Music Theory? Why Should I Care?
10th Year Anniversary Edition:
I’m revisiting some of my best old posts on playing guitar. Enjoy!
I was never much of a music theory whiz.
Music theory was required for music majors—lots of music theory—and it always felt like I was cramming a toolkit into my brain that my brain didn’t quite see the need for—-the tools were for fixing airplane engines and when all I was planning to do was hang out and glide through a few tunes. I could get through the music just fine just by feel. Why learn the inner workings of an airplane engine?
Eventually, I discovered that I could can only get so far by feeling things out.
Ultimately, music theory is worth the trouble. The trick is to connect music theory to your ability to feel things out musically.
I still mumble and stumble a bit with music theory terminology, but that’s because my inclination has always been towards the feeling side of things. I think in the language of feelings, not jargon. I always ask myself, in a very visceral sense, what does this bit of theory mean, in terms of how the music sounds, in terms of how it feels?
So why should you care about music theory? What does it do for you? And what does it not do for you?
Here’s the key:
Music theory provides you with a map of what is going on.
It’s not what is actually going on.
Similarly, Google Maps tells you where the nearest Starbucks is, but it’s not to be confused with actually sitting in a Starbucks, enjoying the community of “those getting jacked up on heavy-duty caffeine.”
In other words, music theory helps you navigate the territory but it’s not the territory.
What this means, if you’re willing to give it a bit of time and effort, is that music theory gives you options.
It keeps you from always traveling the same pathways. It shows you where all paths are—those less travelled by, as well as those worn deeply into the psyche—and it shows how they all connect to each other and how it might be nice to try this one for a change.
In this video I make my first attempt to make music theory relevant to a guitar player. If you watch it to the end, you’ll hear me play a piece while the screen follows the score and little colored arrows jump around. That alone should make it worth your time.
Let me know if this video helps you, and if it brings up any questions for you, by commenting in the comment box below.
Thanks for the email.
It is interesting to note your teaching process. The piece is written in D minor scale as the seventh note is sharpened .In all diatonic scales, the seventh note is a leading note. In this piece, it becomes a melodic minor scale. How would you differentiate from melodic minor and harmonic minor? I know in harmonic minor, the seventh note is sharpened But, in melodic minor, ascending sixth and seventh notes of the scale are sharpened and in the descending order becomes natural. Here, in this piece b and c are to be sharpened in the ascending order and natural in descending order. But it does not happened always. Why?
Give me more tips on memorisation. I have seen your video on memorisation.
Thanks for your great questions:)
Here’s how I break it down for myself:
The choice of accidentals (sharpened, natural, or flat notes) always depends on the musical context. It’s very rare to find pieces that stay entirely in one scale. In my demo, I did change all the minor scales into harmonic minor scales, but I just did that in order to emphasize the concept of leading tone. So, when you see a C sharp, it’s creating stronger pull towards D. But there’s not actually enough information in this piece to create a feeling of harmonic minor…there are no flat sixth notes leading up through sharp seventh notes ending on the tonic. If there were, the piece would have a very different flavor:) Whenever B flat is raised to B natural in this piece, it’s because it’s adjusting to a different tonal center, such as A minor or C major.
One way to experiment with why the composer chose to do this is to try raising or lowering the note when you play through it, and usually it will be obvious…it doesn’t feel right!
As for memorization, studying music theory is always a huge help with memorization! It’s moving you closer to understanding the language in which the piece is writtten, and it’s much easier to memorize things in a language you understand.
Thanks for the the time spent on the analysis of the piece by Santiago de Murcia. Very well explained. You have explained the leading tones in terms of various scales at different places where it is relevant. What you are saying ,it is not important to know whether it is a melodic minor or harmonic. It all depends how the composer wants the music to be. The sense of music. In this piece , it is evident that the music is written in D harmonic minor as the the seventh note C is sharpened. The presence of G# which is the leading tone for the A minor scale at couple of places confirms its harmonic minor scale. I find it is a mixture of A harmonic minor and D harmonic minor scales where G# and C#are the dissonance for the respective minor scales
Yes, the understanding of the musical language helps in memorisation. It is a slow process.
Thanks for the information.