Music Theory – Do We Need It?
We here it all the time . . .
Music Theory – As a guitar teacher I’m often asked to help students with various things ranging from playing songs, tackling different techniques and learning to improvise. One thing I’m asked for a lot is help with the divisive and baffling topic of ‘music theory’.
What is music theory exactly?
Firstly, what exactly is Music theory? Aside from a rather off-putting and generic term for an absolutely gargantuan subject. Put simply, It’s the understanding of everything that’s going on underneath the bonnet of a piece of music, a how to guide to writing music and it is also a way of quantifying what you’re experiencing when you’re listening. From experience, a lot of people bury their heads in the sand at the mere mention of such an overwhelmingly broad subject but I’m going to attempt the impossible and trim it down to the ‘need to know’ stuff for us guitarists, whilst trying to keep this hobby a hobby and not a chore.
Did you know that you can actually do grades 1-8 in just music theory alone?
Do we really need it?
As guitarists, do we actually NEED to know any of it? And if so what exactly should we give our valuable time to studying.
I doubt many of you will care much for memorising the upper and lower ranges of the bassoon. Or learning what the difference between a Viennese waltz and a polonaise is. And you’d be right, that’s unnecessary for those of us who just want to play for fun or let off some steam. However, there are many parts of theory that once we are aware of them, unlock the secrets of the great players and allows us to emulate their style. For example, Santana often uses a variation of the natural minor scale called the Dorian mode to sound the way he does and if you wanted to sound like Duane allman you might utilise the mixolydian mode… stay with me.
Are we being ignorant?
There are many musicians that openly state that they don’t believe in music theory and whilst I’m sure it’s true that Hendrix did a lot of his magic by ear or just by feeling it, we shouldn’t use that as an excuse to NOT try to learn more about what we’re doing, we’re not all blessed with a musical ear as sharp as Jimi’s was.
Here are 4 concepts to work on with your tutor. With a grounding in these 4 areas of theory you can tackle almost anything later on down the road and not feel totally bewildered.
It’s not scary, lets jump in . . .
Intervals – intervals are a way of measuring the distance from one note to another kind of like a centimetre or an inch. This might be confusing to start with but bare with it. The distance from one fret to the next is a semitone or in intervals, a minor 2nd. The next note after that is the major 2nd. The next note is a minor third, major third, perfect forth, tritone, perfect 5th, minor 6th, major 6th, minor 7th, major 7th and finally the octave where your starting note repeats only higher in pitch. Ask you tutor about intervals because Understanding this allows you to speak the language of harmony. You can’t really learn about a concept if you can’t describe it and that’s all intervals are, a way of describing one note’s relationship to another.
Scales – everyone should learn the major and minor scales as this allows you not only to improvise and compose music but also to work things out by ear. It helps to know what chords go together and more importantly which ones don’t! All western music can be boiled down to just 12 notes so it’s gotta be worth it right? All the advanced modes and odd scales you hear about like the Phrygian, locrian and the Delorian (I made the last one up) they’re all just slightly altered versions of the major and minor scale so they’re absolutely worth your time learning.
Chord Construction – Basic chords have 3 notes in them, the 1, 3 and 5. what on earth does that mean?!? Well They’re those pesky intervals again. If I take C major as an example. The C major scale is c to c without any sharps or flat notes. I’m going to number the notes 1-8.
The 1 is C
The 3is E
The 5 is G
Lets strike a chord
Play any combination of CEG and you’ll have a c chord. This works for all chords providing you know the scale they come from.
If you want to make it a minor chord you just flatten the 3rd. CEb and G = C minor
Is you want Cmaj7 just build a C major chord and add the 7th note from the scale as well CEG and now B = Cmaj7. Boom, all the chords you could ever want to know in one manageable topic. Job done.
When you know your intervals and scales you can use that knowledge to build any chord and any variation of scale. you’ll be able to look at a song in a new light and see how the chords work together and why they sound the way they do.
Time Signatures – All the above concepts relate to harmony but Music is half harmony, half rhythm. A little understanding or rhythm goes a long way. Be it just staying in time, coming in at the right place or playing a cool rhythm in a tricky time signature. It’s all really important. Strumming patterns are just rhythms really and you deal with those all the time. It’s not a huge leap to learning to read rhythms if you were so inclined. Knowing whether you’re in 3/4, 6/8 4/4 or 11/4 is essential and hearing whether the rhythm is swung or not and what that sounds like is important too. Talk to your tutor and try some riffs in different time signatures. I’ve just written a lesson on it for anyone who’s interested. See if you can work them all out.
See it’s not that hard
With a little understanding of those 4 areas… intervals, scales, chord construction and rhythm, there’s no concept of music theory that you couldn’t grasp if it interests you. If you want to sound like B.B. king you can study how he changes from major to minor scales mid solo. if you want to build beautiful chord voicings then it’s important to know how to start with a basic chord. If you want to write a song you’ll want to know which chords work together so you can pick the one you like the most. That’s what theory is for at the end of the day, to help you.
It’s a big undertaking I know but don’t shy away from it. A little knowledge goes a long way and you’re not expected to understand it all straight away. I certainly don’t understand half of it even now. It’s like rolling a snow ball. it grows with time and hard work. Talk to your tutor and maybe try and start looking at a little bit of theory. Just like a spiders web, you learn one thing one day and then later down the road you join it to another bit and before you know it you have a solid foundation allowing you to see exactly what’s going on behind the music you love. Knowledge is power.
Good luck everyone!
Rich & Henry @ MGTB