"Theory is not important" question

Discussion in 'Ask Janek Gwizdala [Archive]' started by lemongrenades, Jul 18, 2013.

  1. lemongrenades

    lemongrenades Supporting Member

    Feb 8, 2012
    Philadelphia PA
    Let me start be saying I'm a huge fan. I read your book first, watched your interview with Juan then bought your records. Your actually the first modern jazz artist that I really dig. And as a result Ive been getting into alot of cats that you work with. Truly inspiring.
    My question is, a lot of great musicians that I am surrounded by all tend to say, "don't worry about theory, just play". I've heard you say something similar. Now, I get what they mean. But it seems that the people who say this are all well read and efficient with theory.How for into studies do YOU suggest a player go to consider his or herself a well rounded musician. Im always learning from what I hear and I know thats a constant process. And I feel like I can express myself and say what I want on my instrument. But the actual academic part. Is it more like a badge of honor? Or something that is required to get ahead as a musician?
    Curious on how you feel about this. I hope my question wasn't too scattered. Thanks in advance.
  2. henry2513

    henry2513 Supporting Member

    May 9, 2011
    Los Angeles, Ca
    From how I understand it from listening to Janek and also guys like Gary Willis the theory is something essential for your foundation but something you have to assimilate to such a degree that it's not part of your conscious while you're playing. In other words if you're playing over a F7 chord you're not thinking "ok I'm gonna play a chord tone here, passing tone, chord tone, extension etc etc." Instead, you just do it without thinking.
  3. Clef_de_fa

    Clef_de_fa Guest

    Dec 25, 2011
    For me it was a way to be free instead of "copying" someone else ... I say what I want to say instead of taking little pieces of phrases someone else said and put them together to have something to "say" ... but it seems to be the way in jazz and many music like rock. But ... all you do is say the same thing as someone else instead of really have your own ideas. anyway I may be in the wrong but I feel like knowledge is freedom.

    It also gave me ideas that seems to be wierd for a lot of people but whatever.
  4. lemongrenades

    lemongrenades Supporting Member

    Feb 8, 2012
    Philadelphia PA
    That makes a lot of sense Clef. Im learning theory right now. Up to this point everything I know, I learned by ear from other players. But, even in its basic stages, the theory has been bringing ideas to the table. So I could see what your saying. I never understood cats that say it takes away from your ideas. I mean, I love early Sonic Youth. So, if I learn a few Bach pieces does that take away my ability to manipulate noise. No, it just adds to my vocabulary. This is how I see it. Maybe Im off. In the context of playing and performing, I dont think it matters. But because I love playing so much I can't help but to think about it.
  5. Low Class

    Low Class

    Jul 4, 2005
    My Dad(who is tone deaf) would tell me when I was young, "those that know 'how' will always have a job, but those that know 'why' will be the boss".

    Same kinda applies in your question. If you want to be someone beyond your run of the mill weekend warrior bass player, learn theory.
    r10 likes this.
  6. Ifriff


    Feb 7, 2011
    Just like anything. You can take it as far as you want.

    I've noticed that self taught musicians have more original sounds. They discover their own unique techniques. They develop their ear to play what sounds good. A lot of self taught musicians have figured out a lot of theory by ear. They just don't know what it's called. They know the roads. They can find they're way. They just don't know the names of the roads. Musicianship is different for each individual, and you can take it as far as you want. You will never stop getting better. At times you might want to explore on your instrument and just have fun. Other times you'll really want to understand what's going on. So you rack your brain studying. I've gone back and forth like this.
  7. christoph h.

    christoph h.

    Mar 26, 2001
    I don't agree with this. To me, it's more like this:

    Theory is like learning the alphabet (notes, like c, e, g) and the grammar (c + e + g = C major triad). Learning little phrases is like words (vocabulary) - they are the 'real' building blocks of language.

    Sure, you could try and make up your own vocabulary, etc., but I think you'd either create "a new language" that others can't actually understand (equals a failure to communicate) or take a much, much longer time "re-inventing the wheel".

    I don't think that "being original" in music is so much based on WHAT you play. It is based on letting your personality and feelings come through in your music and playing. Musical expression isn't limited to "content".

    How else could certain players touch us with only one or two notes played at the right time?

    If people were as concerned about originality in speaking to each other as some are in making music, nothing would ever get communicated. People would spent all their time looking for an original way to arrange the letters and words instead of communicating ideas and emotions.
  8. Ifriff


    Feb 7, 2011
    I work outside and often hear and admire the songs and sounds made by many different birds. I wonder if they ever had any theory. Hmmm
  9. Solitarely


    May 25, 2012
    Theory is a tool. And tools are as important or unimportant as shears, bolt cutters, an adze, .etc, as you want. Take it or leave it.

    I find it most useful as a way of communicating with other musicians. Especially if you want to do something really creative and abstract. It's so much more efficient to tell someone to work the minor second for a few bars than to..what? Show them the fret, or key, or buttons to press.

    It's communication that's all it is. "What key is this in?" And bam, you know what eight notes are most appropriate and typical chord structures.

    I've seen players new to theory who dare not play a single note outside a mode of the key and blame this irrational imprisonment on theory as if it has an intention independent the user. This is dumb. You're going to entirely forgo "blue" notes because your ignorance of theory has you limiting yourself? This is why theory gets a bad rap.

    Play what you like, what's in your heart, whatever sounds good to you, but if you're going to be a professional musician that involves more than one other musician, as a show of respect, it's a wonderful courtesy, learn at least fundamental theory to efficiently communicate ideas. Everybody wants to spend more time creating and rehearsing than trying to get their unintelligible concepts understood. It's so much less frustrating.

    That is the purpose of music theory. The limits of it are just imaginary ignorance.

    The most considerate thing an aspiring musician can do is give it a gander.
  10. faulknersj

    faulknersj Inactive

    Apr 4, 2008
    Scottsdale Az
    Nice rhetoric. And they also don't play instruments. Hmmm
  11. Solitarely


    May 25, 2012
    Music theory isn't dependent on whether the musician is aware of it or not. It still exists. Check this out people actually record and transcribe birdsong.


    That's from a cardinal!

    Not knowing theory you can still do whatever you want, and even attempt to copy a bird if you'd like. But knowing theory can I quickly sight read this transcription and mimic bird song from nature near effortlessly.

    It's through music theory that people can even attempt to grasp what birdsong is.
  12. Ifriff


    Feb 7, 2011
    Yes. It is a form of communication. A language. Definitely serves a purpose. But you can be a great musician with out knowing the theory. Musicians that don't know theory actually do. They're just illiterate to it. Just cause you don't read it or know what it's called doesn't mean anything. Learning it would certainly improve anyone's musicianship. And you never stop learning and getting better
  13. dpbass66

    dpbass66 Supporting Member

    May 20, 2010
    This question and its related idea keep coming up on TalkBass. It has been for years. Funny thing is, the guys who KNOW theory, who have taken the time to understand it and incorporate it into their musicianship, are never the guys asking the question. That alone should be enough of a commentary on whether theory is important to understand.

    I have a music school degree in performance, and thus understand much theory. The jazz-fusion band I have been involved with for the last 8 years has a sax player AND a keys player who dont really read music or understand theory. I have remained with this band because they are very talented musicians and writers, and we create some great music and play some very rewarding gigs. However, I cant even begin to convey how much time is wasted because ideas cannot be either documented or communicated by any consistent means. Their lack of these skills has over the long haul impeded the progress of our band.

    Theory is just a tool for communicating and organizing ideas within a commonly understood and accepted framework. Thats all it is. I think those who havent taken the time to know it keep questioning its validity simply because they "dont know what they dont know".
  14. lfmn16

    lfmn16 Inactive

    Sep 21, 2011
    charles town, wv
    I've never noticed this. What I've noticed is that the vast majority of musicians who are self taught learn shapes and play the same thing over and over again.

    It won't belong before someone drags out Hendrix as an example and somehow tries to extrapolate that learning theory is a waste of time because one of the most gifted musicians of our time didn't know it.

    If learning inhibits your creativity then you aren't applying what you are learning correctly.
  15. bkbirge


    Jun 25, 2000
    Houston, TX
    Endorsing Artist: Steak n Shake
  16. dpbass66

    dpbass66 Supporting Member

    May 20, 2010
  17. Vintagefiend

    Vintagefiend I don't care for 410 cabinets at all.

    Aug 6, 2013
    Columbia, MO
    It sure does help.

    I don't utilize my knowledge of theory very much; as such, it has pretty much been eroding over the past decade.

    Also, it certainly didn't seem to help make me a 'better' bass player when I began playing bass. But it sure didn't hurt.

    And when it comes to writing songs, figuring out what to play during a solo, or plain old chord structure, having some sort of working knowledge of theory has certainly helped.

    So, for me, it has definitely been great for songwriting purposes.
  18. dpbass66

    dpbass66 Supporting Member

    May 20, 2010
    I think it certainly CAN help you be a better player, as it can help unravel some ideas about harmony and it can often give you a different perspective on concepts, especially if you understand theory from a piano. Then it's not so much about "bass" as it is about "music", which can really open up your thinking. However, in my experience, understanding theory provides you with tools that enhance your musicianship, make it easier for you to communicate ideas to other musicians, possibly make you a better hiring prospect for situations other than just playing in bands. The latter is true especially if you include in this discussion the ability to read music. My gigs in the next 2 months include some studio dates where they will throw some written charts in front of me (probably to include chord symbols and actual written notes), playing in the pit orchestra for a production of Singing in the Rain, subbing for a friend of mine in an 11 piece funk band where the book of charts (lead sheets with chords and written notation) is as heavy as my bass, in addition to playing with my regular groups. Without my knowledge of theory, taking all these gigs would be kinda difficult.
  19. davidhilton

    davidhilton Commercial User

    Apr 13, 2009
    Los Angeles, CA
    Its not really "theory" its actually the language. Its good to know the language so you can express and play what u hear.
  20. When you understand the theory behind what you hear, you can effectively change it without destroying it's fuction.
    You can 're-harmonize' and train your ears to hear new ideas. So it is about ear training.
    It never stops, never...