When thinking too much hinders your playing

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by Kevjmyers, Dec 11, 2004.

  1. Kevjmyers


    Dec 10, 2004
    Boulder. CO
    This is the boat I'm in now. With three years of theory and analysis under my belt I feel a little data overloaded. Almost to the point when I strap my instrument on I go blank (especially on stage but in practice too). Granted theory and analysis is more of a hobby to me anyway but at the same time there's just too much to know.

    When is the practical shutting down period? Should I just be happy with the laws behind major and minor? Intervals? Time signatures? Circle of fifths/fourths? The notes in every key sig?

    The classic 'the more I know the less I understand'...all this time I feel I've let my ear down by not devoting enough time to pitch training. Anybody else ever been overinundated with theory to the point of it being detrimental your playing?
  2. FenderHotRod


    Sep 1, 2004
    Been there and Heading back to it as well. As long as you keep at it one day it will just click. If you don't keep it up you forget a lot like I have. I have to stop and think about it when I use to be able to just do it.

    and lol it does seem like the more theory you learn the more you dont know and it gets really frustrating. All the freaken rules and then exceptions to the rules. (kind of like spelling)

    Just Keep at it.
  3. Richard Lindsey

    Richard Lindsey

    Mar 25, 2000
    Metro NYC
    No, actually, I don't believe that ever happens in reality. If you think it is, then I respectfully suggest that you may be misunderstanding the problem. I'm not trying to be harsh, but knowledge will never hurt your playing. Misunderstanding it or misapplying it can, I suppose, and failure to develop all aspects of your "game" can too, but theory is not the problem. Too often, I see people get the idea that you have to either focus on theory or train your ear, as if they were mutually exclusive alternatives, but the truth is, they're not. To get better, you'd be advised, if you don't mind my saying so, to do both, and whatever else will help your playing. There's no reason you can't do this. If you want to be a top basketball player, you don't choose between, say, fitness and shooting; you try to be as good as you can at both (as well as passing, rebounding, moving without the ball ... you get the idea), and you work on the areas that need more help when you realize you have an imbalance.

    The best musicians I've encountered tend to both know theory well and have killer ears.
  4. _Unregistered_


    Nov 3, 2004
    I play entirely by ear. I've never had to learn, let alone "forget" theory...but in my time as a musician, I have been witness to several others having similar issues to yours.

    I'm going to make a blanket statement (let the flaming begin), but my experience is that often people who go to Berkley end up sounding a certain way, and it often takes a number of years for Berkley to "wear off", and their playing to become more individualistic once again. John Mayer left after two years because he says he felt this coming on. I think he speculates that he "caught it just in time" (LOL).

    This is probably the case with most schooling. You tend to intellectualize things too much at first, and it takes having the conscious thought process finally take a back seat to the creative process once more for things to finally become more "human" again.

    ...but then again, what the hell do I know? I play by ear. These are only observations of mine...
  5. msquared


    Sep 19, 2004
    Kansas City
    I had this problem in college. Learning so much theory and technique and doing so much critical analysis made it hard to create or even appreciate music in its simpler forms. After a year of being a music major I couldn't listen to anything less complex than Rush without getting annoyed. My sister was really into Nirvana (and rightfully so) so this was a big issue around the house.

    I had to get away from the theory for a couple monts, but thankfully it wore off.

    It was never a problem of technical ability eclipsing creative ability though. It was a problem of letting my "creative muscles" atrophy while I built up my theory. You can liken it to a long distance runner who decides to spend a year doing nothing but bench pressing. After that year he is going to have some difficulty doing a ten mile run, and that runner is going to feel let down by that. That doesn't mean he can't ever do it again, it just means that he needs to put a little work into it to get back to the point he was at. Does he need to work as hard to get back up to ten miles as he did initially? Of course not.

    And when he's done, he'll be able to run ten miles and then punch someone in the nose REALLY HARD.

    Not learning theory is alright, if it "works" for you. But it's so boring. It's like getting married and never learning how to give a good back massage. You're just missing out.
  6. I use to have the same mindsetting once but I've found that you not only have to have a balance between Theory and ear but to emerge the two together so they become one this will eliminate the thinking part so you will play what you simply hear instead of thinking am I in key or is this the correct chord tone etc..

    For example in theory you learn the chord tones of a dominant chord ( C7 ) so not only learn the notes but hear them as well to the stage where you can simply know the sound of the chord this is the key to it

    So do learn your theory but incorporate your ear towards the theory that you know would be the next step once this is achieved then your on the road to fine musicianship
  7. I don't think theory and whatnot are as much the problem as is the intellectualizing that happens because of it. You have to internalize the theory so that you don't have to think about it, my mind is usually blank when I play except for maybe listening to the other players or something. The way I think I do this is by experimenting with whatever theory I know immediately after I learn it and think of it in terms of the way it sounds rather than anything else. Thoery is a tool to make it easier for the music to sound good using proven methods, but if you're thinking more about theory more than what sounds good that's a bad thing. Again, experiment with it when practicing, try out chord progressions or counterpoint lines with another instrument (or yourself). Once you get used to the sound of something than you have internalized it and don't need to think of II-V-I progressions to play them.
  8. Whafrodamus


    Oct 29, 2003
    Andover, MA
    When I turn my amp on, I turn my brain off. Just play. When I'm playing with one of my jazz groups, I just have fun. I'm not thinking about what key it's in. I just don't think. Speak in a language of smiles, laughs, and nods.
  9. jeff schmidt

    jeff schmidt no longer red carded, but my butt is still sore.

    Aug 27, 2004
    Novato, CA
    The more you learn - the more you learn how much more there is you COULD learn!

    Notice the word COULD. Not HAVE to learn. Don't get overwhelmed by everything there is to "BE LEARNED". You can only learn and apply 1 thing at a time. It sounds like you may have gotten ahead of yourself with the theory by exposing yourself to the ideas but not fully internalizing them on your instrument.

    Music theory is hierarchical. It's built on several foundational concepts and ideas. You have to learn and internalize the initial ideas before the all the endless alterations of those ideas that make up the advanced theory concepts will begin to make sense. If you just plowed thru the ideas like learning multiplication tables without internalizing and applying the ideas on your instrument - you'll be "educated" but empty. Full of concepts - but little ability to apply them. This could lead to the "blank" you wrote about.

    If the theory you know was a working theory - rather than a conceptual theory I doubt there would be a blank when you pick up your bass. For example - the difference is between "knowing" that B Phrygian is the third mode of G maj and is played as B,C,D,E,F#,G,A,B - and knowing how to play those same notes across the entire fretboard as basslines - rather than a root to octave scale played in 1 spot on the neck. Theory is the vocabulary of music. Learn the words so that you may speak more poetically.

  10. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Music theory is really nothing more than applying labels to sounds that have already happened. Without a thorough understanding of the sound in question, the label is meaningless. Learn the sound first, and then learn the label if you find it useful. Knowing how to build a bVI chord on the bandstand isn't worth much if you aren't hearing it.

    In short, music theory should never slow you down. If it is, it means you are probably thinking of what it is in a counterproductive way, which is understandable given the silly ways that it's often taught. Just remember: sound first, label second.
  11. Eli M.

    Eli M. Life's like a movie, write your own ending

    Jul 24, 2004
    New York, NY
    I agree. In my case, I was a primarily self-taught musician for many years until my senior year in high school. I knew the basics about theory and I could read music very well, but I didn't know it all.
    So by the time I got to my senior Theory class (and now that I'm in college studying music), I knew how music should sound, regardless of what anything was called, or what the "rules" were. So now that I'm learning theory more than I had before, I know when the "rules" are wrong. For example, the taboo against parallel fifths has little application in real music (even in choral music). Also, certain voice leading rules, if followed rigidly, will end up making you end a progression on an incomplete triad (no 5th). This almost always sounds wrong to me, so I know that this is a rule that I have to ignore.
    So I guess it's just a matter of knowing enough about how music sounds to be able to understand how theory can help - or hinder - the music. I don't think theory can ever be detrimental to your playing, unless you start to over-apply it (like in my example where following a rule makes the music sound odd).
  12. Kevjmyers


    Dec 10, 2004
    Boulder. CO
    Essentially the musicians that I meet who dismiss theory as a vital tool seem to be the ones who never bothered to try to grasp it, even to the point of being meaningless. So their instinctive response is to shun it and ignore it. There seems to be no middle ground. Either they're theory people or they say its completely irrelevant to the working bassist. When I have a chance to "talk shop" with other theory-influenced musicians, the jam session always seems to sound right as opposed to the ever predictable...

    "Wait a minute what key are you in?"
    "Umm..I don't know. Look its this note right here I'm playing now." While he tries to show me a note from 20 feet away.

    My ear is progressing daily. I try to spend a week on each of the 12 notes and then start over. But how does a guy spend 20 years playing a guitar and not be able to tell you which notes are which on the neck or what a key signature is? :rollno:

    Jargon, like in any other profession, separates the men from the boys. Actually so does sightreading, which if ear and theory plummet, can save you. The wizadry of mastering all three aspects is what I hope to someday attain.
  13. KPJ

    KPJ Supporting Member

    Oct 2, 2001
    Methuen, MA USA
  14. I completetely agree. Labels can be very useful, but only if you understand their meaning.
  15. I'm a music student in university as well, and I've been told that we're basing a lot of our rules about voice-leading on Bach's choral stuff. The thing is, when you look at Bach chorales, they're full of parallel 5ths and crossed voices and all those terrible things that they warn us against - so who's right? I like to think Bach is right, and I love the sound of parallel 5ths anyways, so when I write on my own I deliberately subvert those rules and it ends up sounding very nice.