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Is Music Theory Useful?

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

  1. Chasarms

    Chasarms Casual Observer

    May 24, 2001
    Saint Louis, MO USA
    I have known a few of those who have little or no training and are amazing players that can do about anything.

    I think they know plenty about theory. They just don't speak the same language as others.

    Is theory the study of the nature of music or the study of the language used to define and discuss the nature of music? I would argue the former.

    Those who are self-taught, ear-only phenoms are no less educated than the most brilliant PhD on the planet. Their knowledge is proven in their playing.

    They just think the tonic is something that goes with the Gin.
  2. Chas, i'm one of those guys....I can tell chordal players pretty much what i'm using in an area of a tune in simple terms and even up to b5's and stuff, but i'd be in deep trouble if i'd really have to explain it. I can always spell it out on the bass, so no problem. As far as reading, I just barely muddle through.
    My ears have served me well.
    Marcus,I was thinking you might have known Flip. Did you know Sinatra recorded one of his tunes? I loved Flip... what a sweetheart!
  3. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    Coltrane's "original" tune : 'Satellite' is a re-harmonisation using this approach, of "How High the Moon".

    'Satellite' is on this album :


    Which also has a re-harmonised "Body and Soul". The specific chords used in the original and Coltrane's re-working (as played by McCoy Tyner) are detailed on page 363 of "the Jazz Theory Book".
  4. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY

    And who can argue with this, with the results being what they are? I've long believed that folks who have gotten as far as Mr. WARMBATON without much in the way of formal theoretical training still "know" theory, but have absorbed it intuitively rather than by conscious study. I firmly believe that this way is the deepest path to "the goal" of being able to hear and create music in the moment. Whether you study the music in a conscious theoretical (scientific way) or not, the goal is to get to the point where the information becomes an intuitive process that is triggered by musical sound. How that process of "programming the sounds into the intuition" is less important than the result. I believe it can be done both ways. For most mortals, a combination seems to work best. :)
  5. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    I would agree with this 100% Chris and it makes a lot of sense to me - I mentioned elsewhere how I was involved in Training and Personnel policy and one of the "scientific" approaches that I studied was about "learning styles".

    So as an enlightened employer (!) you recognise that everybody has a preferred style of learning and you can't just apply one method to all and get similarly, satisfactory results.

    I see this as very much applying to learning music - so some people are just not cut out for sitting in a classroom and absorbing facts and others don't get motivated by private solitary study....etc.

    I know for myself that I'm never happy until I know why something works and have dissected it and pinned it down to my satisfaction - whereas other people I know, are happy that something works and don't care why and are just entirely practical.

    I think the thing is to take an active part in designing your own preferred plan of study, based on honest self-awareness - I don't believe you can expect that somebody else can tell you what is the best way for you to study successfully.

    So - some people will see music theory as an academic exercise and approach it that way and others will not be interested in this kind of thing at all and will just see it as part of "music", that they have learnt entirely through practical application.

    As you say Chris - it would be reasonable to expect that most people will want or need, a bit of both.....?
  6. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    I think I can agree with that statement as long as the word "most" is taken at face value - almost like saying, "The only absolute is that there are no absolutes!". Each person is different, and absorbs information differently.

    I got my butt kicked royally on a gig this weekend by a light with a lot more wattage behind it than mine currently (no pun intended) has. My response to the situation has been and will continue to be to experience the experience in real time and then analyze later. Specifically, in this case there were some rhythmic things thrown my way that blinded me temporarily to the point where I lost my connection to the underlying shapes and forms. Over the next few weeks as I collect the various recordings of the two nights, I'll listen back to try to discover specifically what the things were that threw me, then work on those concepts. The next time I find myself in a similar situation, I'll have more experience to draw from by way of coping...but while I'm playing, I'll still try not to think at all and just be completely in that moment. In other words, I'll use my dissection of what happened this weekend to help program my intuition, but once the playing situation comes up again, I'll just simply rely on what is already there and programmed. To me, that's what the process is about. Others may spend more time on the analytical part, about the same, or skip it entirely - it just depends on the person.
  7. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    That's exactly what I was saying - that no one method of studying music is going to be successful for every person and only you can decide what is best for you - somebody else saying, this worked for me is essentially irrelevant, although it can of course be a good pointer for ways that do work and you may well be able to take on board what you need, if you can apply it to your own experience(s).

    But just because it worked for another person, doesn't mean it will necessarily work for you!
  8. I had this happen to me semi-recently too Chris. One of the things my old group used to do to bring it back from a set break was our drummer would get his Groovebox thing going with a beat and a bassline. I never knew what it would be, but I would have to come in with it after a minute and kind of transition from Groovebox to live music, and he would slowly fade out the electronica. Well this night in particular he chose to do something polyrhythmic with the drums and bass, and I couldn't quite latch on to the rhythm, which in turn made me lose track of the chords. I finally just found something super simple that seemed to work ok and stuck with it, but needless to say, we moved on quickly. It's kind of a scary/humliating experience, although that's mostly internal to the band - the audience never quite knows unless you start grimacing and hitting really bad note choices.

    I think at the time I felt pissed at our drummer for what I felt was an attempt to undermine me, but obviously in retrospect this is quite paranoid! It was one of a few things that encouraged me to really start working on my listening at home.
  9. godoze


    Oct 21, 2002
    And we all know of course that Coltrane began writing "Giant Steps" by applying his concept to the bassline; actually the first part of the tune to be written...
  10. I agree with this, but as long as one reaches the desired result of playing their music then hey it's all good.
    But on the other hand I think saying at times "well this method just doesn't work for me so..." is just too easy. Someone needs to bite the bullet and just try to learn regardless of wether a particular method works for them or not.
  11. Chasarms

    Chasarms Casual Observer

    May 24, 2001
    Saint Louis, MO USA
    I think this is the real key. What is your desired level of expectation for yourself and what are others expecting?

    I play with different people and each has a different approach as to how the shape the musical idea. Some will just play through a tune a couple of times and go with the "jump in when you can and hang on" approach. Others will provide charts, and others will give me a disk and say "we're doing track 4 on Wednesday."

    It is very common for me to perform a tune that I have only ran through once or twice at the most. Often I haven't even heard it before. You just can't survive in these cases without some knowledge of theory whether it be intuitive or formal.

    In my case, it is blended. I spent many years as an ear-only player when playing only EBG and over time picked up the more formal language to understand and discuss theory. Since beginning DB study with a teacher, (and frankly spending too much time reading theory threads here at TB) the learning has been seriously accelerated.

    I think people often associate the term "Music Theory" with the more complex aspects of the science and never consider that things like common chord progressions and forms, leading tones, etc., stuff that they use everyday playing even the simplest of tunes, is just as much a part of theory.

    Saying theory is not useful should be alikened to saying math is not useful because you never have occasion to use calculus.

    But other times, I'm given the sheets and expected to play EXACTLY what is written on them. In these cases, the player is simply an interface between the sheets and the instrument. As long as you are playing the notes that are on the page, you are fine. Theory isn't part of the equation.

    Some stay here all the time and are fine with it. My wife, for example, plays piano absolutely beautifully. She can play the finest and/or most complex classical and contemporary works with ultimate control over every aspect of the piece and execute it flawlessly. But if you ask her to play a Cmaj7 chord, she honestly has no clue what you are talking about. She is literally a human extension to turn any piano into a player piano.

    Her ability to sight read is amazing, but obviously she is quite limited in her usefulness as a pianist. I can't even use her to bang out notes for vocal harmonies without actually naming the notes in the chord. It is really kind of sad that 13 years lessons lead her to this.

    But I do love to hear her play.
  12. I know a violinist who is the same way, she has the ability to read anything the first time and make it sound great, she had good ears too she was able to cop most things she heard and play them. I've heard her playing jazz a few times, man was that painful. She had no concept of creating melodies that had anything to do with the changes being played. This is one of the reasons I believe in knowing theory, it informs your intuition when playing improvised music in the context of functional harmony.
  13. Don Higdon

    Don Higdon In Memoriam

    Dec 11, 1999
    Princeton Junction, NJ
    I misspoke; please spare me buying a book. Everybody knows the changes to How High and Body & Soul. How 'bout just telling me the bars and the where the major 3rd key center motion is. There's only 16 bars to worry about in Moon.
  14. Ericman197


    Feb 23, 2004
    Personally, I believe theory is a lot more important than most players give it credit for. However, I also believe that theory encompasses everything we do. While the formal method is usually the best for true understanding, even a musically illiterate performer may know theory. He may not know that the interval between C and B forms a major seventh, but through his experiences he will understand how to use and resolve this interval. There's a certain amount of innate theory we all have in us; even a non musician knows that a tritone sounds :eek:.

    Whenever someone says that they play with emotion and don't use theory, I always laugh. This type of person is usually the lead guitarist who's stuck in the magical land of minor pentatonics, which are in fact part of music theory. The problem with this sort of thinking is that it's a completely ridiculous notion. After all, if all one needed to write good music was *emotion*, then how come there aren't any stunning 12 year old lead guitarists/bassists/etc. writing incredible solos? Most of the good musicians who play with their heart are fairly old... not because it takes years to develop your soul and truly bond with your instrument, but because it took them years of trial and error before they realized what sounds good. Learning theory is a much more direct approach.

    Nevertheless, there are plenty of great musicians out there who don't know theory, I know of quite a few myself. Most of these people learned what sounds right through lots of experience. They don't know what an inversion is, yet they still use them. However, you can only BS your way so far. In a rock context, you don't really need to know much theory at all. It helps quite a bit, but you can get away without it. In jazz, it's a little tougher. You may be able to resolve a powerchord just by knowing how it sounds, but try working with multiple instruments, stacked chords, inversions, etc. It gets to the point where it becomes impossible to keep track of things without actually understanding them. Writing a symphony is even harder. There are some who have written amazing classical music without any theoretical knowledge, but for each of them there are half a dozen Bachs, Beethovens, Schoenbergs, Rumplesteins, etc.
  15. Euh.. I do not want to nitpick, but unless you are german, the interval between C and B is a MAJOR seventh. (In Germany the B flat equals B, and B natural equals H). Just had to point that out, sorry...

  16. Chasarms

    Chasarms Casual Observer

    May 24, 2001
    Saint Louis, MO USA
    One of the key elements of humanity's development is the ability to quantify, summarize, organize and create a universal means of communication for learned knowledge.

    Caveman's son didn't have figure out that flint would flake to a sharp edge because his dad showed him.

    The written alphabet didn't allow for the creation of anything (except itself) but simply provided a means of recording that already known and to be created.

    I really see Theory as just that, a means of understanding musical creation. The language of music if you will.

    It is possible for a group of people to gather and accomplish about anything, but it will be much tougher if they all speak different languages.

    The image of the tower of Babel comes to mind . . .

    The idea being that the less time spent trying to figure out what someone else has already, the more time you have to figure out something new.
  17. Ericman197


    Feb 23, 2004
    ummm... sure, I'm German! Hmmm... guess I must have missed that major/minor thing :meh:
  18. People, the interval between C and B is a minor 2nd.
  19. Taste the Soup!
  20. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY

    Couldn't agree more. But what is it if you're German?

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