Theory vs. Feel

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by progmanjum, Sep 15, 2010.

  1. progmanjum


    Feb 17, 2009
    For all of you professionals and semi-pros, just wondering what your level of theory education is. There must be quite a few out there that don't know what a diminished 7th is or how to incorporate the Circle of Fifths (I'm hoping).
  2. JTE

    JTE Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2008
    Central Illinois, USA
    My level of theory education is pretty high, because I found it invaluable in being a better player and getting gigs. Understanding basic harmony theory is key. Why? Because the bassist's job is two fold. To tie the rhythmic aspect of the music to the harmonic/melodic aspect, AND to define the harmony. We can't define what we don't know. For example, knowing what notes are in most chords helps us to see how the chords go together and what we need to do so that the rest of the band hears the chord changes.

    On a side note... The title of the thread presents a false dichotomy. It's not theory vs. feel, it's the relative balance of the two. You gotta have BOTH.

  3. Deluge Of Sound

    Deluge Of Sound Inactive

    Nov 8, 2007
  4. NineSpine


    Jun 19, 2007
    Even a casual bassist should know those two things. That isn't exactly high level theory.

    Relying solely on theory will not get you very far. Relying solely on feel will not get you very far. Music is both a science and an art and you should come at it from both of those aspects if you want to progress in your ability.
  5. Great answers... + (insert #)
  6. JimmyM

    JimmyM Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Yamaha, Ampeg, Line 6, EMG
    ya, who says you should make a choice? my level of theory knowledge is pretty high but if i can't play with the right feel i don't get the gig. and i could have a great feel, but if i don't know what notes to play, who cares how good my feel is?
  7. Thunderthumbs73


    May 5, 2008
    As to "professionals" it is quite possible that some don't know a diminished 7th or their way around the circle of fifths. And frankly, they may not need to per their current gig, nor really have an avenue of expression in that group which allows for that, or in which that expression is appropriate. And some may know it like the back of their hand, and you'd never hear an instance in which the opportunity to express such knowledge would occur. Ditto for any non-professionals or semi-professionals or otherwise.

    And then there's the notion that some people know how to do those things intuitively and have neither the time, occasion or interest in formalizing them in the mind as theory.

    Sometimes as a listener, it's really hard to know what certain individuals prioritization of, or belief in "theory vs. feel" is. That makes it much harder for gross generalizations and putting people and beliefs in convenient boxes.

    And I like that.
  8. What's more important to a chef; Knowledge of how to prepare food or a kitchen?
  9. You probably do know what a diminished 7th is, you just don't know that that's the common name for it!

    I think ear and feel are most important, followed by formal theory. A lot of theory just serves to label, explain, and expand upon what you may already be aware of, feelwise.
  10. Deluge Of Sound

    Deluge Of Sound Inactive

    Nov 8, 2007
    C: A swarm of cooks, prep-cooks and dishwashers willing to leap at his every command.;)
  11. Spoken like a man who knows!
  12. If you APPLY theory properly, it will result in the proper feel. One thing about written music is it can be very complete and lays out all the important parts needed to make up a proper feel.

    I play a few scales on the bass, not a lot but I'm starting to be able to noodle mindlessly pretty well. It sounds good, has good feel, but I can't do it in a group setting because I'm not foillowing any of the common chord progressions. so, all the feel in the world won't teach me those progressions but theory will. Until I do that, no matter how good my feel is it's going to sound like I'm making left turns when the band turns right. it just won't work that way.

    The reason I consider myself to have good feel is because I studied rythem theory on the drumset and know how to break down beats into properly placed notes. I often hear people playing things like a swung 8th note tripplet pattern and it comes out sounding like choppy quarter notes because until you understand the value of the notes and where to place them in the context of the bar, you are going to have a hard time being consistant in your feel.

    Feel is the ability to put theory into practice. You need theory, even if you don't know the terms to describe what your doing, the shape you know is the theory you are applying. without theory, there is no good feel.

    Keep in mind all bass players know at least some theory. If anyone ever said "This is A" or "Here's the scale pattern to play this song", if you even took a second to learn the names of the open strings, then you indirectly started working on theory.

    And that would be why you can get any feel at all.

    That said, it has been thourghly demonstrated time and time again that those with only very little music theory are still able to make huge contributions to the music scene.

  13. I've found that those who question the value of theory tend to be self-taught and mostly guitar/bass players who don't read music or have never played in an ensemble where reading is fundamental.

    As eSmith points out - being a musician frequently means showing up, being handed sheet music (complete with dynamic markings and other 'feel' indicators) and being able to deliver the part as written.

    Feel is a given. If you understand dynamics and how to properly interpret rhythm (ie. in jazz, 1/8th are 'swung' - in classical they're 'straight', etc...) - then it's assumed you are going to apply the correct feel. It's written, you will play it.

    But if you are talking to the typical garage band jammer, suddenly the 'music world' has this split - 'theory' vs. 'feel' - as if to say, "Do I really need theory if I play really cool?"

    The short answer is no - you don't need one iota of formal theory knowledge if all you want to do is jam with your buddies in the garage. But if you want to put yourself out there as a real player - a real musician, yes, you need to understand theory and be able to properly play whatever you are handed to play.

    Do you need to be a theory freak? Not necessarily. Most music - even the most complicated music only leverages the most essential components of theory (a jazz fusion song that books along at 220bpm and has complicated rhythmic passages is not using complicated theory - it's just hard to play!) - but having the basic essential skills to read and understand the most basic essential aspects of theory is indeed a huge plus for someone who wants to be more than just a player who can play only their instrument in only in a very limited scope of musical style.
  14. progmanjum


    Feb 17, 2009
    Yeah, I wasn't too happy about the title, was pushed for time.

    Thanks for all the posts and input. I'll be spending more time at
  15. brimfire


    Mar 31, 2009
    "Hey dude, what've you been up to?"
    "My dear man, you should never end a sentence with a preposition."
  16. BassyBill

    BassyBill Still here Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2005
    West Midlands UK
    +1 to needing both. They're just different aspects of being competent.

    The full version:

    "Hey dude, what've you been up to?"
    "My dear man, you should never end a sentence with a preposition."
    "I'm sorry. What've you been up to, ****head?"

  17. NineSpine


    Jun 19, 2007
    I'm sorry but I just have to comment on this.

    Theory doesn't give you feel automatically. Theory can help fuel feel, but the notion that applying theory will simply GIVE you feel is nonsense. If you are a classical pianist, and you pick up a bass, you may know tons of theory but your feel is going to suck until you get used to playing the instrument. If you don't fret notes properly, your feel is going to suffer but your theory knowledge is not. If you don't practice with a metronome and have terrible rhythm, your feel will be awful no matter how many scales you know.

    Feel is largely a function of developing your muscle memory, hand-eye coordination, and ear. Theory is knowledge. These things feed into each other and working with both of them will help you grow, but the idea that applying theory magically delivers feel just doesn't make any sense.
  18. Beck McCartney

    Beck McCartney

    Apr 21, 2009
    Seattle, TN
    Endorsing Artist: Aguilar Amps, Lakland Basses
    My level of theory knowledge is pretty minimal. Most of the theory I know is from elementary school band, and high school choir. My approach to learning bass, was by listening to a lot of music. Not just bass, but music in general. My theory is built in. When I head into the studio to play on a demo, I hear the bass lines in my head first, without playing. Then I find the notes on the neck. I my not know what mode I'm playing in, but I know that it sounds good. To me, feel is a completely different animal, and comes from a more primal place. You either have it or you don't. You can be a great MUSICIAN with minimal theory knowledge and a lot of natural feel, but you will only ever be a great PLAYER if have minimal natural feel but know all the theory in the world. Take Justin Meldal Johnsen. He says all the time that there are tons of people who can play circles around him, and that he doesn't know a lot of theory, and yet he is one of the most diverse bass players working today because of his feel.
  19. brammerd


    Aug 9, 2009
    Good feel is above knowledge of music, not below it
  20. Billnc


    Aug 6, 2009
    Charlotte NC
    Wrong notes with good feel are wrong notes.

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