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Music theory provokes life-changing epiphany


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#1 Eureka

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Posted 07 February 2019 - 14:16

Hello everyone, I’m a newbie and I’m wondering if you can help me figure something out.

 

I played a lot as a child and teenager – eg flute grade 8, piano grade 4, GCSE music, orchestras, flute groups, jazz groups, recorder groups, choirs, I set up my own music groups and put on little concerts. I really enjoyed it. But at university the groups I tried to join were all quite pressured / competitive and it sort of fell away such that I haven’t done much during the last 20 years.

 

A few months ago I chanced upon a piano book that had a section on basic harmony, showing you how chord progressions work so that you can play from lead sheets / fake books, improvise and play by ear.

 

I have to admit that this was a complete and utter revelation to me! I hadn't understood harmony at all before! And I’d just never thought to play like this – I had always just read the dots…that’s the only way that it had ever been presented. Obviously I knew that some people can improvise and play by ear, but that was for specially gifted ‘musical’ people, or something you could only think about doing when you were really expert. The ‘dreaded’ aural tests in exams were always a struggle so I knew I wasn’t one of those naturals.

 

So I went over to the piano with some music with chord symbols on top and played the melody with the right hand and just played around with the chords with the left. And it sounded, well…INCREDIBLE! SO much better, SO much easier than trying to read every note on each stave. But more than that it FELT so different – like I was making music myself rather than trying not to make a mistake. Just play any notes in the chord…mess around! In fact it was rather freaky – like I just woke up one day and could suddenly play the piano.

 

Since then I’ve been playing all the time, I re-started lessons and I’m improvising and working things out by ear on all my instruments and it’s amazing. It’s been life-changing – one of the best things to ever happen to me.  

 

But I am confused: How on EARTH did I miss this despite doing all that music and having so many lessons when I was younger? Any thoughts on what went wrong here, or similar experiences? I still can’t really figure it out.

 


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#2 HelenVJ

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Posted 07 February 2019 - 14:59

Possibly one thing that might have gone wrong was having teachers who worked solely from an exam syllabus. Using grade exams as a framework is hardly going to produce a rounded musician, as so much is left out - improvisation, reading from lead sheets, playing by ear, keyboard harmony, transposition etc etc. Grade exam aural, with its increasing emphasis on singing and sight-singing in the ABRSM higher grades, is really of limited use
My piano students all make time to learn harmony at the keyboard, including a lot of chord work as we reach the appropriate section in the (Trinity) theory workbooks. Otherwise theory becomes a very arid and boring exercise.
Of course, I am curious to learn further details of the piano book that led to these discoveries.

All the best, and hope you will continue experimenting with harmonies - and maybe composition?


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#3 Cyrilla

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Posted 07 February 2019 - 23:15

As you know, Eureka, you are very far from the only person with similar experiences...

 

:)


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#4 musicalmalc

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Posted 08 February 2019 - 03:50

What was the book?
I've been a dots reader for ever and am hopeless with lead sheets as soon as it goes further than a 7th and even then struggle to do inversions on the fly - I just don't seem to be able to hear the chords I want in my head and translate them to the keyboard and it would be so useful


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#5 Eureka

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Posted 08 February 2019 - 08:22

The book is "How to really play piano (the stuff your teacher never taught you)" by Bill Hilton. For me the title was absolutely accurate. I'm very much hoping that teachers these days are like HelenVJ and do teach this! 

 

Funnily enough, my flute teacher wasn't very tied to exams - I only took three and played loads of different things along the way. But we were utterly tied to sheet music. Piano was just exam after exam though. But it's not just the lessons and exams is it? In all those groups I was in (even the 'jazz' group!) we didn't really need to develop musicianship skills - we could all just get away with reading music. Anything else was unthinkable. Music WAS reading music.

 

Interestingly, I got a distinction for grade 5 theory - so I must have answered the harmony questions correctly...with absolutely no understanding! Similarly grade A GCSE music - including composition. It has left me highly suspicious of music exams. 

 

Indeed Cyrilla, I know I'm not alone! smile.png ...although I still feel I need to work through this, like some kind of therapy.laugh.png Also I feel very evangelical - if anyone hasn't tried this stuff - please do - it's amazing! 


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#6 Latin pianist

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Posted 08 February 2019 - 09:08

I'm sure what you're doing is great, but one phrase in your original post made me think. You said how much easier it was to play around with the chords than to play the notes on the stave. To me that implies that your piano sight reading is not brilliant. That skill is just as important as what you're talking about. I couldn't do most of the musical things I do if my sightreading wasn't proficient. I teach my pupils to play a chord accompaniment to pop songs from the guitar chords in books like the Really Easy series. But this is before their note reading is very secure, plus the LH rhythms are often too complex in these books. But when their note reading and understanding of rhythm is better, I would expect them to play from the score.
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#7 elemimele

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Posted 08 February 2019 - 10:21

The all-round musician is a complicated machine with a lot of parts that work together. It sounds like you started out with a whole bit of mechanism sitting dusty and unused, waiting for someone to show you what it's for - and you're very far from alone.

Good sight-readers don't just translate the dots into key-presses; they know what the music sounds like before they play it, and they recognise what's going on, harmonically and melodically. Yes, a person can get by, with just translating dots, but their performance will lack something. Although improvisers don't need sheet music, anyone playing from sheet music, if they internalise what they're doing, will be unconsciously learning motifs, ideas, and structures that they can later use in improvisation, should they choose to do so. Sight reading benefits from improvisation and theory; improvisation learns from written scores.

It all works together as one musical whole, both aspects strengthening the other.

Tiny little corner of the world: my favourite example of everything working together is the figured bass scheme so widely used in the early 18th C, where a keyboard player would be reading a bass line written out in conventional notation, but supplying upper parts based on numerals written near the bass note, which indicate required notes as an interval upwards from the bass - these notes are analogous to guitar chord symbols and actually require a lot of improvisatory and theory-skills from the keyboard player as s/he's expected to fill in the required notes in a way that is musically good. They're different to the chord symbols we use today, because they don't indicate whether the chord is an inversion, they just say what notes happen above the bass, and the player is expected to understand what's going on. The notes can occur in any octave, and the keyboard player would shunt them around to construct sensible accompaniment. I don't think it's possible to play from figured bass without a good understanding of harmony, melody, and without being confident with the written score (the keyboard accompanist is reading from two-stave music, but the upper stave is the soloist's melody; s/he must take this into account when accompanying, too!). I don't know whether figured-bass players regard themselves as playing from notation or improvising - in a sense, they're living in the space between the two.

I'm glad you've found a whole new aspect to build into your musical machinery! It will be rewarding.

 

(thought: I wonder if lots of people don't realise what musical theory is for because at the stage they learn it, they have little obvious practical need of it for what they're trying to play? By the time the practical side catches up, the relevant theory is a long time in the past?).


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#8 Eureka

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Posted 08 February 2019 - 13:26

Absolutely my sight reading of the bass clef is poor - perhaps partly because I'd been playing flute for years before I started piano. I find it hard not to 'translate' it into treble clef to work out the notes. But re-discovering playing again has meant that I'm interested in exploring all aspects - sight-reading too! So that's work in progress too...I mean, I'm not under any illusion that I'm playing brilliantly or anything, but the crucial thing is that I actually feel like I'm a piano player now, because I feel like I 'get' it. Six months ago if someone had asked me if I played piano I would have said "No - I did a few grades years ago". Now I would say yes. I haven't improved dramatically in the last 6 months, I simply feel like I play piano now.

 

I really like the idea of the 'musical whole'. That seems to chime with my experience. You're right of course - I wasn't 'just' pressing buttons when I did all that playing, I was listening and storing things too. My husband started piano two years ago, with no musical training at all before that (or even much informal experience - he was told he couldn't sing as a child so he never did that). Anyway, we both started improvising at the same time when I read the book...so we've both been playing like this for the same amount of time, but I'm better at it - presumably that has everything to do with my years of playing notated music. It was going in...secretly!

 

I'm really intrigued by the figured bass - is this widely played these days? I can't say I've ever encountered it, but I have read about it a bit.

 

I don't know about theory...there must be something there about not having practical use for it, or not appreciating the practical application. Also I think I wasn't actually clear on what it was...I thought theory was just 'how to read music'. I obviously didn't appreciate the significance of the harmony theory, even though I got the answers right.


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#9 Hildegard

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Posted 08 February 2019 - 15:54

Interestingly, I got a distinction for grade 5 theory - so I must have answered the harmony questions correctly...with absolutely no understanding! Similarly grade A GCSE music - including composition. It has left me highly suspicious of music exams. 

 

Without wishing to belittle your achievement, there was never much in the way of harmony for Grade 5 theory, and none for GCSE music.

 

Figured bass, incidentally, is needed for Grade 6 theory and above.


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#10 Eureka

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Posted 08 February 2019 - 16:26

Yes! This is exactly my point. Grade 5 theory and GCSE music are elementary levels...but I'm talking about the absolute basics of harmony here, that seem pretty crucial to understanding music (and I've found open a wonderful way to get more out of playing). Shouldn't it feature a little more prominently? Especially since I imagine not many people take theory above grade 5 since that's the one you need before you can take the higher performance grades.

 

Getting high marks in these qualifications was misleading for me because although I knew I wasn't mastering music theory, I did assume (reasonably?) that it meant I'd covered the basics, when actually I hadn't at all. (Hence why I thought music theory was only about how to read music.)

 

GCSE music composition would have been a lot easier if I'd understood about chords and hadn't had to do it all by ear!


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#11 Cyrilla

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Posted 08 February 2019 - 21:17

I grew up with the perception that 'playing', 'theory' and 'aural' were three entirely separate components.   I also thought 'classical' and 'pop' (I wasn't hugely aware of anything else) were in no way related.

 

I also thought music was only for the 'gifted' or 'talented' and that clods like me had no place in thinking they could do it in any way.

 

It took my own Kodály Road to Damascus to make me realise that actually all these things are related.   They're called MUSIC. 

 

:wub:


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#12 elemimele

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Posted 08 February 2019 - 21:56

... can I just add that I firmly believe music is logical, not just a load of conventions. I've got caught in arguments with people about this in the past, so maybe I'll trigger it all again now. 

There are some things that get lumped into music theory that are actually accidents of convention: how we write notes, how we write time-signatures, our use of Italian words for tempo etc.

There are other things that are directly derived from physics. I don't believe our scale of notes is an accident - I don't even think it's derived from our culture. Here are some other people who don't think it's an accident: https://www.ncbi.nlm...les/PMC2779864/

Our scale is derived from the harmonics that a note will have when it's made by a natural thing, a twanged string, a blown pipe. Our ears and brains are good at identifying harmonics because they allow us to collect a lot of noises from nature, and sort them out into a limited number of sources, so we can decide which are important (howling wolves, edible birds) and which are irrelevant (wind in the trees). Evolution gave us the spectral analysers we need for the appreciation of music. 

The harmonics create our intervals, and the fact that harmonics fall at intervals above a base note gives us our concept of a tonic.

Many of our melodic rules are pretty logical too. There's no point in just memorising different sorts of minor scales; there is reasoning behind them. The tonic has such a strong pull; our heads want to round-off any note that's near to the tonic and make it equal to the tonic, in much the same way as we'd round up 2.9 as "about 3". As a result, if we're heading towards the tonic, the leading note is drawn towards it; if we're heading away, then we want to get away as fast as possible - and the leading note can move decisively further away to avoid being drawn back (oh look, we've got a melodic minor scale).

The rules about consecutive fifths and octaves are just logic too: if you're writing three distinct parts, and two of them move together in an interval equal to that between two strong harmonics of a single note, then those two parts merely suggest that single note - they become harmonics of a single part. And the music sounds thinner because it is only two parts.

Cyrilla's road to Damascus is a totally super one. Everything that is embodied in a singable scale is the heart of the matter. All the stuff I wrote above is merely what happens when someone with a curiosity of how the world works, wants to understand why a singable scale works. The person with a super-intimate feeling for all the notes of the singable scale will be a great musician. Knowing the physics won't make them any better - but it's just nice, for people like me, to feel that the scale is a logical part of our wonderful world, not just some bolt-on extra provided by Western culture. All the stuff about how to write the notes on a stave, and the Italian words for different tempos, are indeed a bolt-on of Western culture, albeit a phenomenally useful one.


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#13 EllieD

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Posted 09 February 2019 - 08:06

Although of course different cultures do have different scales. I don't know enough about this, I am afraid, but my sister played Gamelan music from Indonesia many years ago. Not a Western scale, so it takes a little while to get used to it, but it is just as beautiful. I expect that does fall into a systematic physics based pattern too, but I don't know how that one works.

 

All very interesting stuff in this thread!


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#14 elemimele

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Posted 09 February 2019 - 10:15

Yes, it probably would. The article I cited looked at a very wide range of scales across a wide range of cultures. Basically what they did was notice that humans can distinguish about 240 different tones between two notes an octave apart, which is a lot. These could be used to divide the octave into a 5-note or 7-note scale (or anything else really, but most cultures seem to use these sorts of numbers of divisions). That's an impossibly large range of combinations for the computing resources available, so they chose to work with 60 different tones, each differing by about 1/5th of a semitone, which is the same sort of minimum-difference required for Indian music to consider them different microtones. They then divided up an octave of 60 such tones into all the possible pentatonic and heptatonic scales (and a few others too) and looked at how well they match harmonics. They ranked the whole lot that way, found the first 50, and noticed that these include virtually all of the most popular scales from world music cultures including Indian, Arabic and Chinese as well as Western; most of the top 50 correspond to something used somewhere in the world, or, if they're not in use, are very closely related to something that is in use. Incidentally, they sensibly took the view that you have to look at all intervals created in a scale, not just tonic-to-note-of-interest because intervals matter, and feel different, wherever they start.

It's completely irrelevant to the playing of music, but I do find it fascinating all the same!


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#15 Splog

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Posted 09 February 2019 - 12:19

elemimele you're too good at this. You really do need to come and train with us Kodály nerds.  biggrin.png

 

Alternatively, read about the physics/mathematics of just intonation vs equal temperament, and how it's all worked out using the 12th root of 2. laugh.png


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