Saturday, December 02, 2006

Music Theory

The study of Music Theory as it concerns the young musician in what I call the “pop-rock” area of music has been reduced in large part to articles in magazines dedicated to the selling of cosmetically redesigned instruments and equipment by massive chain and mail-order stores to the next generation of hopeful rock stars. Armed with the latest in phrase-sampling, pitch-shifting, tempo-slowing technology, this army of tablature junkies is learning less and less about more and more with every double-picking, speed -drilling issue of their favorite rock rag.

Personally, I read as many music magazines as I can get my hands on. And periodicals serve a great purpose in introducing young musicians to a world of ideas which most probably would remain undiscovered given the dismal state of artistic education in our school systems. The responsibility shifts then, to the student. The young musician who has found an area of interest by mastering a lesson found in a magazine must not stop as if a new continent has been discovered. For every door opened represents a long hallway of unopened doors behind which waits the information so intrinsic to a well-rounded musical experience.

Even a cursory musical education should include studies in traditional harmony, simple counterpoint, ear-training and dictation in melody, rhythm and harmony, and basic music history. Literacy results in freedom of expression and opens the doors of meaningful dialog between like-minded people. This can be said of any area of endeavor dependent upon cooperation and interaction. The more inclusive education becomes, the broader the horizons will open to the young musician.

There are two methods whereby musical education can be acquired with efficiency. The traditional method is to seek out a respected mentor or expert in a chosen field who will provide a structured course of study. Additionally, we now have available a huge body of information via the internet where the ocean of knowledge is limited only by the curiosity of the seeker. In combination, these two methods offer the opportunity of combining a well grounded, traditional education in music with the most up-to-the-minute research materials available.

Curiosity is a key element in the study of the arts. The young student must be determined in seeking out a good mentor who will teach in such a way that the student’s hunger leads him on a quest for further knowledge. Young musicians have a tendency to champion certain styles, artists or factions before they have learned enough to formulate educated opinions. Students should be encouraged to experience as many genre as possible. This will ensure a broad palette of musical ideas as well as a much higher level of pure enjoyment.

The following is a list of what I would consider to be important elements in the basic education of a young musician. A complete list being impossible, these are suggestions which, if investigated with a curious mind, will result in an fruitful search of further knowledge.

1. Rhythmic Notation. Learn how to read and write rhythms properly. This is a language you should know inside and out, no matter what instrument you choose.
2. The Musical Alphabet. Learn the names of the notes on the Grand Staff. Don’t be afraid or intimidated. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet of which only 7 are used in musical notation.
3. Intervals. Learn how notes relate to each other. This is the basis of Melody and the foundation of Harmony. Memorize how each interval looks as well as sounds.
4. Harmony. Take a beginning Harmony class at a community college. It won’t cost much and after two semesters of structured education, you will amaze yourself at how simple it is and how much more you understand.
5. Music History. Read about the lives of great composers and the times in which they lived and worked. You may find that what you thought were stodgy old stiff-necked squares were actually living, breathing, fun-loving pranksters much like yourself.
6. Analysis. When you have the fundamentals of rhythm, melody and harmony under some control, work on analysis. Listen to a favorite song and use your ears and the knowledge between them to write down the notes, rhythms, harmonies and how they interact to form a piece of music.
7. Listen. Listen to everything you can get your ears around. Don’t get caught up in listening only to what you think you like. Growing as a musician requires that you abandon some of the musical prejudices which may have drawn you to study music in the beginning. Embrace flexibility. Listen without judgement.

Some Final Bits of Advice

1. Don’t hesitate to make mistakes. That’s how you will learn to do it right.
2. Your progress is directly related to the hours spent on learning your subject. Ever wonder why some of your pals are such experts at video games?
3. No matter how much you practice or how hard you study, someone is practicing more and studying harder. Music has nothing to do with peer pressure so don’t try to compare yourself with others. If you put it all in, if you put forth maximum effort and work to your potential, you can be satisfied that you will be the musician you deserve to be.

Each and every musician brings his heart and soul to the musical table. How deeply a musician’s intentions are perceived by his audience is directly related to the level of musical skills mastered by the musician. If an author wants to report a conflagration, the flames of which destroyed half the village as the townspeople, tears streaming in rivulets down soot-stained faces stood transfixed by terror…and all he knows how to spell are the words “hot” and “bad”, his report may be somewhat disappointing in terms of impact and emotion. Great musicians possess large musical vocabularies as the result of curiosity, study and hard work. Not everyone is cut out to be a great musician. But by doing the work, you are guaranteed the opportunity to try.

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