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Is Music Theory Useful?

Discussion in 'Music Theory [DB]' started by Chris Fitzgerald, Mar 29, 2004.

  1. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Since we seem to have a history of derailing many of our Music Theory threads with this subject, I thought it might be nice to have a dedicated thread for the topic. I'll start:

    (From my website)

    Thoughts on the subject? I hope this thread can take off, so that newbies and beginners don't need to feel like they can't start a straight-ahead theory thread without it warping into a heated discussion of this subject. If this thread DOES take shape and provide different viewpoints which might be useful to any future theory posters, I'll be the first to stick it to the top of this forum and link it in any future theory threads.
  2. godoze


    Oct 21, 2002
    Music theory is of the utmost importance. I liken it to being illiterate. How can one discuss music fully wihthout understanding the meanings being talked about ?

    Music theory fueled my interest in music back in the day which in turn made me seek music of a higher level than rock(not to bash rock.)

    Music theory makes you think. It eggs you on to find answers. It makes you stay up half the night trying to figure out the difference between a half cadence and a phrygian half cadence.

    Theory gives the framework from which we can draw if we choose. If we know theory and choose not to draw from it at least we can be safe
    in our convictions of going "out" in order to execute our sonic experiments.

    If it weren't for my theory questions asked early on in my quest I doubt i would have dedicated my life to music and the quest for things new and interesting.

    I mean, i love cracking a composers thought process on a piece (especially a modern piece) though I gain just as much insight from a Bach analysis.

    I think the thing for the beginning theorist is to be given a balanced view on theory along witht the application of the musics that we glean these theories from...

    I oculd say more but...

    I love theory and encourage all of my students to study it...Most do BTW...

    Good thread Chris...I hope it sticks.
  3. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
    From Joe's article -
    "...here too the word "theory" is often applied. But again, that term seems to lead us away from the real reason for including this area in daily practicing. It is, of course, true that a good improvisor must have an exhaustive, complete theoretical knowledge of music as deep and comprehensive as any composer. But in the end, what you know is not as important as how and to what level you have absorbed it. An improvisor’s knowledge of the musical language, in a sense, cannot be theoretical. It must be practical. That is, one’s theory must be in one’s fingers and ears, not in one’s head. There is no time to run up into the library when you are improvising, anymore than there is time to go open a dictionary in the middle of a passionate profession of love to your girlfriend or boyfriend. In such circumstances, the English language, or the musical language best be there at your disposal, running around in your bloodstream, ready to express spontaneously and passionately whatever it is you wish to express. Absorbing the language of music to this level cannot be done any other way but the slow way, from the bottom up, starting at the beginning, building each new structure on what is already solidly in place, doing this in every key, systematically, slowly, completely, with the metronome."

    Highlighted emphasis, mine. As I keep saying, over and over again, it's not just one thing it's everything. Understanding, physical approach, concept - there is no one thing that you can leave out of the equation and there is no one thing that will make up for a lack of the others.

    The part that doesn't get talked about a lot is this - even when I get to the point that I can express my deepest thoughts and feelings, it may not be in my nature to create moments of real, universal poetic beauty. There was a group of artists they put together a very highly regarded (from the public service standpoint) program for inner city/disadvantaged kids. The quote that hit me was " We found out (through our program) that EVERYBODY is creative. But not everybody is an artist."

    All I can really do is try to get to the point that what I say (musically) is true and real and as close to ME as it can be.
  4. Having just finished Sue Mingus's Tonight at Noon, the book points out the irony that the schooled Mingus used the most basic techniques to teach his music to his band (no dots) but that the visiting freind Joni Mitchel made a point of never learning music because she thought it would destroy her muse. I've played a lot of her tunes and they have some interesting quirks - and some amazing (but hey - look at McCartney - another one who won't read) convetionallity for an artist trying to be diferrent. (Go on - tell me she wasn't!)

    This is a common inverse snobbery I find with the local folkies - its best if you never see a dot in your life. But it's about givning yourself choices and trusting your own judgement whether to use them or not - but at least you know what's out there.

    If you don't, too much choice is not empowering - how many TV channels you got - ever played with a guitarist who's got himself (it's nearly always a he) a new effects pedddle and nothing ever gets played through coz he's running through all the options?

    Accordingly, if you use judgement, you can't be false to yourself. But judgement means you have either conciously or not, an internal set of priorities/criteria against which you judge what you play. Its lack of, or just confussion of this that causes problems.

    My way through, if confussed, is to find out more, test my old value judgements, my confused judgements and iterate until happy. It doesn't go on to overload because there is only so much I can play or do at any one time.

    And what I play is usually with others, is it enhancing their experience or not? This of course is not necesarily the path of an artist, a Cecil Taylor perhaps who lets face it, didn't get many be-bop gigs nor want them. He sufferred for his art.

    Art is not necesarily an aspiration either - creative, artisan-like, craftsman are all adjectives I would aspire to. Artistry is what I hope comes forth but I'm resolved to the fact that I wont be of stature - I will be myself, I insist on it, but within the bounds that give me the oportunity to play.

    So to resolve this, and many other TB conumdrums, where are you at man - really at - and I want to play with others, make them sound good, play improvs that express my feelings to others. But for me to say this is to scatch the surface of where I'm at - but to be efective in playing or at work or in relationships - I needs to have a good idea - and this will dictate the time and priority I give to more theory (quite a lot in my case).
  5. stephanie


    Nov 14, 2000
    Scranton, PA
    I'd like to add a short response to this...

    Those that think that theory isn't useful in their situation (for ex. a punk band maybe?) should think again. Aren't they the least bit curious to know how their favorite song was created? There is theory behind everything. Even the simplest of songs. And to deny that is to deny something beautiful that is the language of music. If you fear theory hindering creativity, it'll only hinder you as far as you let it. There must be a balance.

    To answer the question: Yes. Theory is more useful than most realize. It allows you to choose from a wide pallette of colors, so to speak. It opens a world of understanding.
  6. Johnny L

    Johnny L

    Feb 14, 2002
    Victoria, TX
    The most sophisticated theoretical concept I've discovered can't hold a candle to the music it describes when I hear it. I don't know how anyone's truly able to derive meaning from music theory.

    I still remember pulling out the pans from the kitchen when I was still in my diapers, simply unable to turn my back on trying to mirroring the rhythms I heard...or running to the terribly out-of-tune piano to pick out a melody. I'm still trying to capture the way those sounds made me feel back then. That's why I'm into it.

    I don't see music theory as offering an explanation of why I feel this way at all. It's just an extremely useful way of describing what's going on - as if a chemical engineer was describing a chemical reaction in an equation. It's super tough for me to get motivated over the equation itself when there's so much fun to be had actually making the reaction happen and seeing what gets produced in the real world, but I can't deny how useful those equations are, how smart a person needs to be to appreciate their value, and all the good things that come from them.
  7. Interesting arguments, eloquently put. What else can I say? Well, I love the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I could go on all day (and have on many occasions) about how pure, how utterly sublime, how JSB's music is the essence of abstract creativity, existing just for its own sake, needing no explanation, no excuse, no programmatic justification (although he dedicated all of his music to "the Greater Glory of God" (well, he was a devout Lutheran)). With an understanding of the theory behind what JSB did, the music still sounds as good, but the listener now has a far greater understanding of exactly what is going on, how it is being done, and so is able to appreciate the elegant simplicity of some of the devices which are being used, and which subsequent musicians have copied/used (even claimed as their own). However, one never stops learning - just when you think you know everything, you discover there's still something else…

    Mike Crumpton mentioned Cecil Taylor - some of you might remember Branford Marsallis' curt dismissal of CT's music (in the Ken Burns' "Jazz" series) - where he said he didn't see why he had to spend time to try and understand CT's music - I would argue that an understanding of the music (especially avant garde) is essential to be able to appreciate it (not necessarily like it). In order to understand it, it is essential to know the rules (i.e. the theory). You can't simply dismiss it as garbage because you can't understand it - to do so is being somewhat unfair. So, you learn the rules - you hear what the composer/musician is doing with those rules, and you make your choices from the point of view of knowledge rather than ignorance…

    So, I think that a knowledge of music theory is a very powerful tool.

    Sorry it's so long winded… (well, not really, you can always scroll past it, or ignore it - why the hell should I care?)

    - Wil
  8. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    I think what Will and Mike are talking about relates very strongly to what Chris said about :

    "For me, Music Theory is nothing more and nothing less than the study and scientific labelling of sounds that have already happened in the past ..."

    I think it all depends what your aim is?

    So for me, I always want to understand things and can remember first being fascinated by things my school music teacher played us as young kids and wanting to know what it was all about.

    So - this has stayed with me - she played us Stockhuasen (Gesang der Junglinge) Shostakovich and Sibelius - amongst others. She got us to sing Bach and Britten....

    I have always been fascinated by complex music and trying to work it out - so how did Messaen get that sound?

    But I suppose the real crux of Chris's paradox is in Jazz. When I was younger I didn't get it and it often sounded like a load of random notes and bass lines that were just going up and down in semi-tones!!

    But when I started trying to play it, then I started to appreciate it and now have hundreds of Jazz CDs and listen to little else!!

    But there is this thing which I will call :

    "Durrl's Paradox"

    So - is the best Jazz player, somebody who is a total theory monster and who knows everything - can write tunes in all sorts of odd rhythms and embraces advanced harmonic concepts - can stun you with breadth of their learning and knowledge of the Jazz idiom - i.e. can include obscure quotes from little-known Jazz masters - but in a way that is totally their own ...etc. etc.

    Or is it somebody who knows none of this whatsoever - but can play what they hear in their heart and respond immediately to any situation they find themself in, with beautiful music?

    Talking as a listener - a Jazz fan, I think you need a mix of both, to keep things interesting and preferably in the same band!! ;)

    The attraction of Jazz is that it can encompass both - the ascetic intellectual and the intuitive hedonist. OK - the former will be writing the charts, making arrangements, choosing the tunes, organising the gigs and the latter will be bumming around, drinking too much (euphamism for any such indulgence!) - but will then be rolling up to play the solos that will wow the crowd and endear them to the opposite sex!! ;)

    Jazz is interesting precisely because it has the naturals and those who have to work very hard and they can talk to each other in this medium - whereas, most other musics, get one or the other!!
  9. Bruce, because you asked:
    I really don´t know about the "best Jazz player", but a working jazz musician who gets gigs is more or less:

    a total theory monster who knows everything -
    but can play what they hear in their heart and respond immediately to any situation they find themself in, with beautiful music.

    That was easy, I just copy-pasted what you just said ;-)

  10. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    Well - that's what I meant - i.e. that Jazz requires a bit of both really, whereas I have met fairly competent classical players who couldn't improvise on a Blues to save their lives - "what notes am I supposed to be playing!! " :eek:

  11. I love this thread!
    I believe theory is important because it expands the sounds you hear, understand, and can express from your heart. I spent the first 8 years I was playing EB in rock bands who were all about playing from the heart, that's a great thing, but these people were so limited in what they heard and could express musically. Eventually, the scene I was a part of spilt into two groups one that expanded their understanding of the theory and still play music they find exciting and fresh, and those who don't play anymore (although they would love to). I speak with someone from the latter, every conversation boils down to the "good old days" when we played together. I always hear a tone of regret in his voice.
    I've also learned (the hard way) that theory alone isn't the key, it needs to be practiced in relation to improv to become something to aid your natural expression. Plus when your ears just aren't working, but you've got to play, you've always got a back up.
    Thanks for the thread Chris.
  12. mje


    Aug 1, 2002
    Southeast Michigan
    Theory is a tool for describing music, not creating it. Knowing theory makes you a better player insofar as it helps you organize and communicate your knowledge.

    There have been a lot of great players who knew nothing about theory- Chet Baker comes to mind- but I suspect most of greatest were people like Mingus and Ron Carter, who were well rooted in classical theory and technique, and that gave them a better and deeper understanding of their instrument.
  13. SleeperMan2000


    Jul 31, 2002
    Cary NC
    Yes, theory is important to me. I like the intellectual challenge of figuring out why a piece works. Each piece is a puzzle and a window into the composer's process.

    As a longtime software developer, I liken learning theory to learning a computer language. I get the same satisfaction from learning music theory than I do learning and expressing the grammar of a computer language. Often in my trade we are responsible for maintaining code authored by another programmer. Trying to find out why a piece of music works by applying music theory is like trying to understand someone else's computer code.

    But like you, I not thinking about puzzles and process when I'm playing a twelve-bar blues. I'm trying to nail the line, move the crowd, and not bump into the sax player.
  14. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    Hmmm...in what sense did he not know theory? Surely, to play what he did, he must have known a lot of theory - even if it was in a completely intuitive sense?
  15. Don Higdon

    Don Higdon In Memoriam

    Dec 11, 1999
    Princeton Junction, NJ
    I've got news for you. Chet Baker not only did not know theory, he literally did not even know what key he was in. He heard sound inside his head and played it. Period. I was told this by my teacher, who worked alot with Chet Baker. Chet was unlike normal people.
  16. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    OK, I dont really any musical theory, not on the level you chaps are discussing, but here goes anyway...

    I think of it as a means to a non-existant end.
    You're always learning, that's a given. Music theory is a way of naming sounds (as said before) and structuring the combinations and patterns of those sounds so you can take in the information more easily.
    Just as maths is the language in which physics is analysed, music theory is the language in which we analyse music (errr!). Both are, in essence, mathematical theories to describe something physical.

    I think you can create your music perfectly for your entire life without knowing any theory at all.
    And there are many examples of artists who do just that - some have a more natural affinity to do this, but that may well be learnt - back to the old nature/nurture debate.
    But I also believe that unless you are one in a million you will get stuck in a rut and play 'your mateial' over and over, you'll bet trapped by your own habits.

    I also think theory is a way of hearing new sounds. Isnt that what Coltrane did with Giant Steps? A musical concept that he put into practice, rather than the other way round? That's what I thought anyway?

    This intersts me. I wonder if it is true - that not everybody is an artist? I'm not sure I can believe it?

    I truly believe that the artists intent, i.e. what they put into their art - in terms of emotion, is the key factor.

    If I find something contrived or false or just downright sh~te, I think that the reason is that I dont have what's required to appreciate the emotion the artist used in creating that art. Like an incompatability, I cant hear what they are saying, for whatever reason.

    I think the topic is way too subjective to say someone is not an artist.

    I'm positive that everyone has the potential to be an artist, hence, everyone is creative, but it might take one person their enture life to produce one piece of art, whereas another person churns it out like a sausage machine.
    I very, very rarely misjudge people, but I'm regularly surprised and impressed by how creative and beautiful people are.

    Off-topic-waffle over :)
  17. Sam Sherry

    Sam Sherry Inadvertent Microtonalist Supporting Member

    Sep 26, 2001
    Portland, ME
    Euphonic Audio "Player"
    Teenage Pat Martino: "Wes, what was that you just played?"
    Mr. Montgomery: "I don't know, Pat, but I liked it."
  18. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    Wow - I'm amazed! I've heard loads of his recordings and saw a European documentary about his life which mostly concentrated on the sad end, along with a few late performance videos. I wouldn't have guessed at this - I'll have to read up on him a bit more. I thought that what I'd seen was just becaude of the state he was in at that time...

    Thanks for the info Don! :)
  19. tkarter


    Jan 1, 2003
    Without musical theory how would instruments been created? How tunings?

  20. An interesting point - since a balance of theory and practicality came up with even temprement. Tunings are usually unversally based on the harmonic series - and this is what we find natural to hear (but I supose listening to even temprement music from birth knocks it out of us to an extent) - it results in uneven temprement - having different tunings/instruments for different keys. This was only sorted out around baroque times, allowing greater co-operation, changes of key etc.

    As players of folk instruments (no - not guitars) such as various flutes, reed 'shepherd' flutes which play by manipulating the harmonic series (norwegian I think), gamelan perhaps, there is a quality and soul that theory has cast asside [but is possible on the unfretted string if you can hear to play it and can be in sympathy with fellows (or solo)].

    This is anti-theory, in that theory can explain why the sounds would be there, but without it they are still always there as a natural consequence of the environment.

    It brings to mind that some of the first practitioners of free jazz were looking for total freedom of expression free from their deep knowledge of what and how they had played to date. Some of the later players copied the free stuff and learnt the straight stuff later. Now they are both in the moment when they are playing - you could argue that one player has more credibiltity than the other - but does it matter?

    If they are playing what they intend, I guess not. Playing one of those reeds well isn't easy at first - but the notes are a natural consequence of the physics of a stopped tube - you can't do anything about that, it's not even-tempered and has a beauty and satisfaction of its own. You haven't got much feedom though except from encumberance, and that can be freedom in itself leaving you to concentrate on other qualities. Restricting yourself to a few notes in a solo can sometimes be relevatery to the audience as well as yourself.

    So, natural laws created natural tunings (simmilar to the pentatonic scale if you will) which were bent to even temprement to staisfy musics of greater complexity begat by theory resulting in a situation where no-one sits down on a hillside with a reed pipe blowing merrily away to their frisky sheep - they're busy learning tritone substitutions.

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