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The Importance of Music Theory - By Kim Michele LaCoste
The beauty of music theory is the fact that you never know when you'll have to use it for a particular situation. As a young musical student, you employed it inadvertently every time you read a piece of music. If you were a reed, brass, horn or string musician, you had to think about the time signature, melody and the accidentals simultaneously as you played the music. If you were a pianist, you had to throw in a little counterpoint that was rhythmic, harmonic, or melodic. It depended on the piece of music. If you were a drummer, rhythms were your primary concern, but if you also doubled on the timpani, you had to know how to tune them properly. Even today, drummers tune their drums to different pitches. As you get older, what was once learned becomes "old hat", that is, if you studied...

Why is music theory so important? To a serious musician, it means a lot because it's a part of your musical development. I know: tons of musicians who never read music have gone on to earn money/recognition, but, if it was mandatory that I had to choose, I would always choose to obtain musical knowledge...

There was a jazz composer/arranger named Oliver Nelson who died years ago. He was my uncle. I'll share one of my favorite stories about him with you. As a kid, he couldn't care less about learning how to read music! He and my mother were taking piano lessons. Every week, the lessons ended with the teacher at the piano, quoting, "now this is the lesson for next week" and she would proceed to play it. My mother told me that she and my uncle learned their lessons by watching the teacher's hands. They weren't learning the music via reading the piece. It got to the point where my grandmother just wasn't buying their rate of musical "growth", so one day she decided to stand over them while they played their lessons. As they sat together on the piano bench, my grandmother listened. Then she decided to turn the music upside-down. They began to play again without questioning how the music looked. In other words, they hadn't been paying attention to musical notation, so they didn't realize there was a difference! Needless to say, they were found out and my grandmother bopped both of them on top of their head! After that, my mother said that they began to learn how to read music. My mother could play a song in any key; transposition was never a problem for her. If my uncle hadn't gotten the training that he needed, he wouldn't have grown into the composer that he became later...

Therefore, you can see how what you learn early can benefit you later. For example, imagine playing a gig and a singer wants to sit in. He/she gives you the key of C-major and once the song begins, he's/she's singing in a different key. Sometimes you can adjust quickly and change keys, but that involves quick thinking on the pianist and bassist's part. If either of them can't adjust and transpose to another key quickly, the song's a goner. Musicians who have studied are usually the ones who can get out of musical messes when they occur, like being given a piece of music and you find that beats are missing in a few measures. Heaven help you if you should ever receive a piece of music where the notation is so bad, you're wondering why highway and railroad markings weren't included! Or, how about this scenario: You fill in to play in the band for a musical for only one night. You get there on time, set up and you have 20 minutes to look over the first act. You haven't had a chance to chat with the musical director before the show. And - you've never heard any of the music before, so you don't know what the hell you'll be playing. Plus, the soundman has you turned up loudly in the house speakers. One mistake and it'll be heard all over the place. The only time you can review the second act is during intermission. Fulfilling a task like that comes from studying and reading music. There's no way that you can walk into a situation like that and expect to pull it off without having studied music.

Take the time to learn about time signatures, chords and intervals. I really would like to see more singers do this. How can you expect a musician accompanying you to play what you want when you can't explain it? I saw a special on Marlene Dietrich once. She was on an upright piano while the pianist played. Some of what he played you could tell that she didn't like it, because she could hear where the tonalities were wrong. I agreed with her watching the program; the pianist was playing as if he was making the errors on purpose. Finally, she threatened to kick the guy if he kept playing like that. Of course, you don't want to go the violent route, but you catch my meaning: Marlene knew what was wrong with the music. There is so much knowledge that can be gained by learning music theory. As you learn it and listen to different composers, whether it's jazz, classical or rock, you will gain a better appreciation. What you learn will help you to differentiate between good and bad composers.

Of course, I can't neglect to mention the other side of musical learning, where you may come across comical situations:

I was in a McDonald's once at the height of lunch. It was crowded and extremely hot in there. Anyway, every fryer and baking machine was beeping! I heard more major-ninths, major/minor-sixths, sevenths and tritones (augmented fourths) than I ever wanted to hear at one time. Some tonalities were fine, but the juxtaposition of everything! Everyone else was "tuned out" to the "noise". I had to stand there in line and endure my own private session of "hell incarnate". All I could think of was being exceedingly glad that I didn't work there! Just yesterday, I was renewing my driver's license. There was a machine that was playing minor thirds - slowly.... I hadn't paid any attention to it at first, but I went to the office early and not many people were there. So, lo and behold, my ears just had to pick up the tonalities and analyze them. Hence, another moment of enduring a little "hell" for the day.

This heightened sense of musical awareness works to my advantage as well. Sometimes, after I've watched movies more than once, I'm not really caring about the scenes anymore; I'll be listening to the musical score, especially if it done by someone like John Williams, James Horner or Bernard Hermann. I may hear something that was done with the woodwinds, strings or brass that catches my attention. The first thing that I'll do is figure out what the intervals were; it makes finding the melody easier on the piano. What I'm saying here is this: I listen to movie composers closely because I never know when they will teach me something new, or I just like to hear how they use instruments for different effects/actions that take place in the movie. And let's not forget how much you can be made to laugh listening to the music written for old Warner Brothers cartoons (between 1940' s-60) or the Flintstones (circa early 60's). None of these things could've been accomplished if the composers hadn't learned music theory. I've heard of "ghost writers" that some composers (I won't name) have used to come up with musical scores. But let's face it, wouldn't you rather be able to write the music yourself? I recently talked to a musical colleague of mine about writing music. A lot of folks nowadays are using music-writing software, but he and I talked about how there is nothing like taking a pencil to some manuscript paper and writing the music yourself. It's something that you can't really put into words; some folks may find the task of writing music too primitive. But what do you do if your PC crashes and you can't recover what you've lost? You won't be able to pull your music out of thin air, but the music is still in your head. During times like that, being able to write your music is imperative.

Speaking of singers again, now when someone wants to sit in at a gig of mine and he/she isn't sure of the key, I'll ask them to sing a couple of notes so that I can hear where they are. I'll transpose the song to what I'm hearing and tell the pianist in what key we should play the song. I wouldn't be able to do that quickly if I hadn't studied music theory.

Thus, the virtue of studying music: you open a new world to yourself! You don't want to be the kind of composer who ends up writing the same song over and over because you can't expand to newer ideas, do you? Learning helps you to evolve! I can appreciate J.S. Bach for what he contributed to harmonic structure just as much as I love the music of Bela Bartok, who broke the rules of harmony. I could go on and on about the benefits of learning music theory, but it's something that you have to want as part of your musical armament. True, it's another aspect of music that requires years of learning and adapting what you learned. But, in the end, you will be a better musician...


BY Kim Michele LaCoste



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