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Beginning with music theory...

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Postby Hello » July 1st, 2005, 4:07 am

Hey all,

I'm an absolute beginner with music theory (started with the guitar a few months ago), but i'm eager to learn. I've got this guitar book (by Ralph Denyer) that goes over the theory but i find i quite difficult....

I think i understand the major- and minor- scales quite well now but i'm not really sure what they imply...for instance when a melody is written in C-major are you only allowed to use the notes in de C-major scale? so no sharps or flats? But why is this, just because is wouldn't sound right if you would use flats or sharps?

btw i have loads of other questions, but let's start with this one ;)
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Postby greybeard » July 1st, 2005, 5:14 am

Music theory is not a set of laws, which someone has arbitrarily created, but rather the collected wisdom of several centuries of composers and musicians, both great and small.

What theory lays down is the grammar of music - you don't have to follow it, but good sense will prevail and most do.

Our ears are attuned to hearing certain sequences of intervals in sound, one of which is the major scale - the notes all sound good together. The rhythm section will almost certainly be playing chords that harmonise with the key that you're playing in, so it makes sense to do the same. That's the safe answer.

You can go outside of the scale and add tension, a feeling of movement or deliberate dissonance, that you release (resolve) by returning to the scale.
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Postby Hello » July 1st, 2005, 5:35 am

Thanks for the reply!

What you pointed out there is exactly why i find music theory so hard to understand. Being more of a scientist i like it when things obey certain laws and there is nothing outside these laws, no room for own interpretation.

I don't think music theory works the same way...however i do want to get basic rules down (what you call safe) and go from there. There still a long road ahead i'm afraid...but as i said i'm willing to learn!
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Postby greybeard » July 1st, 2005, 5:46 am

One suggestion is for you to buy the book by Tom Serb. It is theory written especially for guitarists (most are written for piano or something).

Best part is - Tom is a member and regular contributor here and I've never known him not to answer a question.
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Postby paul donnelly » July 1st, 2005, 10:47 pm

You're right Pleph; music theory isn't an absolute science. Since what makes music good is ultimately a matter of personal taste, there's as much potential variation in what will be "correct" as there are people in the world. Luckily for music theorists most people are acclimated to the musical idiom they have been exposed to all their life, so there's enough agreement over what's "good" that lots of general observations which will apply to almost all western music can be made. And there you have music theory.

I can understand how you feel; I also like well grounded absolutes. It's a great feeling not only to know that something works in a certain way, but to know why as well. Luckily for the curious there's also a lot of absolute knowledge relating to music to be gained. It's generally low level, though, and not always directly applicable to music. Music theory provides a helpful intermediary step which can often help us write and understand compositions.

To answer your question on the scales: there's really no universal implication, as such. Major scales are appealing to you because you are used to them. There's no jarring there; there's no strangeness. Their appeal lies mainly in their familiarity. I won't say that different scales don't convey different feelings, but the feeling of a major scale is one you are accustomed to, and therefore comfortable with. You (and most of western society) are also accustomed to harmony constructed in the "usual" way. That's means that songs stick to a key and harmonies obey all the "rules" codified in the large body of music theory. Mostly.

So, when you write song in C major the only real implication is that if you use notes from the C major scale and stick to traditional chord progressions, then you'll be very likely to produce a song whose sound is easily acceptable to most listeners. That doesn't invalidate other conceptions of music, or make western music theory a universal description of "proper" music. It's the difference between giving the average American a cheeseburger and giving him baba ganoush. So yes, if you were to use lots of out of key notes, then it wouldn't sound right, where rightness is judged by adherence to accepted style. Actually you might end up sounding jazzy, which illustrates the way that musical taste will adapt to unconventional style. Jazz harmony was strange at one time, but not so much any more.

I've said a lot here. :D I've talked a lot about how music theory only describes how the music which people have grown to like works. That's because I've had a bee in my bonnet lately about mindless adherence to the accepted norms of music composition. I'm not saying that those norms are bad, or that you shouldn't compose according to them. I just want to stress the fact that the "rules" only describe what people are used to, and not some kind of absolute. Know that your options are wider than all the music you've heard combined.

[/rant]
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Postby kingpatzer » July 1st, 2005, 10:52 pm

Tom's book is very good, I'd definitely recommend it. But I'd suggest that you start with something that is instrument neutral just to cover the basics. Pick up your local library's copy of "Music Theory For Dummies" (seriously, it's a good book!) and once you have that under your hat, moving on to Tom's book to relate music theory to specific guitarish things will come easier.

Tom goes over the basics as well, but i think the "Dummies" book does a slightly better job with that part of things. In my view Tom's book doesn't really come into it's own until he's past the most basic material. (no offense Tom, I still love your book!)
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Postby NoteBoat » July 2nd, 2005, 10:34 am

No offense taken at all :)
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Postby kingpatzer » July 18th, 2005, 6:02 pm

Sorry, I confuse the Idiot and Dummy series.

The book I am recommending is:

The Complete Idiot's Guide To: Music Theory by Michael Miller
ISBN 0-02-8643771-1
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