Music Theory and Jazz Theory-some random thoughts on the subjects. Music theory is much maligned and misunderstood subject these days. This probably comes from it having become in academia at least, an end in itself. Music theory and jazz theory is a tool-a method for breaking a piece into its most basic elements so that it can be better understood. Better understood for what reason? So that you can improvise on it, (as in the case of a Jazz musician) or so that it can be interpreted in a way that makes sense (in the case of a classical musician).
Too composer, it is a theology for organizing sounds into something that most people can recognize as music. Mind you, it is not the ONLY way to organize sound, nor is western music theory inherently superior to the many other methods that exist in other cultures, or that have been developed by the more avian garden musicians in this culture. It is however, the most common and in the Western Hemisphere at least, the most agreed upon, especially when one is talking about listeners.
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What do I mean by music theory? Just good old classical theory along the lines of Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, Walter Piston, etc. Etc. And the logical expansions made of this system by Jazz educators like John Meghan, David Baker and John Novella. Jazz Theory is really nothing more than Classical Theory modified slightly and added to so as to facilitate improvisation. Too many musicians shy away from Music Theory thinking that it will somehow straightjacket’s them and suppress their creativity.
A lot of this think comes from the idiotic idea that you are somehow “born” with musical ability, that it’s not a skill that you learn and work at. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the so ladled “experts” who push this viewpoint do so out of a hidden hatred for any form of art. These are the same guys who will tell you that you can’t be a good musician without becoming a drug addict first. If you want to become a good musician, the fist step to take is: a. Stop watching MAT, VHF, American Idol, and the X Factor. B.
Cancel your subscription to Spin and Rolling Stone. C. Do not ever listen to or take a critic or “music Journalist” seriously. D. Throw away all your “music production” software and learn how to produce music with nothing more than a pencil, manuscript paper and your instrument. I am Joking to some degree here, but there is some truth in this as all of the above are some of the most notorious sources of false and incorrect data for the aspiring musician. On the other extreme, the world of academia is not much better, maybe even worse.
Make sure you hook up with a teacher or school that puts it’s money where it’s mouth is and produces students that can actually play and get work. What you don’t want is a school that Just cranks out more professors who sit in ivory towers and write and play music no one can listen to, or even worse; write long, ponderous and useless tomes bout it that no one can make any sense out of or use. Music theory and Jazz theory is really nothing more than a set of devices successfully used by composers in the past.
These tend to become “rules” and overused because they work. Listeners of mathematics that validates this as well but I am no mathematician and do not need to be one to do what I do. Devices like cadences, the rules of counterpoint, intervals, act like grammar does for a writer. These are the musicians periods and commas. Play a V to I progression to someone who knows nothing about music and hey can tell you immediately that it meaner “the end”. Play that same person a deceptive cadence and they can tell you that it meaner “there is more to come”.
The various devices and cliches of traditional music theory and Jazz theory are what non musicians recognize as “music”. Stray too far away from it and depending on your audience, you will alienate people. Stick too close to it and your music will be bland and will bore people. I have had numerous students tell me they want nothing to do with music theory or Jazz theory, and then go on to tell me how they have hit a brick all creatively and Just can’t seem to get to that next step.
The cure for that is exactly what they have been so working so hard at avoiding-music theory or Jazz theory. I have pulled numerous musicians out of “slumps” (and not Just pianists and keyboard players either, I’ve done it with guitarists and singers too) by simply forcing them to study and drill some basic music theory-the kind of stuff you’d study in first year Community College course-nothing fancy at all. Go to the links below for some lessons on basic music theory and Jazz theory. These are Just a start-more to come soon.