One reason music theory is so valuable is that it offers us a shared language. It gives us names for the notes we play and their relationships with one another.
Although music is a language in its own right, having names which represent these arrangements of notes and rhythms makes the communication and notation of ideas faster and clearer.
In this clip well worth watching, the great musician and educator Victor Wooten beautifully conveys his perspective on ‘music as a language’ (and other deep insights):
I learned theory comparatively late compared to a lot of my peers. I came to University with only a rudimentary understanding of some of the more familiar scales, underdeveloped ears, and was unable to read a note on any clef. How I got in I don’t know, but one of the most daunting barriers to making this stuff ‘click’ was understanding the world of music jargon and terminology. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by ‘root’, ‘tonic’, ‘mode’, ‘scale’, ‘minor 3rd’, ‘major 3rd’, ‘5th’, ‘V’, ‘Bb’, ‘A#’ etc etc. Often there are multiple names for the same thing. Like any language, you probably already have some understanding of what the thing is (in this case an aural familiarity), you just may not have heard it called by that name or given that label.
As a guitar player, I sidestepped theory for longer than I could have on other instruments such as keys. Typically, pianists learn to read as part of their early education, and identifying the notes is a little more straightforward visually. With these cornerstones, much of the subsequent theory falls in after this. However, in the modern world of the producer, it is very likely many using keys are finding themselves in a similar place to myself as a younger guitarist.
To some degree, building your own understanding of theory has a lot to do with decoding its jargon. My own process is not so far in the past that I can’t recall how frustrating it can be, and how easy it is to think ‘what’s the point?’. It takes time, but it is now without a doubt one of the skills in my proverbial toolbox which makes a career as a musician possible, and from that toolbox, one of the most commonly drawn upon.
Over the next few weeks, we will introduce theory in digestible portions to coincide with the practical elements of Melodics lessons. Like any kind of practice, it takes repetition, and as such I will end up covering the same ground multiple times.
The first things we’ll look at are:
- What notes are we playing?
- What chords are we playing?
- What key do they belong to, and what is their position in this context?
Abraham Kunin is a producer, songwriter, session guitarist, and recording engineer. He has toured internationally with a wide spectrum of bands, theatrical productions, and festival stages. abrahamkunin.com