Greg's Music Theory Page

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This material will attempt to cover the basics of music theory as well as some of my unique personal insight into the subject. This site will not cover reading music. Reading music is important, (especially if one wants to play other people's music, but can't decipher the composition) but I will refrain from covering it since it is already a widely covered subject and I'm sure there are plenty of resources available.

This material is divided up into sections which can be studied, independently of the other sections.


The order inherent within music

Music, within the heart of man, is unique in that it is naturally ordered. Music theory is simply that intrinsic order stated in a series of "guidelines".

Music theory should not be taught, or thought of as a list of unbreakable "laws", but rather as a list of "patterns". These "patterns" are best learned and then deviated from (at the individual musician's discretion) in order to prevent the music from becoming monotonous. Music which strictly follows music theory, can sound very stale and predictable. The other extreme is dangerous also. Deliberately violating all the "guidelines" or "patterns" of music theory (which would be difficult to do unless one first understood them) can sound chaotic. This chaos is not always "bad". Sometimes the "mood" of the music may call for some "chaos", but in most listener's opinions, this method should be used sparingly.

Ultimately, the musician is not discarding the patterns inherent with music, but rather substituting specific patterns for a "broader pattern". For instance, after learning that a key , is a group of notes in which a song or progression is derived from, a musician can "rebel" by choosing to play notes that do not conform to any one key. This alleged "musical rebellion" takes on the appearance of an "oasis within a dessert", because it is seen to really be the musician deriving his/her music from the chromatic scale, therefore the music conforms to a "broader pattern", granted a less obvious one to the untrained ear. But ultimately, the music should be composed at the discretion of the musician/composer to achieve his/her desired purposes.

Destroying the "mythological criticisms" railed against music theory.

Many musicians mistakenly attribute knowledge of music theory to be an impediment to musical creativity. This stigma exists, because many musicians who have a high degree of technical knowledge about this subject, play music which many people view as "emotionless, lifeless", etc. But this is clearly not an inherent quality. I suspect that the reason this stereotype exists, is because it is tempting for the musician who knows music theory, to exercise all of his/her acquired technical skill in an effort to be "challenged" or "creative". Or perhaps, it is because this musician prefers technical music. A third option is that the person who is naturally predisposed to music theory tends to be more analytically minded. This can come out in the musician's music, dominating the "emotion" side. The good musician is able to evaluate his predispositions and his limitations in order to find areas for improvement. Once acquired, music theory is something that one needs to learn how to apply. There is no objective, "one size fits all" teaching on this. This will depend upon the subjectivity of the musician. Also keep in mind, what one listener calls "emotionless", another will call "awe-inspiring". And thank God for variety and diversity! What a boring world we'd live in without them! Knowing music theory will help any musician, regardless of the musician's skill level or musical aspirations.

Many musicians obviate the need for music theory with an attitude that goes like, "I play what I hear in my head. I play what sounds good. I don't need music theory." But what this musician misses, is that what "sounds good" usually conforms to the patterns, or "guidelines" set forth in music theory. This pattern is so natural that even the unknowledgeable musician will follow it unknowingly. Such a musician can expedite the learning process by taking advantage of music theory. I have observed many musician friends, who had as much talent as I have, who were uninterested in music theory. One friend in particular, was a better guitarist than I was when I first met him, but because I knew and applied music theory, I ended catching up to him and later playing better than him. This is because my friend improved on the guitar by playing what sounded good to him. Over time, he'd eventually recognize patterns and learn to incorporate them into his playing. I on the other hand, instead of stumbling upon patterns or "guidlines", acquired them through music theory. This is a much faster method. I covered more ground in less time.

Unlocking the "fountains of creativity"

I personally believe that the best musician is he/she which has the "broadest boundaries". In other words, the less limited a musician is, the better he will be. Therefore, music theory is another tool which takes away some limitations. I also believe that the best musician is the one who applies creativity to technical knowledge (music theory). It is here that the musician unlocks originality and creativity.

Compositionally, music theory can also be a "well of ideas" to be drawn from when the "well of inspiration" has dried up. Many musicians will say, "I play by ear. I can play what's in my head so I don't need music theory." But what a person hears in their head is influenced by mood/emotion and influences. And what does the musician do when this type of inspiration is gone or waning? What if the musician is emotionally exhausted? Why limit your creativity to either your mood or what you hear in your head? The knowledgeable musician can draw from his technical knowledge. There is a potential advantage of this method because the results may yield material that the musician would not have come up with, if left only to "hearing it in his head". I can't tell you how many times that I've been inspired with a great melody, chord progression or riff but couldn't think of how to complete the song idea. This is when I might say, "I wonder how this riff would sound if I were to put it in 7/8 or if I were to put a C 9 chord in it and thus play a C mixolydian over the top of this chord progression." The results can be exciting because using this method, the musician can play an idea that he has not even heard in his head and thus, his hands can surprise his ears! And keep in mind, I can also play by ear so I don't use this technique out of necessity. I am also not diminishing the importance of playing by ear what comes from the heart. I'm just suggesting some balance.

Music theory gives the musician a resource of material to practice. It has been said that "practice makes perfect" (actually, practice makes permanent) but practice is useless if one doesn't know what to practice. Practice, in part, involves playing that which the musician can't do or needs to improve upon. But how does the aspiring musician practice that which he/she can't play? Music theory provides the means to do this.

Finally, a musician who thoroughly understands music theory, will have his eyes opened to patterns within music that cannot be seen by the person ignorant of it. It will literally open the eyes of the musician to a world previously unseen, or unheard.

Before proceeding to the next section, I found a web site that gives some great insights into music theory. Click here to open the site in a new browser window.

If you're ready, and you've read this far, thank you for your patience.......let's begin!