Music Theory, Liberator or Great Destroyer?

Music has been evolving for as long as there has been language. At least that’s what some theorists think. A few think music is older than language and even facilitated the evolution of language itself.

mersennestarSince those long past days, music and language have continued to intermingle but have continued their development along separate paths. One of the main contributors to changes music has seen has been the music theorist.

Music theorists seldom reach the heights of adoration that composers and songwriters do, and I think that throughout history, they have been the most feared and hated of musicians, but they play a remarkably important role.

On the surface we might say that the music theorist simply follows the composer around and works to understand and explain the rules the composer followed to create her work. However, it’s more complicated than this.

On another level we might see the theorist as an oppressive force, setting down a series of rules that composers must follow. To destruction, some composers actually try following these rules, and this can be a creativity killer!

Finally, we come to what I think their most important role is – the archiver. They explore and document what composers do. This has a few different effects – some of which appear to be terrible.

First, by documenting, they drain the essence of spontaneity out of the compositional process, and I would argue that, at least in the short run, music may suffer. Composers, writing in a specific style, can easily fall into the trap of repeating old ideas. This is just part of the growth process.

Second, they reduce what we hear to a series of predictable events. This can kill the joy. When listening to a piece and hearing the chords you expect pass by, you lose interest because you remain unchallenged.

But, third, this all leads to a deeper understanding of the unofficial sonic boundaries we set for ourselves. After struggling with the rules, this drives some courageous composers to burst through those boundaries! This is how new styles and forms arise from the old. The documentarians, like the old map-makers, show us the territory we already instinctively know, helping us to also intellectually know it and preparing us for our journey into the sonic wild.

The caution should be placed on what we do with this knowledge. As we learn theory, many of us are, at least temporarily shackled by it. We need to understand that it’s a tool! It’s there to help us. We need to look at music theory as a map of what has been done and fight the misconception that it’s a documentation of the only realm of possibility. Zealots defend this idiotic notion to the detriment of many composers. Fight it!

I believe that music theory can be the destroyer, but only if we allow it. It is entirely our perception and understanding that will make it either a prison or a map to help us find greater creation.

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Basic Music Theory for the Aspiring Songwriter – The Notes and Building Chords

Music theory can be a pain in the butt. While studying the history of music theory I realized it’s usually Jean Philippe Rameauthe work of people trying to figure out and document what the music creators are actually doing in their music… And it seems that for a period after a new theory is put in writing, music becomes, for many, stale and lifeless as they try to actually follow the rules.

But…

Music theory, if used as a tool and not a set of rules-set-in-stone can be powerful for songwriters and composers.

I’m starting with the notes because they’re the group of basic building blocks we use in almost all our music!

As kids, most of us in the western world learned Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do. This is the major scale. Most of the music we hear is built from this. There are 7 notes (do through ti) in the major scale and 7 basic chords we can build from these. In the key of C major, the notes that correspond to the do – re – mi are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.

The chords we use in western music have a root, third, and fifth. The first chord we usually consider in C… is the C chord. The root is C, the third is E and the fifth is G. We count the root as 1 so C – E – G is 1 – 3 – 5 (D would be 2 and F would be 4…).  The base of most of our chords are built this way.

In major chords, the interval between 1 and 3 is a major third (two whole steps) and the interval between 3 and 5 is a minor third (a whole step and a half step). In minor chords, the interval between 1 and 3 is a minor third while the interval between 3 and 5 is a major third. The C major and c minor chords both have the  notes C and G. The difference is in the middle note. The C major chord has an E as stated above while the c minor has an E-flat.

In the key of C the 7 chords are as follows

I – C or C major is C – E – G

ii – d minor is D – F – A

iii – e minor is E – G – B

IV – F or F major is F – A – C

V – G or G major is G – B – D

vi – a minor is A – C – E

and the last chord is vii dim – b diminished B – D – F

Diminished chords are rarely used in rock and pop. They have two minor thirds and will be discussed further in a later post.  There is also the augmented chord which can’t be built with the major scale and will be addressed in a later post!

For hundreds of years we’ve put heavy importance on the Major and minor keys. This, in no way means you need to. It’s a familiar sound but sometimes we need to explore the unfamiliar to get greater inspiration!

Later this week I’ll post all the chords in all the keys and explain how you can mix and match! For now, play with the chords in C and get used to the sound.