Music Theory (college level course intro lesson)
Hi my name is Adam, I have a bachelors in music theory and composition from Elmhurst College in Illinois. For this open ended course I'll post the first three lessons for tips only and then subsequent articles will be $5 per lesson. Each lesson will contain a few days worth of material depending on how hard you study. I'll also be posting homework in every lesson that you can send to me and I'll grade your work for $1 worth of BCH.
Ok let's dig in
Lesson 1: What is Music, what is Music Theory
The question of "what is art" is probably enough to get us stuck off in the philosophical weeds for multiple lessons so I'll try to keep this short. If you ask guys like John Cage he'll tell you that every day sounds and even silence all count as music. I'm sure he has a justification for thinking this way but I don't find it particularly useful to expand the meanings of words beyond something that we can't collectively understand. If the sound of a train going by is music, then what is Led Zeppelin II? And if you say they're equally valuable, well, I guess that's your perspective. For the sake of sanity though we're going to put "music" under the umbrella of "organized sound". So if we take the deliberately organized sounds we know of that we can say are probably not music, we can start to zero in on some sort of definition.
Speech is not music, but it's not merely noise either. The regions of our brains that interpret speech are actually completely different than the richer experience of listening to music. Your ears also have some direct connections to hormone releasing glands that cause reflexive emotions. The research is fairly conclusive, our emotions are more directly connected to hearing than any other sense. A scream, an animal hissing, a crying baby or the sound of rain have an effect on us that flies below the radar of our conscious mind. In that way, music is this mysterious exploration of the more primal mechanisms that control our emotions.
So anyways, some people will want to fight me on this and play semantic games, (I'd love to spar with you in the comments over this), but for now let's settle on the definition "sounds that have been deliberately organized to appeal to human emotions(or subconscious)".
What is music theory?
Music theory is the "why" and "how" follow up to the "what is music" question. Why do certain sounds make us feel uneasy? How can we generalize all of those "uneasy sounding" sounds into some sort of a taxonomy that helps a composer choose what sounds to use to make us feel that way(or avoid making us feel that way). What are the different intensities and flavors of these sounds and can we quantify them to the point of being useful?
Vocabulary is paramount.
Probably the most important thing I learned in college was that language is the operating system of your brain. In a sense, a thing does not exist to you until you name it. Therefore, in music theory we are very very rigorous about defining terms. Some of these terms are abstract concepts. Umbrella terms under which we can put more concrete concepts. Drawing from the example above - sounds that make us feel uneasy, increase tension or desire some resolution fall under the umbrella of "dissonance".
Other terms will be so specific that they need to be thought of in a mathematical way. When I say the word "fifth" many novice musicians will automatically think of the interval from C to G as the typical fifth and not give it another though. Unfortunately this definition is not useful and as one's understanding of the western tonal system deepens you're going to encounter fifths occurring in scales that don't sound like 'C - G' and they'll have to unlearn what they thought they knew.
A fifth is any interval that is the fifth letter away from the reference note.
C - G
C# - G
Cb - Gb
Three examples of fifths. You can see the letters are what matters, not the distance between the notes.
So before we move on, you'll need to commit to following the definitions I give very strictly. You're going to get confused if you don't. Fortunately, western tonal music theory is a very elegant system and is not that complicated(though terms can often be counterintuitive). If you stick to being rigorous about terminology you'll avoid a lot of confusion and will be able to progress quickly.
Why is music theory valuable?
It's safe to say that music is one of humanity's greatest obsessions. It's a drug that most people consume on a daily basis. In this day and age however, it's rare to find someone to talk to who can really tell you why they like a certain song or offer any criticism deeper than vague adjectives. This is problem. Similarly to our lazy consumption of processed foods, our listening has become dull and as a result the quality of music being produced and consumed en masse is rapidly falling. But music is extremely good for our brains and our wellbeing as individuals and as a collective. It helps us deal with stress, connect with each other emotionally, it enhances our experiences and give's our lives a deeper sense of meaning. That's why everyone who enjoy's music should at least be familiar with the basics of music theory. It will lead to a higher standard for creators and reverse the downward trend of quality in one of our greatest cultural institutions. So please join me!
Ok, for homework let's have a discussion in the comments about the question "what is music". Payed content is just a thankyou message. I hope you'll join me as we dig into all things music!
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