Zen Mountain

A mountain of music theory

There is a never-ending discussion about whether music theory might interfere with the natural art of making music. It tends to go like this:
The Guitar Grimoire's overtly evil-looking cover.
This circle summoned more demons than all the sigils of Hell.

Self-taught-guitarist: I have played the blues for decades. I don’t need to understand theory; don’t need to learn to read music. I’m afraid theory would get in the way of my art and make me sound too mechanical.

Academic guitar instructor: No, no, no. You must learn to read music. Only when you can turn black dots on a page into beautiful classical music will you be a truly complete musician.

Jazz guitarist: Theory is the groundwork for everything, but once you’re in the moment, you forget all that s***. You internalise the theory, but when the band is playing, you follow and sometimes you lead.

Metal guitarist: WTF are you talking about? Our amps go to 11!

(full disclosure, I know a lot of metal guitarists who joke about this, but are theory masters!)

Technical prog-rock guitarist: I am a music engineer who happens to like to play loud and fast. Could read music if I sat down with an acoustic for a few hours, but I prefer graph paper and drafting tools to chart out the sections and keep track of all the key changes and odd/compound metre changes.

One circle of 5ths to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

There are a lot of different kinds of guitarists, and I’ve been most of them having played metal, 60’s & 70’s rock, blues, bluegrass, punk, country finger-style blues, 80’s virtuoso rock, prog rock, folk, jazz, and classical. Every musician inevitably fights the very natural tendency to push back against a difficulty. In nature, the path of least resistance is law. Rivers, electricity, air pressure all take the path of least resistance. Whether you realise it or not, you are part of that great natural world, and you have those same tendencies. There is a time, however, when the path of least resistance is the path to mediocrity. To say something like, “Music theory gets in the way of my playing; makes me sound too technical,” may have some truth, but it also rings of taking the easy way. It’s up to each musician to decide when the easy road is the best way to let the music flow and when the more difficult road will open it up to unexpected magnificence. 

Even when I played delta blues, knowing some theory opened up the language to a level of proficiency I couldn’t have achieved from just playing by ear, unless delta blues was all I ever did. That’s the key – if you are a one-genre musician, then you immerse yourself in that. If you’re immersed in the delta blues, then knowing the difference between a German augmented 6th chord and a French or Italian augmented 6th probably have little/no value. Full kudos to the old blues masters who maybe couldn’t tell a minor 7th from a 6add9 and yet paved a road I couldn’t imagine walking. Chances are, though, if the question has come up, you aren’t that one-trick pony. Distinctions in style are purely in the mind, and are mostly the result of era and geography or origin. Where does blues stop and bluegrass begin? Is the demarkation between classical, flamenco, and jazz a solid wall, a fine line, or a blur? We have these genres to help us know when to stop for the moment; like the boundaries between football pitches where two sets of teams play each other, but in different leagues. Someone had to say, “you play there while we play over here, and we are going to pretend the other does not exist for a while.” Just like a dozen teams playing on the same field at the same time, the full breadth and depth of music, attempted all at once would drive anyone mad.

I think we can all agree on this circle of fifths
I think we can all agree on this circle of fifths

Maybe you don’t need to know how to pick apart a sonata form movement, but knowing your relative minors, intervals, how to transpose on the fly, which chords fit naturally into a key signature, which chords might be borrowed from other keys, and how to improvise blues from 4 sharps to 2 flats is essential if you want to be the kind of musician that can drop into a jam when your moment comes.

When you first hear a song, and it’s magical. You don’t quite know what’s going on but you want to. Then you learn the song by listening to a recording, maybe slowing it down or reading the sheet music; you learn the chords and overall structure, the intervals between certain parts of the melody, the shapes and patterns of the song. It becomes a mountain of abstract theory — but here’s the thing: while you’re immersed in the guts of the song, you are just doing Music. This idea that music theory is some great mountain disappears because you’re ON the mountain. Then after practising for a long time, the theory ceases to matter. Muscle memory builds, you change little bits – sometimes intentionally sometimes not – you add expression; the song breathes and comes to life. The theoretical aspects provided a scaffold you used to build the song in your mind, but once it was there, the scaffold falls away. You’ve completed both the approach and the descent, you look back knowing the mountain is there, but at the moment of summit the elation of the last chord ringing in the air makes one forget the arduous climb… until it’s time to come back down and you are left with a desire to find the next mountain.

First there is theory. Then there is no theory. Then there is.