Music theory from 10,000 feet

I think that the study of music theory is actually a very interesting thing, not nearly so boring as it’s reputation seems to suggest, and the thing is, understanding music theory will definitely make you a better musician.  Since you want to be good it is definitely in your interest to become very interested in music theory.  Ideally, we don’t want you to try to force yourself to study  music theory as if by tyrannical force as it is exhausting and can only be sustained for short periods of time, we want you to thirst for this knowledge and wonder about it when you have a spare moment.  What I am going to attempt to do in this article is help you to see music theory in a way that makes your brain thirst for knowledge of music theory.   This article is also designed to give the view from ten thousand feet of music theory.  If you know nothing at all about music theory, this is a great place to start, but if you do know it well, I still think that this article is likely to offer a useful perspective.  That perspective, generally speaking, is that the subject of music theory is really a crossing of two subjects, namely the science of pitches and vibrations, combined with the psychology of how a human mind with it’s predisposal to aural communication perceives and experiences said pitches and vibrations.

All that a guitar or a piano does is vibrate, even your favorite song is really just a very nuanced and well developed, layered and structured set of vibrations that unfold in a very specific order over time.  The thing that makes a guitar or a violin a musical instrument is the fact that it is a tool that can produce a vibration at a very consistent predictable, and controllable wavelength.

When we say pitch we are referring to the rate quality of a vibration, how many times it vibrates within a given time frame.  To study harmony is to seek to understand how multiple pitches sound together within a given moment of time.  This is important because as it turns out, people are incredibly sensitive to the harmony between pitches.  Any two pitches when sounded at the same time will exist somewhere in the spectrum from dissonance to consonance.  Dissonance is when two pitches seem to grind roughly against each other, consonance is when they sound very smooth together.  A chord on a guitar is a specific hand position that you can memorize, but a chord in music theory is harmonization of a given scale.  The way that modern musicians use music theory is in a nutshell, at any given moment in a song there will be a current chord, which is at that moment setting the basis for the sound of the entire group.  If at a specific time a group is playing a D chord, you can play any D note or any note which is consonant with the D chord that is being played by the rest of the group and it will sound smooth and good over the music, these notes consist of the notes that are actually in the chord itself (ie. currently being played by other musicians in the group at that very moment) or at least consonant with them.  At any given time as well you could play any note that is Dissonant against the D chord that the band is currently playing and that note will sound rough, adding to the tension.  Indeed every note one could play has a different feeling it would carry in that specific musical context, some seeming to blend easily with the song and others seeming to grind upon it.  A key takeaway from this is that any specified pitch will always offer that same musical expression/listening experience when it is produced within the same musical context.  This is not to say that one should only play those notes that are “within the key”, or sound smooth and consonant.  Indeed there is a smoothness that can only be found at the end of a great dissonance, which is why I say that contrary to popular belief, the study of music theory is not the learning of a set of rules on how music should be made.  What it really is, is the categorization of musical expressions based upon how they are experienced by the listener or the player of the song.  Which is why music theory is so valuable and useful, it categorizes things based upon how we humans actually hear and experience them.

This is incredibly useful in a multitude of ways.  First of all as you proceed to study music theory and apply it to your instrument it will provide a framework which will allow you to see what you haven’t explored yet.  Another invaluable thing that music theory allows you to do is take a piece of music that you find moving, and analyze it to find out what is happening in that part that you like so much.  Once you have dissected and understood a piece of music you will be able to take whatever expressive elements the song used and apply it to your own songs/ improvisation, you can even apply the same musical expression under different musical contexts and get what will be slightly different but still a largely familiar and related musical experience.

The best news is that it really is not that big of a subject.  While it can seem a bit abstract and technical at first glance I intend to go into detail on those specific things that need to be well understood from the perspective of the working musician and make them simple to understand.  The thing that really takes the time is the developing of the technique of applying these musical theory topics to the guitar.  Which is why in the mean time I generally suggest that you begin learning chords and scales, and practice them daily.  Even a decade from now your fluency with these simple chords and scales will still be the thing that is limiting your playing.  As far as music theory goes, keep coming back and I will teach you.

Am I tone deaf? a definitive answer

BaJYUNNNNGGGG! That’s the sound that the electric guitar made as I dropped it on the ground just a couple feet from the stage at the center of small bar out there in the swampy outskirts of southern Texas. Just moments earlier I had been giving an unimpressive attempt to play said guitar and sing a tune for a big gathering of my family and several strangers. It was my Grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary and I had been asked by the patriarchal head of the family, my grandfather if I’d like to sing a song. He was a very accomplished man, a self-made millionaire and an accomplished guitarist/singer. He had been playing songs on his guitar and singing to the crowd all night long as the evening’s primary entertainment. It was he who had given me my first guitar years earlier and on this night it was he who had asked if I’d like to play a song. I hesitantly agreed so he handed me the guitar as he walked to his wife my grandmother where she sat in the middle of this large crowd. I began softly strumming a few chords and my voice cracked and then burst into vibration in an amateurish manner. He is not the nicest guy and perhaps plugging his ears from the center of the crowd was a bit over the top, but he was correct in his assertion that he made later that I was not singing in key. It was my seeing his ears plugged that sent me from the stage, and subsequently the guitar from my hands in an emotional, and noisy, frenzy that was more intense than most emotional frenzies I’ve experienced since.

This was a very painful event that honestly made it painful to even look at a guitar for quite a while afterward, but eventually that pain somehow transformed into a determination that I would get really good and make him and everyone else proud. I remember countless times of seeing some singer songwriter type up in front of a crowd and being just absolutely overwhelmed at how beautiful they were. I wanted to be that, so I started working at it. I was completely uncertain if I could ever become a good musician. Days after the above mentioned event I had a conversation with my Grandfather, asking if I could ever become a good vocalist/guitarist. Essentially I was asking if it’s something you’re born with, or something that you can develop. He told me with what appeared to be a level of certainty that it is something you either have or you don’t, and that I didn’t have it. Well I can tell you now, years later that he was absolutely incorrect, I sing song after song today that make people seem to fall instantly in love with me. Singing and playing have become effortless and feel fantastic, and I see now that to some degree I always could feel when my notes weren’t in tune, and now I can feel, and hear when they are. What I didn’t have yet is that distinction, what I didn’t have yet was a developed ear, well practiced vocal chords, and experience doing it right.

Now, you might expect this article to be written with the intention of encouraging all to pursue music, indeed every article of this type seems to be to some degree. Most things are biased and one might expect this article to be biased in the direction of being encouraging. Well this is not the case, actually I’ve written this article just to be an honest exploration of the reality of life, I am simply taking you on an exploration to help you determine if you do or do not have what it takes to become a great musician.

Let me begin with the statement that being tone deaf is incredibly rare. Congenital Amusia, the medical diagnosis for tone deafness, is thought to effect about 4% of the population. We have all seen the American Idol auditions with people who sound comparable to a cat,coming to a dreadfully painful and untimely demise. Perhaps the most shocking part of this is the way that many of these people seem to be completely shocked to be told they have anything less than the voice of an angel. I would say to some degree that this is the thing we want to avoid above all, the possibility of being absolutely completely off key and singing in a very poor and inconsistent tone, while simultaneously believing wholeheartedly that we sound fantastic. This would be the worst case scenario. Better than this would be to sound badly, but to at least know that we sound badly, and still better than this would be to actually sound good, the ultimate being sounding good and having complete confidence in the fact that we sound good. These four possible situations seem mirror the four stages of learning as set forth by modern psychology, the four stages of learning being: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, unconscious competence.

I think that many people may think that they are tone deaf when they are novice musicians. I myself thought for many years that perhaps I was. I remember not being able to tell if I was in key or not, even if I chose a specific note on the guitar and tried to hum it, I could tell sometimes that it seemed to feel or sound good and other times it did not but I could not tell you with absolute certainty that I was or was not hitting the note. I spent a long time being really sad about the idea that I might not have what it takes to become a great musician. I see now that this second guessing of myself was actually hurting my progress. I would literally spend approximately the same amount of my mental energy on interpreting how good I was doing, as I would spend on focusing on what I was doing, which will be the topic of another article soon. From that position I simply did not have enough information to be able to tell for certain that I had the potential to become much better. This is why I wanted to write this to help you become sure as to whether or not you have what it takes to one day become a great musician. The fact that many novice musicians may not have come to realize yet is that good singing is really a culmination of a few different skills. For example being able to hear a note well in contrast to the chord behind it is not the same as being able to hit that note with your own voice, and even if these two skills are in place that does not guarantee that you will remember the starting note, or the melody next time you try to sing it.

One piece of pretty promising news is if you have found yourself drawn to music, this likely means that you have sensed and appreciated the articulation of whatever masterful songwriter or musician it was that inspired you and drew you toward music in the first place. The mere fact that you have sensed the goodness within a said piece of music is a statement that you do a level of sensitivity to it. So to anyone who really wants to be a musician because they are in love with music it is my belief that they should certainly continue to pursue it, because the thing about music is that no matter who you are your unique set of attributes, when expressed through a person who has become musically skilled and experienced will definitely sound awesome to someone. There are many pitfalls along the way though, for example we may feel that we are drawn to music but in reality we might be being drawn to the social aspects of musicianship, which is why I would ask you to think about why you want to be a musician. Musicians tend to be the center of attention, and often appear to get a boost in popularity due to their musical expression, so this is one way that some people might find themselves drawn to music and even inspired by it, without the actual music itself being the thing that has really drawn them. It is a good idea to do some soul searching on this topic. Think back to the first time you felt really inspired by the idea of being a great musician, or even pay attention the next time you are inspired by thoughts like this and notice what is at the center of the narrative. Is it about your sensitivity to music itself, or is it about a desire for improvement in social standing? If it really is the music itself that inspires you and you know that, this is a great sign. It shows that you have a direct line from your emotions to your ears, a pathway that can be expanded upon, and one that is a two way street that you can use to listen to beautiful music, but will also become important later as you express yourself with your own music. If it is social standing that you wish to derive from music, there are probably other things you could do that would improve your social standing in a shorter time frame and with less effort.

Now to get a bit more practical

One way you can tell if you are tone deaf is to reflect on people who have asked you questions. How did you know they were asking a question, other than the context of the sentence. In English it is common practice to raise the tone to a higher pitch towards the end of a sentence when asking a question. Ask yourself if you are already aware of this. If so, you are likely not tone deaf. Try asking a question out loud right now and ask yourself if your voice goes up to a higher note towards the end of the sentence. If you just say out loud right now “Which way is the bathroom?” as if you were asking a stranger, notice if the tone of voice at the end of the sentence goes up in tone. This is a good test to do because it eliminates several variables, such as the skill of controlling the tone of your voice, or the fine tuning of hearing exactly which note, just ask yourself if you hear that the tone of voice raises. If you do then there is a very good chance that you are absolutely not tone deaf, and I do mean that you are not at all ,whatsoever, tone deaf, not even a little bit.

Hopefully at this point most of the readers of this article have reached a relative degree of certainty as to whether or not they really are tone deaf, but I should explain that whatever you have determined is not necessarily a final determination as to whether or not you have the capability to become a great musician. Even if you found that you do seem to be tone deaf, at the bottom of this article I have placed a link to a video of a deaf musician who actually sounds incredible. Also if you found that you do have some level of pitch hearing ability, this does not mean that you can sing well, hit notes or even tell if a note is in key or not. All that we have determined is that you do indeed have the raw physical aspects which can be developed and tuned and eventually, with enough work could possibly become the ears of a great musician.

Where you begin is not what matters most, it is the nature of human beings that we can take very small steps, but simply by doing so repeatedly we are able to cover massive territory, so if you have even the tiniest ability to hear different pitches, this is a strength that you can begin to build upon, and continue building upon and bit by bit you can make great strides over time. It is also worth stating that to become a great singer one needs to develop their ability to hear notes, and their ability to hit notes with their voice, which are two entirely different skills.

The girl in the video below is completely deaf, not just tone deaf but fully deaf and she sounds fantastic, which just goes to show you, that you really can accomplish pretty much whatever you want in life if you are willing to work at it. In fact, her most well known and most moving song is about losing her hearing, in that amazing way it is probably that thing about your life that makes you feel sad that in some remarkably unexpected way will one day be the source of your deeper joy.

Testing 1, 2?

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