Music theory questions

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by Bushfire, Jan 7, 2006.

1. Bushfire

Oct 2, 2004
Auckland, New Zealand
I have a few questions, but due to time constraints I'll just ask a few now.

Could someone explain to me the importance of a measure? Why do we have to define time as say 3/4 and then work so hard (not really, but you get the point) to get it to fit into segments of 3 beats a piece? Why not just no bars? Wouldn't be simpler?

And also, why is 4/4 so common? I know it's probably because people grow up hearing 4/4 and think in it mainly, but why did the people before that use it?

And for example, is a whole note (4 quarters combined in 4/4) still the same length in say 12/8?

Thanks for listening to my random question splurge,
-Bernard.

2. lemur821

May 4, 2004
St. Louis, MO, U.S.
Measures are important because it's easier to not get lost when you divide it up. 134th measure is an easier number than 536th beat.

A whole note is always equal to four quarter notes. So yes, it's the same relative length. It wont fill a measure of 12/8, since a measure of 12/8 it longer than four quarter notes. Whether it has the same duration in seconds depends on how fast you're playing.

EDIT: Also, tradidtional western music is based on groups of two, three, or four beats. It makes sense to write it that way. Musicians know that a piece in two (2/2, 2/4, 6/8) will have a strong beat, a weak beat, and then repeat. In three (3/4, 9/8) it will be strong weak weak. In four (4/4, 12/8) there it will be strong weak medium weak, and repeat. We can tell how the accents will fall be knowing the time signature and where the borders of each measure lie. The time signatures I listed above aren't a full list, by the way. Just the most common.

3. BassChuck

Nov 15, 2005
Cincinnati
Measures also help us keep a pulse to the music. For instance, if we want the feel of 3/4 time, we need to know where the first beat of the group of 3 is (that would be the important thing for a bass part).

In 4/4 there are a number of styles that demand different pulse feelings, but the need is the same, to know where beat 1 and 3 is or 2 and 4.

Why some cultures use 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4 more than others would be a long and involved discourse. Probably it comes from dance traditions that go back before music was notated. Check out some Greek dances, or Indian music for some very interesting and different pulse organizations. And if you do that, check out the harmonies and melodic intervals too.

We should never accept as perfect the way we find things. -Aldous Huxley

4. Bushfire

Oct 2, 2004
Auckland, New Zealand
Cheers for that.

I recently decided to start working on my sight reading skills (which is where my questions came from) and to that end, I went to the mutopia project website and nabbed myself a copy of Bach's 1st chello suite. there's a symbol that I don't recognise, kinda like a downward facing semi-circle with a dot in the middle. What does it mean?

Also, in an orchestra, why does the conductor wave his baton thingie around (no, I'm not exactly 'in to' classical music ) isn't it all written down anyway?

Thanks,
-Bernard.

5. BassChuck

Nov 15, 2005
Cincinnati
The symbol that you found in the Bach Suite is formally called a fermata. Most musicians refer to it as a 'hold' or 'birdseye'. What it means is that the note that it is over is held out longer. Exactly how long is a point of discussion, generally about 1 and 1/2 to 2 times the normal duration of the note. (style and interpretation will determine this). Also, in a lot of music styles its a performance practice to slow down a little bit just before the fermata, but that too is a point of discussion determined by style and taste.

Orchestras use a conductor to show tempo, style and interpretation. Yes, the music is written. The conductor is (believe it or not) really moving in a pattern that tell the orchestra members the beat. His style of movement will show them the interpretation; loud or soft, passive or active... whatever words you would want to use to describe the way music is to be played.

When the first orchestras organized in the 1700, they often did not use a conductor, the first violinist or soloist with the orchestra would set tempo and they would start. Since that time orchestras have increased in size and the musical demands and possibities have increased so much that a conductor is absolutely necessary and in fact is the highest paid musician on the stage.

Good luck with the Bach Suite. Get a recording, it will help you understand some of the things that are in the music. Lots of bass players, BG and DB play this piece. Some have transposed the whole piece up a full tone (two frets) so that the first note can be an open A. This solves some problems, but makes the ending a bit of a chore (not having the open D). Its a great piece and you'll learn a lot about music and your instrument by learning it completely.

6. Bruce LindfieldUnprofessional TalkBass ContributorGold Supporting Member

This is something that becomes vitally important when you play with other people and is something that is often neglected by those who just play on their own at home.

It's only when you play out - that you realise how radically a piece of music can be altered by tempo changes and imposing different rhythmic feels..

Also - how badly wrong a tune can go, if all the band members are not feeling the same pulse!!

7. dlloydzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Apr 21, 2004
Scotland
What Basschuck said.

If you watch a conductor, you'll see that if he's conducting a piece in 2/4 he'll swing the baton down on the first beat, and up on the second.

If he's conducting in 3/4, he'll use a triangular pattern. He'll swing it down on the first beat, up and to his right on the second beat and up and to the left on the third beat, ending up at the starting position.

In 4/4, he'll use a cross. The first two beats are like the first two in 3/4. On the third beat, he'll swing it over to his left and on the fourth beat it'll go back to the top.

You get the idea.

He does other stuff at the same time, pointing to orchestra members and sections to give cues, using hand gestures to indicate volume and attack, and using flowing movements to indicate legato and stabbing movements to indicate stacatto.

8. lemur821

May 4, 2004
St. Louis, MO, U.S.
The conductor's most important function during a performance is keeping everyone at the right tempo. During rehearsal, the conductor is the one who makes sure everyone sounds good together. The conductor balances volume levels and makes sure all the chords are in tune and that all the sections are playing their notes at the right time (and not behind the beat when they should be on it, or whatever), since it's hard to tell from where the musicians are sitting. You might say that the conductor plays the musicians, and the musicians play their instruments.

9. Ed Fuqua

Dec 13, 1999
NYC
Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
You know the one about the difference between an orchestra and a bull, right?

Music happens. Music defines the time that it happens in. the ONLY THING that notation (the notes, the staff, the rest , the time signature, etc etc etc) does is come in AFTER THE FACT and give us a way of communicating graphically what just happened or (in the case of composition) what we want to have happen. So your initial premise (Why do we have to define time as say 3/4...) is kind of wrong. What happens is that the easiest way to describe and depict what happened is to write 6 bars of 3/4 (if that is indeed what happened or what you want to have happen) or a bar of 3/4, two bars of 11/8, a bar of 2/2 and 117 bars of 4/4.

DO this, when you see an X clap your hands when you see a _ ,don't clap. The X and the _ should be equal in the time stream.

X X _ X X _ X X _ X X _

Does that communicate better (more efficiently, elegantly, easier to read and play) as

1 2 (3) 4 1 (2) 3 4 (1) 2 3 (4)

or 1 2 (3) 1 2 (3) 1 2 (3) 1 2 (3)?

The other thing that having this flexibility of notation helps do is define polyrhythmic playing in relation to the original pulse or time stream. If everything was just one long stream of notes, denoting the change in time feel against the original pulse in a way that is not evenly divisive would be impossible to notate (and therefor communciate to somebody that wasn't in the same room or in the same century as you). Moving from a bar of 4/4 to a bar of 6/8 where the quarter note is equal to the new dotted quarter is immenntly playable, but NOT notatable if what you have is one long stream of "just notes".

The Law of Gravity isn't what you have to do if you step off a cliff, it's a description of what happens to you.

10. Bushfire

Oct 2, 2004
Auckland, New Zealand
Thanks, I think I'll need it (luck.) My sight reading skills are fairly sub-par (an understatement) and I'm going slowly to try and appreciate it. I'm only up to the 5th measure (Hey go easy, after two days of sight reading I'm attempting this, I thought that was pretty good!) I think I will get a recording, I know what the first bit sounds like, and that helps, I'm looking forward to the challenge of getting the chordal stuff sounding good!

11. Bushfire

Oct 2, 2004
Auckland, New Zealand
Thanks, some very good points for me to think over.

I don't know why I am really doing this (standard notation) I'm into rock music, and most of that this is unneccesary for the music I work on, but I figure, music is a language, and even if I don't need to learn how to read and write the language, I think I should. I mean, if bach had written down this in tab we would've lost this piece of music, which just goes to show... something...

12. Bushfire

Oct 2, 2004
Auckland, New Zealand
tim99 - Thanks for the effort, I will keep asking questions

What's interesting is that my piano playing friend has no musical theory knowledge (at all) but composes very good songs. Even more interesting still, is the fact that a lot of the theory that I take "just because" comes out in his (no background in theory) music, so there's obviously something there for him to come to the same conclusion as musicians hundreds of years ago ya know?

And on the tab thing, yeah I know it's been around for hundreds of years, but we wouldn't have a sure a copy if there was no rythmic information right?

I really don't see why people learn scales, I prefer to learn arpeggios and chord tones, staying in key is a fairly simple exercise on most songs, and if you happen to stumble off key, the old rule of move 1 fret and you're back usually works a treat, so why all this emphasis on scales? I learn them, but they're basically warm ups and excercise's to play with a metronome, I never use them when actually writing a bassline.

13. Howard K

Feb 14, 2002
UK
I think I've been very lucky. From the word go I've been taught 'chord tones on the strong beats'.
You play what sounds good.. and most of the time that means supporting the melody, and therefore the harmony. You play chord tones on the strong beats. I've had this lesson in various forms from numeorus teachers (and, of course, am still working on it!).

I understand scales almost entirely as "where chords come from". Harmonise the major scale and you have the basics of harmony that is used in the vast amount of music.
I've used scales as a tool to help me hear paths between chord tones. I mean, you break down most melodies and thay are made up of fragments of scales, arpeggios, or simply just intervals. Scales are NOT what music is made of, but they do contain elements of what music is made of.

14. Bushfire

Oct 2, 2004
Auckland, New Zealand
Yeah, I guess scales are born of music, not the other way round huh?

15. Bushfire

Oct 2, 2004
Auckland, New Zealand
Maybe someone could explain if I've got the idea behind "upbeats" and "downbeats". Is an upbeat the beat a new chord is played, and a downbeat the beat after? Or simply the first second beats respectively? (surely not?) or something else all-together?

Secondly, how does this tie in with writing basslines? I have been told you can't go wrong when writing a bassline if you play the roots on the upbeats, how accurate is this? what about the downbeats?

Thanks,
-Bernard.

16. Howard K

Feb 14, 2002
UK
It's the opposite way round, roots on the downbeats.

In a bar of 4/4 time, beats 1 and 3 and the down beats, the strong beats, and beats 2 and 4 are the upbeats, the weak beats. If you think of the most basic drum beat, so stomp you left foot on 1 and 3 then clap your hands on 2 and 4 "boom gat boom gat"

Often chord changes occur on beat 1 of the bar, sometimes one beats 1 and 3, the downbeats.

Any note you play on beats 1 and 3 will be heard more strongly, they will be the frame of reference for the other band members and the listener. So as a bass player it is important, vital in fact that what you play clearly indicates the harmony of the song - the effective way to do this is play the root notes on the strong beats.

If you're playing a guitar based blues in E, everyone wants to hear a nice solid root note E on beat 1 of the first four bars, for example.

You often hear comments from other musicians and bass players alike that this 'root plugging' is simple, or easy or boring.
The best way of thinking of it I ever heard is that 'the root note is the most satisfying note to play'.. we bass players are lucky to be able to do that and have everyone enjoy and appreciate it!

17. Bushfire

Oct 2, 2004
Auckland, New Zealand
Hmmmm.... This one, or.....
..this one?.....
Which is correct?

18. AndreasH

Apr 8, 2005
Sweden

About us playing in 4/4. Its just the way it is. 3/4 and 4/4 is the most common time measure's in western world music tradition. For instance, in India I've heard that it's very common with 13/16 bars
In the eastern countries they even have notes that we don't have. It's just a matter of traditition.

A composer named Czaba Déak (I think he spells like that ) have written a movement for Clarinett with no bars, just notes. So it DOES exsist. But I don't know if it's that practical.
I would really get lost if I was to read a piece with no bars.

19. dlloydzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Apr 21, 2004
Scotland
Strictly speaking, neither.

The downbeat is the first beat of a measure.
The upbeat is the beat preceding it.
The offbeat is any beat that's not the downbeat.

The nomenclature comes from the motion of the conductor's baton.

Downbeat and upbeat are, however, commonly used to include any strong and weak beats, respectively. So Howard K's post was more correct.

20. Howard K

Feb 14, 2002
UK

Actually, that is spot on. I stand corrected

Essentially, it doesnt really matter, downbeats, upbeats, weak beats, strong beats, off beats... to some degree this is all just semantics.

The important thing is that some beats are heard to be stronger in a the bar naturally and some heard to be stronger because they are given additional emphasis. A nice solid bass line that supports the harmony will always have the 'right' notes on these important beats