As many of you may be aware, I’m currently studying further musical studies with my teacher Robert Robinson who is a seasoned and inspiring teacher, producer, song writer and thought leader. For those interested in his techniques and about him please check out his website.
Today is musical theory day and we were going into the mechanical depths of how music is written. Effectively it’s about understanding what makes you kick along to the beat and remember a song versus scrunch up your face in agony and change tracks. It’s quite a methodical and mathematical structure for an art often imagined to be more emotion based rather than symmetrical logic.
When I learned music theory all those years ago as a cheeky six year old piano student, it had no relevance to me. Sure I was drawing treble clefs and remembering that Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit (EGBDF) but it had little context. All I remember was my piano teacher was a bit of a grumpy old lady and her teaching room overlooked the cricket oval (which was often more interesting than scales.)
Then again, my musical knowledge to that point was the Little Mermaid soundtrack and my dad’s Reader’s Digest tapes of Perry Como, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Reeves whose lasting impression for me was that he was going to tell the man to turn the jukebox way down low.
So twenty two years later of playing piano, guitar, singing and general music appreciation I was faced with my childhood nemesis: the crotchet and its friends. I’d survived this long without them, why now?
A few weeks ago I was writing my first complete song rather than just some riffs and casual verses and Robert told me this stupidly obvious but important realisation.
If I only knew ten words, the chances of me writing an enthralling best selling book would be slim. Likewise, how could I understand and write brilliant music without having the vocabulary behind it?
I suppose much like my frustration with people who can’t spell even their own first language, I realised the irony in that I wanted to take music more seriously yet I was unable to write and spell my native tongue competently!
Finally at this time in my life, the importance of theory became relevant.
Now for all the disablers out there, I do understand that Smells Like Teen Spirit was a four chord song (along with many other pop songs) and it became the theme song of a generation. And I love it too.
But that’s what many bands do. They play the same four chords with different time signatures (at best) and it would hardly be considered progressive or inspiring. Sure they make catchy songs that could be considered as pop or rock songs of the time, but there are few classics.
When I thought further about this, I realised that it’s what most people do with their lives. They draw from the same experiences and ‘vocabulary’ over and over again and slowly and occasionally introduce a new chord/phrase to ‘mix it up a bit’. And somehow they’re expecting growth, improvement and most of all to be seen as a hit or a classic.
It’s not because these people aren’t creative or wanting to innovate but they’re limited in vocabulary. They aren’t men and women of few words because they consciously choose to be. It’s because they have to be. They’re effectively ignorant tourists of their own minds!
You don’t always have to use every word in the dictionary or every possible chord structure but when you know the language competently and can draw from your large vocabulary, you can become brilliant at choosing the right few to make your point.