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Music theory stifling creativity?

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by Red Wonder, Jun 7, 2005.

  1. Okay here is my dilemma:

    It seems to me that my overall approach to the electric bass has changed significantly since I've been studying theory. Before I even knew what the underlying mathematics were to my playing I seemed to be, for lack of a better word, happier. Now it seems as though I'm overanalyzing everything and instead of just playing (what I think) sounds good over a certain chord and progression, I'm thinking too hard about how I can mathematically manipulate everything to the nth degree.

    Now don't get me wrong, I have always been and will always be a strong advocate and proponent of learning theory and applying it to the bass. However, it seems I'm in a constant quagmire over the mental approach and the "spiritual" approach.

    Does anyone else understand this situation? I certainly am glad I'm a student of theory because I believe it's a tremendously pertinent foundation for one's musicianship. Does it just take a certain amount of time for everything to sink in before one can apply theory without thought?

    Thank you.
  2. Bryan R. Tyler

    Bryan R. Tyler TalkBass: Usurping My Practice Time Since 2002 Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    May 3, 2002
    Sounds to me like you have yet to internalize the theory you've learned. You need to get it so you know it so well you don't have to think about it-it just happens. You can get the sound of what you want to play in your head and your ingrained knowledge of theory will let you know how to play it and where you can go with it. Like how it's a huge deal for a four-year old to add 12+12, but later on in life they know it so well that they don't even have to think about it to tell you the answer.

    Not that I'm anywhere near that point, mind you. That's just what I see when I look at how guys like Pat Metheny play.
  3. Everyone's limited to the theory they know. There's lots of theory you don't know.

    If you rely on only theory you currently know, unless you know an awful lot of theory, you'll be stuck in a rut pretty fast.

    Let your ear be your guide. Your ear understands things about music your brain hasn't learned in school yet. If you think something ought to sound good, try it. If it works, great, if not, play it again twice as loud so they think you meant to do that.... :D

    You can try to figure out why it works logically later.

    Years ago, the only legal chord tones were roots and fifths. The only legal chords were I, IV, and V. At one time, theory said that was all that fit. Someone thought walking lines would sound good, a II might be a nice substitute for a IV, tried it and liked it. Then the theory was revised/expanded later to explain why it worked.

    Then some fool started slapping the bass.... it was probably discovered by someone that didn't have straplocs, snagged the g string as bass went flying, but couldn't hold on. Thought it sounded cool. With no formal training, didn't know you're "not supposed to do that", maybe was a percussionist as well, experimented with it. Someday, Larry Graham saw the guy in a dive bar somewhere and thought, "Wow! what the hell's that???? that sounds COOL!!!"

    Einstein "felt" Relativity was right intuitively first. After years of work, he finally perfected the math to justify it. Music works the same way.

    There is no growth without risk. You need to learn to trust your instincts and your ear just as surely as you need to learn theory. You'll make some clunkers along the way. As you get good with both, the gap between them narrows.

  4. This thread is beautiful!

    (Not like the others are'nt, but this is some good stuff)
  5. It's never easy when your heroes are the likes of Pastorius, Wooten, Lee, and Clarke. Sometimes I wish I never would have listened to those cats (not really, but ya know?) because I'm trying to emulate an incredible level of talent. Even though in most gigging circumstances (or auditions) that insane level of ability is rarely utilized anyway (or appreciated?) I'm striving to be the best musician I want to be and I'll admit I'm a chops inspired bassist and like to listen to music that makes my jaw hit the floor.

    The bass is a perplexing instrument. The crossroads I'm at now involve the use of hammer-on, pull-offs, and the slides and bends that lead and follow them. This is where I would like to elevate my theory so it's natural (like the 12+12 scenario you talked of.) Unfortunately, there probably is no need for all this stress and whatnot because more than likely any future band will want me to just hold down the root and "don't get all crazy on the turn-arounds," (to quote an ex-guitarist of mine.)

    But I watch Bass Day, or listen to Jaco, or pop in School Days, or crank up Signals and I'm like "screw it, I wanna play like that!" :bassist: So it's back to the theory and the modes and the inversions and the sightreading (which I think I'm gonna finally call it quits on, I've been trying to sightread for 4 years now off and on and its just not clicking. I think reality dictates I'm just never gonna be able to read like I wanna read), and the hammer-ons to the slide to the tap to the open pop to the ringing harmonic.
    There will always be a part of me that thinks I'm thinking too much when I should just be playing a G whole note over the G chord from guitar or piano (what a concept.)
    I guess music is something you can never master so there is always a sense of being unsatisfied. There is no proverbial "finish line" where you can say "I finally GOT IT!"
    Then I'll go to the coffee shop and listen to the folk artists and think "Man these cats got it easy. No stress, no fretting over sus 4's or tritones or counterpoint and simple cadences.

    So that's my little rant (for today at least.)
  6. Jazzin'

    Jazzin' ...Bluesin' and Funkin'

    Theory has made me play better, I understand what I am doing, and I can improvise easily. I don't see how knowledge of theory can be something bad.
  7. Passinwind

    Passinwind I am Passinwind and some of you are not. Supporting Member Commercial User

    Dec 3, 2003
    Columbia River Gorge, WA.
    Owner/Designer &Toaster Tech Passinwind Electronics
    Does it just take a certain amount of time for everything to sink in before one can apply theory without thought?

    In my experience, definitely. Maybe you could try my method for having some fun while you're waiting for it to kick in. Get an electric guitar and a nasty amp, and make sure you learn as little as possible about technique and theory on the guitar. Just find a rude band to jam with, and let it fly by the seat of your pants. Works for me, at least. :cool:

    I actually think that doing this has helped my bass playing just as much as reading charts 6 hours a week, which is also very helpful, I might add.
  8. ryco


    Apr 24, 2005
    I go through phases where I study and learn and apply a lot of theory - and then I'll just let it go. I think about chords and progressions and leading and get scales and patterns under my fingers - and then for a period I'll just let fly. Every time I go back to playing I'll find I can go a little farther. Every time I go back to learning I can hear melodies and lines. I find both compliment each other. Balance

    Two things I've heard:

    #1 Learn everything you can and forget it

    #2 It is called "playing" music, isn't it? You don't "work" music.
  9. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    Yup - this is the answer - I would just add that this is a lifelong process and takes years, rather than months/weeks!!
  10. One thing my teacher stresses is that with each musician, he or she, has to 'reach his own personal threshold' with his studies, to where you can just react, instead of the going through the mathematics of playing the bass.

    What do i mean by the mathematics of bass playing?

    A few weeks ago, i read a thread here, where each musician stated that they had a favorite scale that he or she loved to groove off of (or just run up one mode and down another, play it in 3rds, 4th, 5ths, octaves, which imho, often sounds as if a musician is justing practicing exercises in dexterity)

    To me, if a person has'nt been blessed with a gifted ear, like myself, trying to teach someone to undestand how to arrange the interior notes of a given scale to come up with melodies or say something pleasing sounding on your instrument, can be difficult.

    My teacher shared with me some of his personal ideas of getting a scale under your finger tips. No, this is not the pancea of bass playing but rather his own approach to utilizing a scale to it's greater and more exhaustive potential.

    I had to edit because of some inaccuracies in my own dang gone thread. I had to go back and relisten to my lesson from my teacher ( as i tape them, as at times i cannot grasp things on the spot in front of him, for whatever reason)

    Anyway, from the lesson, we were operating with the E pentatonic scale. The notes E F# G# B C# E.

    1. Starting on the B string, i was directed to play the E pentatonic scale, forwards and backswards, about 1 million times or so. Being mindful of the shape of the 5 notes.

    2. My teacher then brought to my attention the four 2 string groupings, of a 5 string bass. (the B & E string, the E & A string, A & D string and the D & G string)

    3. Understand that the 2 string groupings, are four notes.
    Once you have four of anything, a permutation chart tells us that we can play those four notes 24 different ways.

    What's a permutation chart?

    1234 2134 3124 4123
    1243 2143 3142 4132
    1324 2314 3214 4213
    1342 2341 3241 4231
    1423 2413 3412 4312
    1432 2431 3421 4321

    24 different variations of the 4 four note, 2 string patterns.

    If you have any questions post up, sorry for any misinformation!

    You can check for him @ www.anthonywellington.com
    I hope i got his addy right, if not google Anthony Wellington.
  11. Bassist4Life


    Dec 17, 2004
    Buffalo, NY
    There is more theory out there than you could learn in your lifetime. You don't need to know everything. I don't know you, but it sounds like you might have a little perfectionist in your personality. I am the same way. If I play something, I want to be correct in every aspect. When you learn theory you start to compare what you're playing to your theory knowledge. This is a good thing. It can be a bad thing if it limits your creativity. The truth is that there are talented and sought after musicians that don't know theory very well. I feel that theory helps me to make sense of the music I play and listen to. It also helps me to write and arrange music. Sometimes it gets in the way because I feel that what I am doing is not correct theoretically; but, I just get over it and move on. Hope this helps.

  12. Thanks for the input everybody it truly is appreciated. There are just so many ways to approach various concepts that some of the time, not most, I feel a little bewildered. I'm on my eighth year of aggressively applying theory to the electric bass and 2 new doors close for every one that I open.

    I should just count my blessings and be satisfied but you all understand always trying to raise the bar of your playing to new, unprecedented heights, right?
  13. burntgorilla


    Jan 24, 2005
    Do you mind me asking what you find hard about it? Do you mean being able to look at a new piece of music and play it straight off? I mean, I'm not brilliant by any means, and I'm pretty slow at it, but if someone asked me "can you sight read?" I think I would be able to answer "yes" quite honestly.
  14. Christopher


    Apr 28, 2000
    New York, NY
    Music theory doesn't stifle creativity. If it's bugging you, you can just "shut it off."
  15. ryco


    Apr 24, 2005
    I find no music theory way more stifling in the long run.

    Le'see - I'm up to $ .04 now?
  16. seanlava


    Apr 14, 2005
    And remember, music theory is not a bunch of rules set down by university music professors. Western music theory is simply a method for codifying and explaining what is happening in a piece of music. It is a tool for analysis, not a cage to put your music in.
  17. Theory is helpful for thinking LESS, once you know it. And that helps you PLAY more. A 3 minute song can be looked at as several thousand discrete events. That's a lot to think about. The more you understand how the events relate to each other, the more you can think of big bunches of them, as familiar patterns, until to you, the song becomes almost inevitable and you only have to interject conscious thought about notes a few times, if at all. You can know spend that excess brainpower on making music, not executing sequences of notes.

    The theory you can use is the theory you KNOW, not the theory you're thinking about. The theory you're thinking about is what you can be practicing, trying to get it to where you know it, so you can use it.

    And yeah, the subconscious does a lot in this process. Rigorous exploration and free play will both help. But sometimes, you have to just step away for a little bit.
  18. +1
  19. Excellent point IMO. I've tried to say something like this on occasion, but you put it better than I would have.
  20. I've played in bands where it sounded like the guitar player thought "tuning up" stifled his creativity....


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