Friday, May 23, 2003
Music Theory

On Fridays at Sparky's we have performances, which usually involve a guitar player whose name I can't currently recall because I'm terrible with names and always have been. Anyway, the first Friday I was working there she played a song that I was able to figure out just by watching. I went home and was able to play it myself right away. I was so proud of myself that the next time she was there (I was there with some friends on my day off-- we'd been kicked out of the Red Room, but that's another story) I asked her to play it.

And because I didn't know the name I had to describe it by the chords.

"The one where you play the C, F and G shapes up at the eighth fret... no, not barred, just open. You start with the Fmaj7 shape, then you put your pinkie down, then you switch to the C shape..." Finally I had to show her, which was very clumsy because she's right handed and I can't finger chords with my left hand to save my life. But we figured it out.

After I sat back down, another guy who apparently played guitar started gently and smilingly chiding me for all my Fmaj7 talk. "There are the people who just know how to hear music, and there are the people who know all the theory..."

I've never had the ear to tell the difference between a M6 interval and a m6 one, at least not without stopping everything and humming the NBC jingle followed by Greensleeves, so I've had to fall into the latter category. One of the things that's always interested me about music theory is how many different approaches there are to it. I really enjoy starting over at the first principles of something I supposedly already know and seeing all the different ways of presenting it, all the angles I'd never noticed before.

My first exposure was in a general grade school music class, populated by everyone from piano prodigies to the tone deaf. The teacher tried valiantly not to bore the former without completely befuddling the latter, and managed to give us the basics of learning intervals, key signatures, the circle of fifths, relative minors and the like.

My next exposure was in jr. high band. As such, it was much more practical. Playing trombone required that I know whole notes from half and quarter notes, that I could recognize key and time signatures... basically that I could follow musical notation like a computer executing a program. Then and only then we would look at maybe getting some feeling or emotion into the notes. Trombone can play only one note at a time, so forget all that complicated harmony stuff.

Next was high school "Musicianship" class, wherein we did a bit of ear training (though not enough to do me much good), transcription, voice leading, and some introductory composition.

Most recently I've started playing guitar. The approach to music theory for guitar players is mainly chord theory for reasons that should be obvious. Chords are endlessly fascinating to me. I suspect that a big part of the reason I'm not a better guitar player after five years has a lot to do with my rush to try and learn as many chord shapes and variations as possible without stopping to practice changing between them or learning how they can work together.

Anyway, the most recent -- and to me, most interesting so far -- approach to music theory that I've stumbled upon is the esoteric approach. Pythagoras wasn't a mathematician, music theorist and mystic out of sheer dilletantism, you see, but because he saw an intrinsic link between the three subjects.

Music is organized sound, you see. And sound is vibration. In Pythagoras' mystic view of reality, all things are in vibration. Much of modern physics bears this view out-- down on the quantum level we are all possibility waves. So music, properly seen, is a model for all things. Mathematics can describe the world, and music, with its vibrational ratios, is math made physical.

Ok... This was all supposed to be introductory, and I had no idea I'd ramble on so much. I'll have to go further into these ideas in a later entry, I suppose. Anybody wanting a sneak preview should go to the same place I first learned about all this-- the website of Richard Lloyd, one of the two original guitar players for the legendary New York punk band Television.
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