In Theory: The Language of Music

theoryIf you’re a sports coach, you’ve gotta know the rules of the game and the names of the plays. If you’re a chemist, you’ve gotta know the periodic table inside and out. If you’re a judge, hopefully you’ve got a strong grasp on the law. But for some reason, when it comes to music, people think they can coast by without learning the lingo. Granted, there are countless musicians who could move you to tears while still not being able to tell an Ab from a Z#. What they lack in music-theory knowledge they more than make up for with feel, creativity, and intuition. Certainly, you can’t fault someone for that. However, there does seem to be a pervasive attitude of willful ignorance amongst many musicians, a fear-based laziness that goes something like this:

“Hey man, I don’t know what I’m playing. I just go by feel. No. I don’t care what this chord is called. If I knew the rules I wouldn’t be as creative!”
What nonsense! Not only does a familiarity with the language of music make it easier to collaborate with other musicians, it can actually help you be MORE creative. By knowing the “rules” of music, it is easier to break them. Certainly, a strong theoretical background never stopped Stravinsky, John Cage, or Miles Davis from getting plenty freaky!

One great example of how a music-theory background helped a writer get MORE creative (and earn a boat load of money) is with Paul Simon’s song “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Simon had been doing some intense harmonic study during this period in his career. He used what he had learned to create a verse for that song with sophisticated chord movement and a memorable, lilting melody that still sounds deceptively simple. However, he struck gold (probably literally, since the album sold incredibly well) when he got to the bridge.

He’d tried several approaches to writing a bridge based on what sounded natural and normal leading out of the verse. However, these all failed to really kick the song up that extra notch. Perhaps he was falling back on old, uninspired patterns. Perhaps the song just needed a drastic shift. Either way, Simon analyzed the song from a tonal perspective and realized that out of the 12 notes in the Western chromatic scale (basically, all the notes on a piano), there were two or three that he had NOT used yet in the verse. He decided to make THESE notes the tonal center of the bridge. This is a creative use of tension and surprise, shifting us into unfamiliar ground and giving the listener a sense of something new even if we’re not conscious of what is happening on a theoretical level.

Because of Simon’s strong grasp of music theory, he was able to find chord changes that suited those previously unused notes. He was also able to compose smooth transitions in and out of the bridge so that the new section wouldn’t sound abrupt, angular, or harsh.

To see video of Paul Simon performing and analyzing his still-in-the-works version of “Still Crazy After All These Years,” check out:

So there it is! Don’t be afraid to learn the language of music. It won’t kill your inspiration, passion, or purity. You might just get a hit song from a theoretical trick up your sleeve. Music actually becomes more mysterious and awe-inspiring when you DO understand its building blocks and what they’re called. A sense of wonder grows out of humility. Once you speak its lingo, music will start to teach you how much you don’t know.

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