Music Theory - Is it REALLY that important?

I hear musicians all the time talk about this subject.  I would even venture to say that there is probably an equal number of supporters on both sides of this issue.  The question on many musicians' minds is... "If I am already playing and it sounds good to myself and others, then why do I need theory?"  First of all I would like to start off by saying that it is hard being a working musician and not know SOME theory about music.  Most musicians, whether they be Gospel, Blues, or Jazz musicians know at least the notes on thier instruments, major and minor chord qualities, and scales or "keys".  With that said, I guess the question is really what level of theory is needed in order to play well?

I know many piano and organ players that will tell you quickly that they don't know theory, but the truth of the matter is that they do.  They just don't have a high level of theoretical knowledge.  They do know thier scales, notes on the keyboard, and for the most part harmonic qualities like major, minor, diminished, etc.  If you have at least this, I'm sorry to say that YOU ARE NOT THEORY ILLITERATE!  What you have is a strong foundation for building your musical knowledge. 

If you don't have at least a basic knowledge of music, does that mean you are not a real musician?  Certainly not!  If you are playing at a church with a crew of musicians and you all gel together to a point where it's in the pocket and you all have a strong ear, then you may be just fine.  The problem may come when you get with some other musicians who are schooled in music and they start talking, "...Hey yo! Go to the 7 - 3 - 6 - 2 ..."  If you have a strong ear and your reflexes are good, you can kind of anticipate and adjust, but many of you already know, if you are off from hitting the deadline by just a fraction of a second, sometimes it can throw off the pocket and take away from the whole groove of a song.  Another problem with just being able to play by ear is that you can only play what you've heard.  There are many other types of sounds and chord combinations that can be created, and if you understand the foundations for building those combinations, you can shorten the time it takes for you to reach your goals.  Music theory is a universal language that allows musicians to communicate EFFECTIVELY.  Everyone may have their own way to describe and communicate musical ideas.  Just look at the MD for a church on organ or keyboard.  Many of those cats look like baseball coaches with some of the hand signals they give.  Hand signals are good and needed, but if everyone ALSO had an understanding of the language, it would make playing that much better in many different situations.

Now the title of this blog is geared towards the importance of music theory as a tool for not only communicating, but introducing yourself to new sounds.  I don't want to get it twisted.  I am not FOR theory only.  Being able to play by ear is EQUALLY as important as knowing theory.  There are many people who know music theory like the back of thier hand and can read thier butt off.  But I have had many of them tell me in frustration that if you take the paper away from them, they become paralyzed.  They don't know what to play!  In this case, if the extent to your musical enjoyment is reading charts then THAT's OK, but you could open yourself up to a more enjoyable and soulful experience, if the ability to play by ear was there.

Ok, now that I have covered myself on both sides of the debate camp (Playing by Ear vs. Music Theory), I can talk about the benefits of being a well rounded musician.  I have to say that I am very thrilled at what I am seeing today with relatively younger musicians in the church.  Many of them are going off to college and majoring in music where they are getting the tools necessary to becoming great musicians.   These cats are the ones that are coming out and doing some new things.  I have a friend of mine who is a music major in college and a great keyboardist.  He has an ear for odd rhythms and he writes very good music in that style for his gospel group.  He understands rhythm and how it works with harmony to create a final package.   Traditionally in churches and groups, the keyboardist or the organist is usually the MOM (Minister of Music) or MD.  Now with cats going to school and understanding music you got drummers, bass players, guitar players, and horn players taking that lead role.  There is no doubt that if you understand music from all angles, you can be an effective leader and stand out musician in whatever environment you are in whether it be church, concert, studio, or shed session.

GospelSkillz.com
Divisions of Brantley Enterprises
 

What did you think of this article?




Trackbacks
  • No trackbacks exist for this post.
Comments

  • 5/8/2007 10:38 AM JayBo23 wrote:
    I agree. I have been playing by ear since I was 9. I find myself struggling in some situations because I dont know the theory. I am studying with a jazz musician now to get a better understanding of music so that I can write and direct better.

    Jay Boyd
    Reply to this
  • 5/20/2007 9:09 AM PB wrote:
    Every pianist is a genius at least once a year. However, piano legends can repeat original piano ideas with regularity. The assignment of a pianist is to play new piano excerpts, combinations and passages that people have never heard before...each time they play.
     
    Pianist usually play all the borrowed keyboard rhythm, melody and harmony that they can musically conceive. When a pianist plays, they are limited to what they know about rhythm, melody and harmony. Pianist play the piano rhythm, melody and harmony they know. However, a pianist can not play everything they need to know.  Music Theory contains all the music you need to know about the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic possibilities.
     
    The music assignment of every musician is to document their original music ideas and persuasions. Piano sheet music documents the theoretical, styles, and historical possibilities of the keyboard. Johann Sebastian Bach documented his music lessons for his piano students. The Johann Sebastian Bach Two and Three Part Inventions, are a collection of thirty short keyboard compositions composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. They were written by Bach as exercises for the musical education of his students.
     
    When God wanted to document His thoughts and persuasions, He wrote a book...the bible. Throughout history documented written music and musicians have ruled. Some pianist are limited and subject to the oral piano tradition. Other pianist are limited to the sheet music.
     
    Perhaps the greater consideration is the creation of new piano passages by any oral and music document necessary. 2 Corinthians 5:17 (The Message) Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it!
     
    Lord give  me the courage and the willingness  to play the combinations of  new music  passages  people have never heard before each time I play. Lord give me a myriad of real genius with original piano excerpts, passages and ideas this year.
     
    PB
    Reply to this
  • 5/25/2007 10:56 AM ~$TKeyz$~ wrote:
    I have been playing for a while but only in the last year or two have I really started trying to learn my theory b/c I was getting no where. I am getting better but I still don't understand why and how you apply certain chord/basses with one another. Does anyone have any suggestions? Mr. Whitley, I love your DvDs, they are very helpful. You have really nice chords......God Bless everyone!

    TCarter
    Reply to this
  • 5/31/2007 10:24 AM PB wrote:
    1. Musicians should play their music study, listen and experience the music as a means for study
    a. Ask God –Holy Spirit for piano illumination and understanding
    b. Seek a music teacher mentor
    c. Practice and study everyday
    d. Buy a hymnal (cheapest music for 500-600 selection)
    i. Play a new hymn everyday
    ii. Study the music movements in the hymns
    iii. Play the hymns in at least 4 different keys
    2. Every scale has a "chord family". C family C-D-E-F-G-A-B
    a. C-E-G
    b. D-F-A
    c. E-G-B
    d. F-A-C
    e. G-B-D
    f. A-C-E
    g. B-D-F

    3. “Illegal” or musically unorthodox piano chords and movements are embellishments of conventional and historical piano movements
    4. First learn music movement or music leading
    a. The chord family, melody, harmony, rhythm will indicate the apparent alternatives.
    5. Every chord has a leading chord. A leading chord moves the chord to/from a music movement ex. A-Men F Chord to a C Chord, IV chord to a I Chord. Thus, we can conclude 4 always travels to a 1 chord.
    a. V to I Key C: G Chord to a C Chord
    b. IV to I Key C: F Chord to a C Chord
    6. Playing classical, pop, jazz piano music will demonstrate music movement or music leading….I recommend playing music theory as an alternative to studying theory Art Tatum has several music books available
    a. Copy the movement of leading chords
    b. Practice the movement in every key
    c. Apply the move to your piano playing
    Reply to this
  • 5/31/2007 3:26 PM Letron Brantley wrote:
    TKeyz,

    I hear so many musicians express the same problem. They feel as though they have reached a brick wall in thier playing because they don't understand certain theoretical concepts. One thing that you have to do is make up in your mind that you want to learn theory. I say that because, some people say they want to and never get on the grind to learn it. You will be surprised as to the doors that will be opened up when you learn your theory. With as serious a question as this, I hate to sound like I'm pushing my dvds, but if you can't find a teacher to show you these concepts, you need to turn to alternative sources of information. Take a look through my DVD collection at http://www.gospelskillz.com and review the sample videos. I have screened these videos and made them available for my visitor. Also make sure you sign up to get my monthly emails because I will be sending out clips talking about different subjects related to playing. Keep me informed of your progress.

    Letron Brantley
    CEO of GospelSkillz.com
    Reply to this
    1. 6/19/2007 8:41 AM ~$TKeyz$~ wrote:
      Mr. Brantley,

      I think that I have already purchased your dvd's...if I'm not mistaken. All but the beginner piano (I think..that you're the right person) I have so many dvds...but anyway, its not that the dvd's dont help its just that, I learn the chords but when its time for me to apply them to a song on my own w/o anyone telling me what to play...I cannot do it and get the sounds that you and others have. Maybe I need to practice even more. I am a college student so alot of my time is devoted to my school work but...I'll try to practice more and apply everything that I learn on the dvds. Most of the time I get frustrated b/c I cant make the sounds that everyone else does, except if they show me the chord but when I have to do it on my own....its like my mind goes blank and I cannot apply what I learned to a song by just listening.

      TKeyz

      P.S. And if you're the person I think that you are, I actually learned a song from your dvd and played it in church but it seemed as if nobody knew the song I was playing. I thought that its sounded ok and I was happy to have played the nice chords that I played. I did mess up on one or two parts but I kept going...I guess I just have to overcome my nervousness.
      Reply to this
  • 6/4/2007 4:44 PM PB wrote:
    The Spirit of Envy and Jealousy and the Pianist
    You are the best pianist God ever made. Your assignment is to discover your piano assignment. Glorify God and raise your dominant piano skills to its highest level.
    Envy is an emotion that suggest that another pianist has a style, chord, rhythm, or melody that belongs to you. A jealousy pianist believes another pianist received a piano style, chord, melody, or harmony gift that you should have received. We are jealous of our own; we are envious of another man's keyboard skill. Jealousy fears to lose what it has; envy is pained at seeing another have. (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)
    Take every opportunity to celebrate the piano skills of others. In addition, daily give thanks to God for your piano skills.
    There have been days that I have been envious and jealous of other musicians. Pianist are by nature are evil and self-interested, thus keyboard players must be self controlled.  
    Jeremiah 17: 9-10"The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful,
       a puzzle that no one can figure out.
    But I, God, search the heart
       and examine the mind.
    I get to the heart of the human.
       I get to the root of things.
    I treat them as they really are,
       not as they pretend to be."
    Decide on a piano style and your mind will create a "mapquest" to your piano style, chord, rhythm, or melody destination. Whatever piano style you respect will move towards you. Flee hate, jealousy, loss of faith, criticism, blame, rejection, stress, pressure, the possibility of making a piano mistake, and the notions of the amount of time required.
    Build a piano exchange with a pianist that is better with you
    Daily Thank God for the state of your piano playing  1 Thessalonians 5:1816-18Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.
    Become the servant and another piano player. Luke 22:26 Let the senior among you become like the junior; let the leader act the part of the servant.
    Make incremental steps towards your piano goals
    Daily thank God for your piano skills
    Study other piano players
    Encourage other pianist: go out your way to identify and praise the piano styles of others
    Encourage yourself: Affirm yourself every time you play the piano
    I am the best pianist I can be. I am making the most of my piano acumen
    Teach others: Mentor others pianist by teaching. You know something that other pianist need to know.
    Change piano friends: When the piano student is ready the piano teacher will show up When the Student Is Ready, the Teacher Will Appear
    Take a fundament piano class at the community college, or continuing education classes
    Attend at least one piano concert per year
    Lets look at a couple of bible solutions:
    The bible says: Romans 13:13 We can't afford to waste a minute, must not squander these precious daylight hours in frivolity and indulgence, in sleeping around and dissipation, in bick
    Reply to this
  • 6/13/2007 8:19 AM PB wrote:
    Pianist Versus Piano Player
     Their is a distinction between the pianist and piano players. The distinction goes beyond the obvious schism that exist between "classical piano ruling class" -"legitimate musicians" and the "gig" pianist.
    The schism and distinction is more than a name. Perhaps. a pianist by any other name is a piano player, keyboard specialist, the same? Well a pianist and keyboard specialist are not the same. First, a pianist is a musician. Second, you're Not a pianist until a musician-Pianist calls you a Pianist. A pianist is a musician that masters the secrets hidden in the piano literature and discipline. To some degree, pianist specialize in performing the music of either certain composers or certain periods.
    Example: Technique pianist (Horowitz?) sits almost immobile at the piano with a commanding vertical posture. His forearms are parallel to the floor, his wrists flat, his fingers curved. The backs of his hands are horizontal and unmoving except when they move sideways from one position on the keyboard to another.
    Historically pianist have found solutions that have addressed the (piano) technique, tone, timing, dynamics, rhythm, improvisation, melody, harmony and historical-culture interpretation.
    While the music electronic revolution will probably change some of the piano aesthetics, personalities, and technique. Good musicianship will never change. Ear trained piano community have piano secrets yet to be documented and revealed to the piano community. In addition, the classically trained piano community has exclusive piano technique, literature and discipline that should be made accessible to the entire piano community.
    The keyboard imagination of present and past must not rival God! The greater piano community is united by the quest for producing the virtuous musician. A virtuous musicians:
    First honors God.
    Pursues virtuous (Christ) character.
    Virtuous piano acumen
    Serves the piano community
    The priority for the pianist is a new song. The next priority of the pianist is to engage the piano community with the Song of the Lord. The Lord is looking for generation of pianist that will say no to the next CD/DVD projects and say yes to the Song of the Lord.
    Psalm 96
     1O sing unto the LORD a new song: sing unto the LORD, all the earth.
    God is in pursuit of a pianist that will play the New Song of the Lord. He will promote the pianist who pursues Him. Psalm 75 (King James Version) 6 For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. 7But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another.
    Reply to this
  • 8/6/2007 10:35 AM Joseph D Roe wrote:
    Oh my goodness, this is so important to a beginning like myself. I don't want to develope any bad habits so to start the way I'm going is a plus. I am so grateful for the info given... THANKS A MILLION!!!

    Joseph D. Roe
    Reply to this
    1. 12/2/2007 1:09 PM Lawrence Neff wrote:
      Ok so i have read what some of you guys have to say and maybe i'm not even going about this the right way but i'd like to comment on a few of the comments posted here.


      i think to ~$TKeyz$~ i would say that diffrent types of voicings are someting that are very risky and out of my experience i have found that you need to be sure to not be too radical in your chord choice, and even though sometimes things may sound nice to you it's a totally different subject when there are other people involved like singers and the like. I have viewed the sample vid's and must say that there is some hectic stuff being presented however it isn't a given that the chords and progressions will IMMEDIATLEY fit your nstyle of play and YOUR UNDERSTANDING of those chords might not be sufficient as yet even though you have the dvd's. Knowing something and knowing how to apply it are two very different things.

      PB

      YOU ARE RIGHT "classical pianists" are pianists but i don't think you have the right to undermine or underestimate "gig" or session pianists. I am sorry to say this but after having spent time at the university i was dissapointed to find that a top notch classical pianist didn't even know what a II-V-I was (I'm assuming you do) and please don't bring God into this cause even though there is a definite educational difference between US God give's inspiration and to make statements like this "The schism and distinction is more than a name. Perhaps. a pianist by any other name is a piano player, keyboard specialist, the same? Well a pianist and keyboard specialist are not the same. First, a pianist is a musician. Second, you're Not a pianist until a musician-Pianist calls you a Pianist. A pianist is a musician that masters the secrets hidden in the piano literature and discipline. To some degree, pianist specialize in performing the music of either certain composers or certain periods.
      Example: Technique pianist (Horowitz?) sits almost immobile at the piano with a commanding vertical posture. His forearms are parallel to the floor, his wrists flat, his fingers curved. The backs of his hands are horizontal and unmoving except when they move sideways from one position on the keyboard to another.
      Historically pianist have found solutions that have addressed the (piano) technique, tone, timing, dynamics, rhythm, improvisation, melody, harmony and historical-culture interpretation.
      While the music electronic revolution will probably change some of the piano aesthetics, personalities, and technique. Good musicianship will never change. Ear trained piano community have piano secrets yet to be documented and revealed to the piano community. In addition, the classically trained piano community has exclusive piano technique, literature and discipline that should be made accessible to the entire piano community.
      The keyboard imagination of present and past must not rival God! The greater piano community is united by the quest for producing the virtuous musician"
      Reply to this
  • 2/1/2010 8:06 AM Keyboardist Wanted wrote:
    Thats really very nice blog, I am impressed.
    Reply to this
  • 10/27/2011 10:34 PM SAMUEL ALEJANDRO wrote:
    HOLA SOY DE VENEZUELA COMO HAGO PARA OBTENER SUS DVD POR FAVOR...
    Reply to this
Leave a comment

Submitted comments are subject to moderation before being displayed.

 Name

 Email (will not be published)

 Website

Your comment is 0 characters limited to 3000 characters.