so you can remember it and communicate it easily with others. That's how "theory" is supposed to work.

    I can't say enough how everything comes back to your ears and how quickly you can hear, analyze, and output music... even if you have something to read to help you out. Great musicians don't read mechanically, they interpret on the fly, because the notes mean more than just a fingering. I recommend humming or singing everything you can and want to learn, even if you're an awful singer. Try to sight sing every piece of music you can- hey, you can't get worse, and you'll probably get a lot better. When you are learning a chord chart, be able to arpeggiate every chord in your head or voice as well as on your instrument, and learn, think, hum and play every mode that fits with each chord. Theory and written music makes this process easier to predict, communicate and remember.

    If you're an undergrad this all may seem impossible, at least it did for me, but I assure you, when I'm tutoring college and grad students, even though I can't read through scores like I used to, I can solve every problem way quicker than my college days... with my ears. And I'm talking Beethoven and Wagner and other really complex stuff, and I listen to those guys about 3 times a year on my own :)

    As a pro I use theory every day to figure out and transcribe music for students, to arrange music for the gigs I play, and to figure out new sounds I don't understand yet. And I use solfeggio all the time :)
  10. Jefff


    Aug 14, 2013
    This question always feels like, "how much language should I know to be able to enjoy reading"

    As much as your brain can hold.
  11. Thomas Kievit

    Thomas Kievit Thou shall not F*** up the groove Supporting Member

    ... :D:D:D

  12. Danny Morris

    Danny Morris Berklee Bass Department

    Feb 15, 2013
    I once asked guitarist Pat Metheny what he would look for in a bassist if he were to advertise for one. He said the bassist must play in tune. Then he offered this concept which is both paradoxical and brilliant..
    he said,
    " I want a bassist who is completely versed in jazz/be-bop harmony yet doesn't want to play a note of it."
    Gospel Bass Player likes this.
  13. zontar


    Feb 19, 2014
    Exactly--as much as you can--and learn it as well as you can so that when it's time to play--you just play, and it's there.

    Same as with language.

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