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Learn theory by reverse engineering your own songs?

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by catcauphonic, Feb 16, 2018.

  1. catcauphonic

    catcauphonic High Freak of the Low Frequencies Supporting Member

    Mar 30, 2012
    Seattle WA
    This thought had occurred to me today, and it's kind of aimed mostly at the folks who are self taught and in bands, or just play songs by ear.

    When I first started the bass a few years ago, I assumed that to play an instrument one NEEDED to know how to read music. It didn't take long to find out that over half of all the players I talked to around town knew next to nothing about it. Most are better with their ear (at least rock players), and a few have no idea what notes they're even playing on the fretboard!!!

    Well, in my case around the 1.5 year mark of home learning, I got in a band (where only one member knows any theory) and we normally just jam on somebody's riff idea that *poof* magically morphs into some great full fledged songs (with everybody coming up with their own part.)

    Around then is when my study of theory pretty much ended, as i spend all my time now in a couple bands writing songs and trying to improve my ear (which seems way more useful to me at this stage.) Any notes I take to remember lines & structures are just shorthand on scratch sheets that pretty much only I can read.

    I know my fretboard, & can slooowly read basic bass clef. Sharps, flats, 5ths, octaves, minor 3rds vs major (including 7ths + the other scale degrees) are perfectly clear as well. Whole notes vs dotted quarter... no problem. I understand how the 7 main western scales and the circle of 5ths came to be, and a little more, but that's where it ends.

    I can't definitively say to another musician "this one is in D minor, the change goes to blah blah for 8, then blardy blar blar blar, & yada yada etc."

    Don't misunderstand... I think knowing theory is a great thing that can in no way hinder one's progress. The point of my post is to get better at it without going back to the Hal Leonard books, possibly by writing out my own lines on paper and analyzing them for theoretical information, as I already know these songs inside and out. (Though, I'd have a harder time transcribing what the other instruments are doing.)

    I guess it's not much different than analyzing cover songs that you already know, but I don't think that I've ever seen this way of gaining knowledge of theory suggested to somebody who already plays and wants to learn more of it.

  2. Nashrakh


    Aug 16, 2008
    Hamburg, Germany
    Analysing songs on a theoretical level is great. I'm currently taking undergraduate courses in musicology, and music theory, at least druing the first two semesters, is taught to us like this: the teacher introduces us to new elements of theory each week, and we have to 1) analyze specific Bach chorales in regards to their internal structure and whether we can find the new theoretical components within them, and 2) composing our own simple chorales, making use of the theory we were taught. Rules of voice leading, for example.

    I think this method of learning to recognize structures and theoretical constructs, and applying them to your own compositions, works just as well with modern compositions (it's just that the vocabulary, if you will, is different in parts). Going back to Bach just seems to be the de facto standard.

    However, I see one problem with this: without a teacher, or something to guide you through the forest of theory, I doubt there's much more insight to gain of your own music than you already possess. To see new things in your music, you first have to have an idea what you're looking for.

    Your best bet would thus be to get yourself some books on theory, maybe just functional harmony for starters, and try to find in your songs what the book is trying to talk about.
    MalcolmAmos likes this.
  3. Chili_Time


    Oct 11, 2016
    I'm in the "write your own bass line using a chord sheet" section of the HL books & I've been going back through the Hal Leonard Bass tunes that sound good to me and trying to figure out *why* they sound good. Kind of studying them. What is the line? ... it is 1, 5 and 8? Is it a pentatonic scale? What are the chord notes notes he is using... what are the passing notes. OK he is using triads here, why do they sound good in the order he used the notes in the triad? I think it has helped me a with improvisation but I have a long way to go. But clearly there are structures that work to make things sound good. If you understand why the lines you wrote sound good seems like it would help you a ton in writing more good lines.
    MalcolmAmos likes this.
  4. Yes, that is the World I live in.
    You went ear, I went to theory books and just happened to be playing rhythm guitar to Country music at that time. Nothing complicated in a three chord Country song. So theory and some fake chord sheet music got me by. My ear has always been tin, so I did have to rely upon sheet music and playing by rote what was written. My relative pitch did kick in after playing about 3 to 5 years. At that time jamming with others I guessed a lot and watched the rhythm guitar's fretting hand as I could recognize, from his fretting hand what chord he had moved to. I think we do what we need to do, what ever that may be.

    Going the theory way I now can do that.
    Lets worry with our own instrument first.

    Self taught people go about it many ways, music is really not all that complicated when we stay with the simple stuff --- so we finally work out what works for us.

    Thank you for your post, refreshing in it's honesty.
    JMacBass65 and catcauphonic like this.
  5. lz4005


    Oct 22, 2013
    Learning theory in the abstract on the front end doesn't work for a lot of people.
    Taking songs you already know and understanding them better by learning the theory behind them is a great idea.
    I've always said that theory doesn't exist in a vacuum, it explains music that already exists.
    JMacBass65, joebar and saabfender like this.
  6. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    Sounds like the op is basically doing it right
    Your songs or someone else's , the point is to find the patterns theory has named
    and find the pattern's theoretical relationships for new ideas

    another thing your own music is good for learning: notation.
    If you can write it, you can read it, as Anthony Wellington says.

    I used to chicken scratch my songs in my own short hand (I think most of us do at some point)
    but over time I moved to "real" chord charts on traditional notation on staff paper
    I started without notes, just using chord symbols, bar lines, repeat signs / Codas etc - mapping the form of the song.
    This proved to be far less ambiguous and more useful than my custom chicken scratches
    I was producing legit chord charts that any musician could follow.
    and I was learning to read those same kinds of chord charts.

    As I became more competent with rhythmic notation, adding the notes seemed like a small tweak to the process.
    equill and repoman like this.
  7. JRA

    JRA my words = opinion Supporting Member

    catcauphonic : i think you're on to something! cool beans! :thumbsup:

    sounds like a great way to really dig in and get some more 'theory chops'. i've stated this in various other threads and i'll repeat here in case others give a :poop: about the topic: getting a piano/keyboard (a cheap one!!!) if you don't already have one is, IMO, the single best thing you can do to study this stuff.

    as above: that keyboard is priceless for this!

    good luck on your quest! :thumbsup:
    repoman and JMacBass65 like this.
  8. zontar


    Feb 19, 2014
    I learned a lot in regular lessons and in theory lessons as well--and forgot a lot of it as well.
    But when I play or write songs I don't sit there & think--"Hmm--this could use a plagal cadence!"
    I just play or just write--but what I have learned informs my playing & writing.
    ANd definitely after the fact I can go back & look at what I played or wrote or whatever & figure out what I did & how to express it to others.
  9. saabfender

    saabfender Inactive

    Jan 10, 2018
    I have some musical reverse-engineering in my quest to figure music out.

    In about 7th grade, I already had been playing trombone in school for a couple years and was familiar with musical notation. My dad is an amateur pianist had a couple of fake books in the piano bench. Not that Real Book crap - real clandestine, copyright-violating stuff from the ‘50s. They have all kind of pop tunes, classical themes and traditional stuff. They were essentially 5x7 cards with a single treble clef line, one or two verses of lyrics and chords over the top.

    I sat at the piano and worked out what the chords meant by sounding them out. The first tune I remember getting a rudimentary arrangement of was “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” It was in Bb. I didn’t have any concept of root position or inversion or anything like that. I just tried notes to make chords where it sounded major and like Bb was the dominant tone. My solution for Bb major was F-Bb-D. I’d play these tunes, hoping to find something really cool, working out the language of chords and how they fit with the melodies as I went. Endless hours of musical entertainment.

    Did my dad show me any of this stuff? You obviously don’t know my dad.

    You’d eventually figure out “7” was a flat 7 because there was also “maj7” which obviously meant major. Diminished and augmented took a while longer. Happily, these said “aug” and “dim” and didn’t have anything like ø for half-diminished. That would be like Adim b7. It was deciphering a code. Not that complicated in retrospect but it took some listening and effort to get it where the code’s solution made sense.

    The solution I came up with ultimately proved out when I was jazz band later as well as into college. They had a rudimentary theory class senior year of high school. That was trivially easy because I’d already worked through all that stuff on my own years before.

    vi-IV-I-V? Yeah, I got it already. Why does every song currently on the radio have to use this progression? Anyhow...

    Honestly, my piano playing today isn’t much beyond how I played when I was in junior high.

    The central idea was the same as the OP’s: Take a song you know and try to view it in a harmonic context and be aware of those pattern that emerge from it. I highly recommend it.
    repoman and zontar like this.
  10. BassChuck

    BassChuck Gold Supporting Member

    Nov 15, 2005
    When it comes to learning to read music or theory to create music, compare it to your knowledge of reading language. How well could you write if all you had were stories you had told to others... and they told them back to you? How well could you find out what other stories were out there?
    It's all about communication with others. How to you get your ideas out to them? How do you accept other's ideas? How much of your creative output is a result of experiencing the creativity of others? If you've never heard a certain style of music (anything) how do you know how it could impact your music? There are centuries of geniuses who have composed music in all styles. Why lock them out? Creativity isn't what you manufacture from nothing, it's how you put the pieces together that are already out there. The more material you know, the richer your creative source.
    saabfender likes this.
  11. AngelCrusher


    Sep 12, 2004
    Mesa Boogie, Tech 21, Taylor
    An easy thing to do, that people don't do enough, is to go over music and play over each chord as an arpeggio or it's own scale. Super easy thing that will make you a much better writer and improviser.
  12. This post is my life, and I have been playing for 30 years. I'm a lazy bastard.
    catcauphonic and saabfender like this.
  13. zontar


    Feb 19, 2014
    And that is only one reason why most of us know more theory than we realize.
    saabfender likes this.
  14. repoman


    Aug 11, 2011
    Kinderhook NY
    I second (and third...hell, and forth) the idea of getting a keyboard to learn theory on. I made leaps and bounds in my knowledge base of music theory when I picked up a cheap keyboard and started tapping away at it. I have since purchased a more expensive digital stage piano but it was that POS Casio keyboard that turned all the lights on.
    JRA likes this.
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