How to get Beyond Music Theory?The subject of balancing a knowledge of theory with “instinctive” playing came up in a music forum the other day. It’s obvious that musicians have strong views on this but I really don’t see the two aspects as being in conflict with each other. In fact, I have very strong views on the matter! :-))
Learning How to be a Natural:
My whole teaching approach is based upon how to play “naturally” or “instinctively” but it’s also based in a very sound knowledge of theory. When you learn an instrument you have to perform a great deal of conscious work because you need to tell your hands what to do. We learn this by moving through small conscious steps until each element is allowed to be controlled by the subconscious. We can then move to the next level. If you put in enough hard work you may eventually reach the stage where you can forget everything and just play – but there’s really nothing instinctive about it.
When playing Jazz, I’m only content if I’m able to play utterly within the moment and play (only) what I’m hearing in my head. As a result I may improvise within the chords, or outside of them. I’ll play whatever I feel at that moment and even though it appears and feels “instinctive”, it’s really no such thing, as this ability has been very hard earned and I’m still able to explain what I’m doing in terms of theory afterwards.
Learning to Hear:A knowledge of scales and harmony not only helps you understand the logic within different styles and helps you discuss musical ideas, most importantly, it allows you to HEAR the music better!
Very few people have the ability to hear music and immediately and replicate it. For the rest of us the ability to hear music accurately can be made far easier by breaking it down into smaller elements.
If you familiarise yourself with the sound of a basic chord (for example C minor-C,Eb,G) and then add the 7th (C,Eb,G,Bb), add the 9th (C,Eb,G,Bb,D). It doesn’t take long before you can recognise this chord precisely, anywhere at the keyboard by recognising a combination of the chord quality and it’s texture (or voicing). For example a Cm9 played in “closed position” in the middle of the keyboard (Middle C,Eb,G,Bb) will sound rather ordinary, but open up that chord so that you have C in the bass with G above, then Eb, Bb and D – you have a large resonant chord. You could invert it so that you have C in the bass the add Bb (below middle C), D,Eb,G. It’s the same quality chord (minor) with a different texture. Learn all your keys and you can now recognise a minor chord with any extension in any position on the keyboard. (See Jazz harmony posts).
There’s no real difference between this method and recognising a particular model of car in different colours. Some cars may have slight modifications but it’s still the same car and you’ll recognise it every time. Instead of hearing a bewildering array of notes, you’ve brought it down to thinking about the smallest possible elements. When you come to play, you don’t think at all-you hear and you’re subconsious does the work that you’ve taught it.
Knowledge of scales and harmony enables students to make sense of the bewildering amount of patterns that we use in music. These patterns are entirely man made and many of them are learned in our childhood without knowing it. To western ears, Arabic music or Chinese music can sound very out of tune but it’s because the westerner’s brain hasn’t learned the same patterns. The same applies to Jazz. Many people don’t like Jazz because their brain can’t work out the patterns and it may sound discordant or agitated to them. This type of learning is below the conscious level and might be described as “instinct” in exactly the same way that we learn a language (and accent) when young. When we talk, we don’t think about how the words and sentences are made up (because we learned that when young) , although in order to teach somebody else we need to have a very good understanding of spelling and grammar.
It should be said that the piano lends itself to thinking theoretically because of it’s visual, logical layout. We can think orchestrally the whole time-and by “orchestrally” it matters not if it’s Ravel or Bob Marley. You can hear the notes and mentally overlay them onto the keyboard. The mistake that most pianists make is to play the piano! The best pianists are trying to emulate orchestras or Big bands or other instruments. It adds colour and another dimension to piano playing. Vladimir Horowitz is the most wonderful “orchestral” pianist. An example of pianistic playing is the wine bar “Jazz” that you hear, with loads of pointless runs and arpeggios.
Guitarists approach their instrument differently and find the guitar more of a “feel” instrument because they can’t really look at what they’re doing. Also, guitarists don’t have to learn a completely different shape for each key, anything like the extend that a pianist does. This does mean that they can learn faster without the need for much theory- but beware. I can’t tell you the amount of amazing guitarists that earn a fraction of what they could, because they can’t read music properly.
Don’t Limit Yourself:My point is that a thorough knowledge of theory helps you HEAR music better and learn how to forget the rules and play from your heart. Without this, even with a lot of talent you’ll probably be stuck within one style and be musically restricted. I’ve seen it time and time again.