Good lord.

Every now and then, I am incredibly shocked at how little most musicians (who are not pianists) know about the structure of music — what most of them call “music theory.” They seem offended at the idea that music is not just random notes, one after the other, with no structure underlying them. They resent it and consider it unmusical to actually be aware of what chord they are in — as if it is also unlinguistic to recognize when one is using a preposition.

It’s boggling. In hindsight, it makes sense to be baffled by that sort of thing when one plays an instrument that plays one note at a time, for the most part. And pianos have a massive advantage in that “music theory” can pretty much be defined as “whatever your left hand is doing.” Western music theory is built into the instrument from the ground up, and when one is playing a series of notes in the right hand while arping G-B-F in the right hand, and resolving onto C, it’s quite obvious what’s going on. What seventh chord resolves into what key? Count up five. What is the relative minor for a given major key? Count down a minor third (or count up seven). Curious as to why C is played on all white keys? (No sharps or flats.) How about the circle of fifths? Start at the lowest C and keep going up by fifths until you hit the tip-top key — hey, I hit one of every type of note! And if you look at the key signatures of each key, you add a sharp every time you go up a fifth. Neat!

It’s all right there, right under one’s hand. And it baffles me that musicians who play single-note instruments 1) find this confusing and 2) don’t understand why they should care about it. They seem to think that music is just one note after another, in mystically random patterns that sound nice. Try telling them that that’s not the case, and they just cannot get it.

Some can. Legendary bass player Carol Kaye has talked about the problem of beginner bass players who do not understand the value of what she calls “chord scales.” Arpeggios in particular keys, in other words. Knowledge of chords, the structure of music, and which chord one happens to be “in” when one is playing. In other words … music theory. (An absolute necessity when one is playing an instrument that will not carry the melody!)

You may hate it, you may tell yourself that it’s unartistic and unmusical to turn Music™ into mere math, but it’s just too bad. Music is art, it’s math, and it’s also language. If you are content with mediocrity, don’t bother with music theory. Be like every other guitarist in the world who only plays tab and can’t read music. Be like every other amateur violinist who can’t do a thing unless a piece of paper is under their nose showing them exactly what notes to play. Hamstring yourself when it comes to improv and cling to your inability to think ahead in terms of structures. Be as ignorant of the legos in your bucket as you can.

You’ll make it easier for the musicians who do understand this stuff and can play rings around you. The other session guitarist who can read music, that bass player or fiddler who knows when they are moving from E7 into Am and why while playing something in CM … they will thank you for it. 🙂