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The First Element of Music: Music Theory

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By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

First of all, music theory is a terrible term to describe music theory. Music theory should really be called what it is, which is "Interval Theory." All musical relationships can be described in terms of intervals, from a unison to a major seventh. (I think rhythms can be looked at in terms of intervals as well, but we'll save rhythm until part IV).

Information Overload:
Classically, we learn how to construct different scales; major, minor, harmonic minor, minor pentatonic. Maybe whole tone and diminished scales, or even more exotic scales like the Neapolitan Minor scale (a favourite of mine). We learn how to derive modes from these scales. This is too much information, and it's little wonder that most of us face challenges when playing over chord changes. Trying to think of the chords, recall the appropriate scales, recall appropriate fingerings, and then coming up with a musical idea is a tall task with this many mental processes going on. Music doesn't need to be this difficult, nor does it require a lifetime of dedication in order to master if we use a better process rather than trying to become proficient with an inefficient process.

In addition to this, our elegant system containing 12-tones gets ballooned to 21. A B C D E F G can all be sharped (#) or flatted (b). A# is the same as Bb, but we consider them differently. In written music this can make the reading process easier, but when thinking about music, and especially about improvising, the added redundancy is just extra, unnecessary work.

This excessive amount of information is actually very simple to fix, though it may require an initial, uncomfortable mental shift. The first thing to do is make 12 tones equal 12 tones, not 21.

A
A#/Bb
B
C
C#/Db
D
D#/Eb
E
F
F#/Gb
G
G#/Ab

That is it. You can construct any scale off any of those notes. So for example a Bb major scale is now the A#/Bb scale and looks like this: | A#/Bb | C | D | D#/Eb | F | G | A |. Ok, but thinking of a note as "A#/Bb" is way too complex right? It doesn't have to be. I choose to think of these notes as one-syllable combinations of their letters. A#/Bb I would think of as "ab;" F#/Gb as "fig." This works well for me, and I'm sure with a bit of creativity you can think of something that works for you. In the end I think spending a small amount of time renaming the notes in your head is worth the huge savings in time of learning to flip back between sharps and flats in your head.

Now that we've done this, we can make the construction of any scale, chord, or other group of intervals easier than learning your times tables from 1 to 10. For this, we must put aside the notion of "correct" and "incorrect" notes. The only rule for note selection should be that it's the note you choose, not that it's a note that your theory text tells you is correct.

It's all about the root:
Given any root, there are 11 relationships we can construct from it, minor second up to major 7th. If we know all of these relationships, we can construct any chord or scale we feel like. If we learn to think of this entire set of intervals against the root, then it means there are only 12 scales for us to learn. The chromatic scale off of each root. Why is this sensible? Because it means that you can access the same information whether the chord is C major, C minor, C diminished or anything else with a C root note. You do the same process for Cmajor as C7#9#11b13. Every possible scale (or as I prefer now, "interval set") is a subset of the chromatic scale (the only thing I still consider a scale). Another bonus of thinking this way is it eliminates the limiting belief that there are "good"/"bad" or "right"/"wrong." You have the entire spectrum of musical possibility available to you from the start, and now it's up to you to decide which notes you want to play. Which is why after learning the 12 chromatic scales, it's time to look at the Second Element of Music: Aural Skills, so we can choose the notes we like best!


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