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Thread: How important is reading music/music theory?

  1. #1
    Conrad the Caterpillar IronShadows28's Avatar
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    How important is reading music/music theory?

    So after my jazz band experience, (which isnt going too bad by the way), I bought a book on reading music for guitar by David Oaks. Its a good book, but Ive found that the music I want to play doesnt really require that much music reading. I know most people here are really into technical guitar music ala jazz, shred, metal, progressive, classical etc... Now I like all that stuff. I went through a stage where I was really into progressive shred metal stuff but I never really got anywhere with it. Im really into jam bands, folk rock, and acoustic indie type stuff. Some of my favorite artists are Phish, Widespread Panic, Elliott Smith, Iron & Wine, Bob Dylan, Sufjan Stevens, Nick Drake, that kind of thing. I dont know if any of you listen to or even heard of some of those artists (although Im guessing most people have heard of Phish and Bob Dylan), but if you did you would know that its really creative music and they really know how to express their emotions and ideas through their music and lyrics (without having to play 15 notes per second in 5/8 might I add!). I dont know how much music theory these guys know (Phish probably knows a lot), but I know that I barely know the basics and Ive been trying to write in this style and its not really working that well.

    What my question really boils down to is this: How do you really know how much music theory you need to know for the style of music you want to play? How do you learn it without having to go through a bunch of crap you'll never need? How much knowledge of music reading do you need to know? From my jazz band experience, Ive found that I work better when I have music notated in front of me. I cant read standard too well but I can read chord rhythm slashes fairly well if I sit down and figure them out. The thing is, I have no idea how to notate music Ive written. I dont really feel like I need to be able to read staff notes that well, so Im not really going to take the time to learn something I dont really feel like I need. Is this right? Should I be learning it?

  2. #2
    Jazzman Poparad's Avatar
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    Learning can never hurt. The question "will I ever need or will I ever use this stuff" can only be answered by you. I play in a band that does fairly straight forward rock, but everyone in the band knows a lot about music, so when someone writes a new new, they draw up a jazz-style leadsheet to it and within the course of one rehearsal we can learn a show's worth of music. If anyone in the band had told themselves "I'm never going to use this" and didn't bother to learn to read music, we would have to spend a lot more time teaching other the music.

    How much you use these skills is entirely up to you, and it usually works out that if you spend the time to learn it, you're going to find places to use it and you will notice that it helps.

    The bottom line is that if you want to become a better musician, never say 'no' to learning anything about music. Even if you aren't going to be sight reading charts on a gig, learning notation gives you a stronger understanding of how the music you play and write is constructed and gives you a very strong visualization of it, plus it's a great way to record an idea efficiently when you're writting new music.

  3. #3
    IbreatheMusic Author Bizarro's Avatar
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    Knowledge is power. Poparad is right on the money. It can't hurt, and if you don't know what you don't know, how will you ever learn what you need to know?

    Basic theory: chord construction, harmony, and melody will go a long ways in writing music. Start there and see where it takes you.
    -Bizarro
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  4. #4
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    for me im just really interested in the whole thing. and if youre interested in jazz then youve got plenty to learn. keep working at it and make it a hobby. apply it to songs you like, see what they do in terms of progressions and stuff, then you can say that you know what they are doing, plus it can impress people who nothing about theory. theory rocks, jsut remember that. and a little music history goes a long way too

  5. #5
    Mad Scientist forgottenking2's Avatar
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    Knowledge is freedom. Even if you are going to write 3 chord songs, wouldn't it be nice to know what are all the possible chords after starting on a Bm? Instead of leaving it all to pure luck? What if your singer friend has an idea and he sort of tells you in very non technical terms what he wants to hear. Wouldn't it be nice if you could totally "read his mind" and conceive a progression that portrays that exact image or feeling? Think about it man. Theory will help you but in the wise words of Mr Miyagi "If you practice <music> do it. If you don't then don't. If you do it half way... you'd be squashed like a grape" (or something like that lol) Those who get caught in the technical elements of theory and let it become a prison instead of a tool are those who haven't studied enough, and think that there ARE some set of strict rules that all music must follow. (long run-on sentence... I know... :: sighs:: but it's late).

    Enough rambling. Theory will never limit you. It will open your eyes to newer more exciting possibilities. And it will prevent you from reinventing the wheel. But if you want to do without it, you can too. Just like you can get around life without knowing much of anything. Me? I like knowledge and I like music, so music theory and I get along very well.

    The decision is yours young Skywalker.
    "If God had wanted us to play the piano he would've given us 88 fingers"

  6. #6
    Wordgirl: Jaded Musician jade_bodhi's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by IronShadows28
    Im really into jam bands, folk rock, and acoustic indie type stuff. Some of my favorite artists are Phish, Widespread Panic, Elliott Smith, Iron & Wine, Bob Dylan, Sufjan Stevens, Nick Drake, that kind of thing. I dont know if any of you listen to or even heard of some of those artists (although Im guessing most people have heard of Phish and Bob Dylan), but if you did you would know that its really creative music and they really know how to express their emotions and ideas through their music and lyrics
    I think really what you're asking is "where do I go from here?" What kind of theoretical knowledge will help me achieve my nearer goals. Playing the music you mention above is easy enough; you don't need to know a lot of theory to do it. But if you really think about Nick Drake's music or that of Phish, it is rather complex and being able to WRITE music like them would take some theoretical knowledge, I think. I think knowing the circle of fifths is a good place to start for writing this kind of music. Learning the circle of fifths has helped me understand what makes a song in a specific key and what gives a melody its foundation. A knowledgfe of chord inversions and slash chords, learning how to make chords with different voicings, helped my songwriting. Mastering this stuff led me to other knowledge and skills that seemed like "useless stuff" at one time but now seems very relevant.

    I recommend these two tacks, learning the circle of fifths and various chord voicings, because they have helped me. If you already know these things, then you know as much as I do. I hope someone else will tell you and me where to go from this point.

    jade
    Last edited by jade_bodhi; 01-23-2006 at 08:20 PM.
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