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Freeing Ourselves of Music Theory and Notation: Classical vs. Popular Styles

Who says you can’t play an E chord in the key of C? Bach maybe? Who decides what sounds good? Bach, perhaps again. We often forget that music theory for any genre of music comes after some famous people already figured it out themselves. Those musicians did what sounded good and a bunch of people got together to analyze and explain why their music sounded so good. In the classical world, musicians are trained inadvertently from a very young age to believe that music has very specific rules to follow in a doctrine called “Music Theory.” These trained musicians are under the impression that to compose music, you first have to understand this “Music Theory.” This is not the case, in fact composition and improvisation can be greatly hindered by learning music theory too early. I guarantee you that Bach didn’t sit down at his organ with the intention of coming up with an incredibly complex theoretical doctrine before he started composing. He just played whatever he liked, and he wrote it down if it sounded good. If he didn’t like it, it didn’t make it onto the page. All composers of his time and after were like this, from Mozart to Brahms. Composers today are held on a much higher musical pedestal than other classically trained musicians. They are seen as almost Gods in the classical music world. Without composers, performers in the classical genre would have no purpose. Composers are just regular people trying new things and being creative (heaven forbid) and the only thing that sets them apart from popular music composers is that the classical composer has to write it down in a standard form for the “non-composer” to perform. Without a sheet in front of them, the classically trained musician freezes. You know the joke: How do you make a violinist stop playing? You take their sheet music from them. But also, there is that opposite joke: How do you get a guitarist to stop playing? You put sheet music in front of them.

Are you Classically trained? Does improvisation scare you? There is a reason for this.

Free Yourself of Music Theory and Notation and Start Making Real Music.

Improviser, composer, performer, embellisher were all adverbs used to describe a musician in the time of the “common practice period” where all this classical theory we get bogged down with came from. Today, those are all separate skills. Jazz musicians are the improvisers, composers are the composers, performers are the performers, and arrangers are the embellishers. Even jazz music has become overly theoretical and standardized, to the point where you can even pinpoint the school they “studied” at. This happens because instead of playing from the heart in the heat of the moment, they learn licks and patterns in every key so they can reproduce those same pre-composed licks and patterns in a performance setting. They do this because some famous, dead jazz guy did it that way and that is how they are going to do it too. In some cases, they even play by chord, which is why some jazz sounds like a bunch of wrong notes. Instead of showing their facility of the instrument or their sense of soul, they are essentially showing off their knowledge of theory, which to the untrained jazzer sounds like a bunch of random notes that have no relation to each other.

Rock music and other popular styles do not get bogged down by theory. Every rock and popular musician I know is a performer, composer, embellisher, and improviser. These are all musical skills that are inherent in being a musician. The institutionalization of rock music hasn’t happened yet and if taught in an authentic way that doesn’t emphasize theory and note reading, it will not succumb to the fate that classical and jazz has.

Theory and note reading is important but not to the extent that classical and jazz music has led us all to believe. You can be a great creative musician without any knowledge of theory. It is possible! You can not, however, be a great musician by only knowing theory. You can understand all the theory in the world but if you never play, good luck. You can be a great improviser and composer without any knowledge of theory but you cannot be a great improviser or composer with only a knowledge of theory. Most rock and popular musicians don’t start out knowing any theory, they just play what sounds good.  What doesn’t sound good, they don’t do again. After years of playing what sounds good and really understanding the aural patterns in music, then they begin to learn some theory.

We have all heard of the “sound before symbol” mantra with regard to music education but many of us forget about it. “Sound before symbol” is not learning how to play a note and then learning to read it. It is also not learning a scale and then seeing it written down and learning to read music. “Sound before symbol” is learning music in an organic and authentic way much like rock musicians learn their craft. It is years of by-ear-learning, and by rote learning before learning notation and how it works. Learning a language works exactly the same way. If we think of learning music as language acquisition then we are able to understand what “sound before symbol” actually means. Are you truly fluent in a language if you cannot tell a story (improvise) or have a conversation with somebody (jam)? Are you truly fluent in that language if you are unable to recite back what you just heard (play by ear)? Are you truly fluent in that language if you can not write a story or record a story (compose)? The answer to all of these is “no.” You need to be able to do all of these things to truly understand a language. Music is no different. The only way to get better at those things is to do those things.

My point is that classically trained musicians must free themselves from the constraints of notation and theory. It is possible to know too much. To tie this back to the beginning, an E chord can sound good in the key of C, and it happens often. Classical music theory will not allow you to believe it, but it is true! The first tune that comes to mind while my students are practicing their Christmas programs for the concert the Bryan Adams song, “Christmas Time.” I have had school rock bands in the past that have used an E chord in the key of C because it sounded better than the Em chord. Rock musicians call it a III chord (Major III),  because that’s what it is. Classical musicians probably call it a V/vi or something more needlessly complicated because secondary dominance is the only way to explain a chord that is out of “key.” But in the end, does it really matter what we call it? Probably not. The lesson here is, if It sounds good, it probably is, well…Good!

Peruse my website to find out ways you can incorporate more improvising, composing, and by-ear-learning practices into your teaching. Start by searching for some of those on this blog or check out the Lesson Plans page and if you are interested, my book has some great ideas for incorporating these types of things for any level.

Happy Musicking!

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