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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."

« I hate music theory (Part 1) | Main | GRIP #1 »

May 22, 2008 | I hate music theory (Part 2)

Great artist don't create, they steal. It could be similarly stated about teachers, so we are going to "borrow" some ideas from one of Jazzmandodom's greatest mentors, Don Stiernberg. His "Music Theory According to The Don" synopsis reads like a Carl Sagan essay on astronomy and physics, complex issues reduced to common sense for the common man. In this case, common mandolinist.


I believe the following and I hope any of it is helpful. With a strong ear and quickness at figuring out songs and various fretboards, you'll come to a point soon where knowledge of scales, chords, and progressions will interest you more, and you'll seek out a stronger theoretical foundation, and you'll get it! Nothing to be intimidated by, afraid of, etc---people do this at all stages of life, on every instrument, etc. I've had many students in this category and I tell them "Let's learn the names for what you already know"

So here we go:

12 tones in music, at least the kind we mostly do here in the States. If you start on any tone and play all of them in half steps, that's a chromatic scale.

A major scale has 8 tones, in a specific order. Start on any note. Then play a whole step(two frets), another whole step, half, whole, whole whole, half....major scale.

Harmonizing that major scale is the basis for numbering chord progressions. This was done in classical and jazz music long before the Nashville numbering system. The main difference between the Nashville system and others is Nashville uses Anglican numbers like 1, 2, and 5. The jazz cats use Roman: I, ii, and V. The classical people say tonic, subdominant, and dominant. They're all playing the same progression, one you no doubt play in all keys and feel comfortable with. G-C-D, or Bb-Eb-F, or E-A-B....

There are only four types or families of chords in all of music. Major, minor, diminished, and augmented. Some think of seventh chords (aka 'dominant' chords) as another family, but they are a form of major so they are often considered part of the major family.

American pop or roots music can be seen as certain progressions that occur time and time again:

I, IV, V---The Blues!Also the core of bluegrass, country, folk, and rock repertoire. Example: A, D, E. Nine Pound Hammer, Banks of the Ohio, Sweet Home Chicago

I-ii-V---same as above progression, different'middle chord'. Used in Broadway, Jazz, and pop tunes. Gershwin, Ellington, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder

I-vi---Root and relative minor, two chords with the same tones. Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Blackberry Blossom

I-vi-ii-V....You Send Me, Blue Moon, tons of other doo-wop and standard pop tunes.

I, IV, V, with bVII....Love Come Home, Angel From Montgomery, Live and Let Live, Tangled Up in Blue

Circle of fifths: G7, C7, F7, Bb or E7, A7, D7, G
Salty Dog, Don't Let the Deal Go Down, I Got Rhythm, Alabama Jubilee, Sweet Georgia Brown...

In addition to helping you get inside a song a little further and providing more options for how to create musical statements OF YOUR OWN from a tune's harmonic structure, being conversational in theory allows easier communication with your fellow musicians. It's easier to figure out how to proceed if you're all using similar maps and terms. Definitely easier to pinpoint the trouble spots to work on if all the cats in the band know what key they're in, where the first ending is, where the bridge is, etc..."hearing" chord progressions makes all of that speedier.

Reading TAB is not theory, it's an instrument-specific notation system used to speed along memorization of tunes and fingerings. You might get theory knowledge from it if you allow it to help you remember the form of a tune--its melody, where the repeats are, rhythms, etc. Theory generally refers to scales, chords, and how chords typically move or change from one to the other, as in"What notes sound good with this chord?"

The mandolin, by virtue of its beautiful and symmetrical layout (tuned in fifths like the fiddle) is a great instrument to recognize fundamentals of music theory on. Yeah. The best.

You may not be the first to wonder about whether theory is over-rated. The debate has raged on for years in music trade magazines, etc. Usually there are two camps, one saying "Look at that guy, all notes and school and chops and NO FEEL or Heart!" then the other camp that says "The guys who accuse other players of being too technical or educated are usually the ones who can't play".Well, both of these stances are too extreme, aren't they? Wes Montgomery, Errol Garner, Vassar Clements were all marketed as geniuses who "couldn't read music," which implied they knew little or nothing. In actuality--they knew EVERYTHING! Listening to their music one hears the deepest theoretical situations coupled with huge doses of emotion, heart, and soul...

A librarian/clarinettist friend likes to say, "It's always good to know more." My own brother once asked "What school did George Benson go to?"

Alright cats, your fellow untrained self-taught aspiring musician old Donnie is gonna sign off now and go back to the arched fretboard in search of the good notes. Whatever gets you there is fine, but I can assure you that knowing a few of the numbers and patterns has allowed me to interact with some nice musicians and scratch my way through some interesting gigs. All the best and don't forget to check out similar threads regarding improv, modes, scales etc. Good luck and as Maestro Van Burns used to say...

"No matter where you go, there you are."

Artist Website: Don Stiernberg

Posted by Ted at May 22, 2008 12:04 PM

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