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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

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May 15, 2008 | I hate music theory (Part 1)

"I asked a guy what time it is, and the jerk spent five minutes telling me how to build a watch."

There's a small but often vocal contingency of musicians that loathe the intellectual side of music, the cerebrally intense analytical approach to understanding the "guts" of music. Often it's out of a personal insecurity; a bad experience with the jazz cats who banter terms about like "Tritone Subs," "TwoFiveOnes," or "Rhythm Changes" often at the risk of intimidating the newbie, especially when it's delivered like some sort of private security code or fraternity handshake.

There's no reason to experience intimidation in these environments. While we grant many unschooled musicians have created great music without an advance degree in the terminology and jazz verbiage, the greats still comprehend if nothing else, subliminally what makes a chord or tone resolve to the next, what linear choices of "right" notes goes appropriately with the vertical. What we are talking about in learning music theory is not an initiation process, it's simply shortcuts. It's learning both simple nuggets and broad concepts that exponentially increase musical vocabulary around 12 simple Western tones.

The process of grasping music theory can be described as three dimensional upward spiral. For the Folk/Bluegrass musician, it can go something like this:

My song has three chords I play (Aural/Physical), G, C, and D7. I enjoy these immensely but want to learn more songs, and note a similarity even though the chords are different. A, D, E7. I understand chords are based on notes of the scale (Theory). It's explained these are 4, 5 and 1 or written in Roman Numerals, IV, V7, and I.

Spiral up...

I notice in Pop and Jazz music a G, Am7, and D7 have a similar sort of system of "direction" (Aural/Physical). The G is like "home," the D7 pulls home, and the Am7 sets up the D7 quite often. Someone points out the similarity of the Am7 and C chord (same notes almost). Pointing out the (Roman) numbers of the chords these are based on, we get ii7 for Am7, or ii7 because someone says minor chords commonly use small case letters, so instead of IV, V7 I, we get ii7, V7, I. (Theory) Now the obscure TwoFiveOne reference by the Jazz Eggheads nags at my subconscious, and starts to make sense.

Spiral up...

I notice there are 12 keys. When I use numbers in a song with A, D, E7, or A, Bm7, E7, (Aural/Physical), I notice even though the chords are different, they still interact in the same way. My trumpet playing friend has me play in one of those weird flat keys, lots of Eb, Fm7, Bb7, and my brain registers this (Theory) as I, ii7, V7 chords, and for some reason, I'm able to pick these up, without even having to read the chords on the page. My ear tells me where the I (home) chord Eb is, and where the other two Fm7 and Bb7, because I'm listening to their function in context, rather than chords.

Spiral up...

I'm playing a Jazz tune, Satin Doll, and I notice in the 3rd measure the second chord is outside the key of C. I've been working on Dm7 G7 fingerings (Aural/Physical), as well as Em7 A7, and it dawns on me that there is a similar relationship (ii7 V7) in these two chords, but observe these are from the key of D (even though there are no sharps and flats in the key signature). I listen to other songs that leave the main key, but only temporarily. It's like a key within a key, a "tonal center" if you will, and some of these jazz standards that seemed very complex, when broken down in this way, are now opened up for much deeper understanding. (Theory)

Spiral up...

I'm getting a better understanding of what works in these uncovered tonal centers, and I'm able to play with many other great musicians in keys I never dreamed possible. I've learned what groups of notes work best within these centers, but because I've driven modes and scales (Aural/Physical) into my fingers in my regular practicing, it seems the fingers are generating my improvisation rather than my brain.

Aural/Physical or Theory?

I hate music theory...

Posted by Ted at May 15, 2008 11:55 AM

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