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Will learning "music theory" help my playing much?


WesRist
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OK, I've gotten by with a minimal understanding of key signatures and music theory my whole life and made out OK, but I am wondering if I'm really missing out and not reaching that "next level" because I don't know music theory very much. What do you think?

Will learning more about key signatures and the like help me understand what I'm reading better, so much so that it will improve my playing? And if so, why?

Thanks!

Wes

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Yes and no. It won't help you play octaves in tune, but having a solid education in music theory will help your playing in many subtle ways. A very great musician once told me "interpretation comes from harmony" and he is right. The more intelligently aware you are of what the harmony is doing at all times, the more sensitive your playing will become - you'll be driven to create more colors, and you'll be inspired to do more with every phrase.

Inspired is the key word - your improvement from music theory knowledge will not be automatic - it will inspire you to do more than you do now. You will "see" more possibilites - you won't automatically take advantage of that. Good luck!

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Yes learning music theory--specifically harmony and the structure of music--will help you play better.

It will help you sight-read better, and it will help you understand the composer's intentions better, and it will help you to better communicate the musical meaning if you can grasp it yourself in the first place.

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Will learning more about key signatures and the like help me understand what I'm reading better, so much so that it will improve my playing? And if so, why?


Yes, yes, yes, yes. For all the reasons above, plus these:

1) It will unclog your brain.

2) It will help you to get into a composer's head.

1) is about learning. Okay. Your spouse says to you, "Honey, will you do the laundry?" He/she does not say, "Would you get the laundry out of the basket, collect the socks from under the bed and the towels from the bathroom, walk down the stairs to the basement, open the lid, put the clothes in, close the lid, pull the knob..." (well, maybe s/he does, but let's let that go for the sake of this analogy)

You hear the word "laundry" and you instantly know what to do -- your brain automatically pulls up a complete subprogram, one that is familiar and automatic enough that you can run it with attentiveness (keeping watch for the red socks in with the underwear) but without much effortful thought. A whole group of actions get triggered by just one "thought-unit." Since you don't have to spend too much brain space on it, you can continue your conversation, listen to the radio, etc. as you do it.

Most (standard western classical) music is about contour combined with rhythm. The notes go up and down, they go fast and slow. That's all there is to it, really. On top of that we layer all the drama - sharp or smooth or loud or soft or wistful or bombastic. A LOT of contour involves the notes of the melody running or flowing or skipping up and down the violin, sometimes in long stretches and sometimes in short little back-and-forth zigzags, often using either a (here comes the vocab) SCALE or an ARPEGGIATED CHORD as the framework. If you already know what KEY the music is in, say G, and you already know how to play the G scale, and you already know what common chords to expect (G, D, C, maybe E minor) and you already know how to play those chords as arpeggios,(G arpegg= GBD GBD GBD..) then when you look at the piece, there will be many, many places where you won't have to think of each note as it's own separate entity. A really good example is the third etude in Wohlfart (I think opus 48) -- it starts edcb abca dcba gabg cbag f#def# gbdg b... and goes on for zillions of little sixteenth notes. If you really can see the scales and arpeggios, though, the whole first section becomes "loop down and scoop back up on the scale, do it again a little lower, do it again with a nice deep scoop, then zing up to the top on the arpeggio and trickle down to where you started." That's about four or five "thought-units" instead of 32 notes, and you now have lots more brain-space left to pay attention to other things...and in violin, there's LOTs of other things. The music will make more sense, and you'll memorize easier. And if you're not into Wohlfart, then the same applies to any traditional jig or reel.

2) is about interpretation - "artistry." Say you're playing a piece, in G again, that keeps pausing on these looonng drawn out notes. Are you going to play each one the same way?

Try playing the G scale, slowly, and try stopping on different notes. If you play G, A, B and stop, it sounds somewhat incomplete. If you play G up to D and stop, it sounds like a good place to pause, but maybe not end. If you play G up to F# and stop, it sounds like a total cliffhanger. There's a whole world of theory that addresses what notes - or chords, too - are "resolved" and which ones aren't. A composer who writes a big honking G that holds for 8 beats is probably making a musical point about solidity or self-assurance. A composer who holds an F# is probably trying to mess with your head, get you to hold your breath in anticipation of what comes next. You're probably going to want to use a very different bow stroke for each of these.

Think of the way an experienced accountant can read a spreadsheet -- he can run his eyes smoothly across the columns and draw conclusions/spot trends/pick up errors because he understands the structure, the choices and intents, that went into its creation. To someone else (me!) they're just numbers, LOTs of little numbers-- I can't see in big chunks. With music, because I know the theory behind it, I can, and all of those notes become coherent shapes and gestures instead.

It's kinda fun.

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If you already know what KEY the music is in, say G, and you already know how to play the G scale, and you already know what common chords to expect (G, D, C, maybe E minor) and you already know how to play those chords as arpeggios,(G arpegg= GBD GBD GBD..) then when you look at the piece, there will be many, many places where you won't have to think of each note as it's own separate entity. A really good example is the third etude in Wohlfart (I think opus 48) -- it starts edcb abca dcba gabg cbag f#def# gbdg b... and goes on for zillions of little sixteenth notes. If you really can
see
the scales and arpeggios, though, the whole first section becomes "loop down and scoop back up on the scale, do it again a little lower, do it again with a nice deep scoop, then zing up to the top on the arpeggio and trickle down to where you started." That's about four or five "thought-units" instead of 32 notes


EXCELLENT POST ! ! !

That's kinda what I was thinking. I see a run of a bunch of 32nd notes and I'm trying to memorize them one-by-one, or as you mentioned the Arpeggios, if I knew the chords and structure I would almost know what to play before I read it. And like you say, I'll be thinking about fewer "thought units" rather than many notes.

I was thinking about undertaking some learning in this area, and now I know it's a good idea, so I really appreciate the comments. I'm just wondering now where to start. My music teacher is all booked up, so do I just get a book on Theory and start on page one by myself, or should I seek out capable instruction?

Wes

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Hi WesRist,

I think "music theroy" is more for composers, teachers,and it is less degree for players.

What you are talking about were musical notations like key signatures and Major and Minor, semi-tones, chords, etc.

(For example, if you ask a singer to sing a violin concerto, she would have trouble to do it. Unless the composer rewrite it to lower the notes)

As a player basically you play what you see. However, the whole piece or the phrase you play has musical intention (or statement) in it. Try your best to bring it out the way you understand it. Many my former teachers hardly taught me technical things but music notations and conventions, fingerings, dynamics, etc. At the end you have to work on your technics (fancy bowings technics).

After some years, almost all students of my teachers knew how to do correct bowings as required by music scores (notations). /yuen/

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Yuen, I think you've brought up a point that many players don't realize. The tendency is to only think in terms of a "players understanding of theory." Actually, the more you know the better. If you find yourself arranging and composing you can consider that you have done well in your studies.

Generally, the difference between a good musician and a very capable one is in their ability to read and understand a score. The very good operatic singers I know, can sing all parts of even the largest symphonic work--adjusted for their range, of course. They understand that there is no one single "correct" way to diagram a piece (and can show you at least three of the most popular systems).

I myself cannot think of violin without theory and compopsition. The understanding of theory is what allows me to transpose a piece while sight reading (I can't admit to doing this perfectly, but it is something I practice). Theory also allows me to see and hear the inner parts to many pieces, such as the Bach sonatas/partitas. Without that knowledge, much of the voice-leading in the inner voices would be lost.

Recently, a "scholar" published their disertation along with a cd regarding these "Bach secrets." As an example of how disconnected most violinists are from music theory and composition, this "scholar" was hailed as discovering this fact about Bach's music, when we in the composition/music theory world have known about it for quite some time.

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I don't knowwhat you mean by "the next level," but there are things about music theory that are helpful to playing. For violists and especially for cellists, knowing the basic key signatures and note names is most helpful in switching between clefs as these musicians are constantly doing.

Even violinists gain by knowing major and minor scales (since with minor scales what look like accidental sharps or flats are actually part of the scale).

Some real theory may help a player appreciate the significance of intonation in ensemble playing and the importance of extra care for thirds and such.

More knowledge never hurts except in reducing prejudice.

Andy

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Hi WesRist,

I think "music theroy" is more for composers, teachers,and it is less degree for players.

What you are talking about were musical notations like key signatures and Major and Minor, semi-tones, chords, etc.

(For example, if you ask a singer to sing a violin concerto, she would have trouble to do it. Unless the composer rewrite it to lower the notes)

As a player basically you play what you see. However, the whole piece or the phrase you play has musical intention (or statement) in it. Try your best to bring it out the way you understand it. Many my former teachers hardly taught me technical things but music notations and conventions, fingerings, dynamics, etc. At the end you have to work on your technics (fancy bowings technics).

After some years, almost all students of my teachers knew how to do correct bowings as required by music scores (notations). /yuen/


Nope, I would say WesRist is right on the money. If you have a strong background in music theory, many aspects of playing are significantly more automated and ingrained, others would escape you completely without knowing theory. As a player you are interepreting a piece of music, music theory is a tool for doing this.

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True,

"Music theory" is to help one's understanding the structure of music (singing, orchestra, harmony, keys, etc...) of general nature. If you are a string player, not a composer or a teacher, I do not think you need to know as much as a composer,or a conductor, or a teacher. Otherwise, you lose your focus.(e.g. a note G is in theory , just a "note". As a player, you should focus on how to play a "beautiful note" G ,execution aspect of the G ). That is what I meant. /yuen/

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Having just started taking serious music theory after playing violin for many years, I think the answer to your question is a bit complicated. There is a certain amount of theory (e.g., key signatures, scales, notation) you need simply to be able to play classical pieces and be able to hear whether you are playing the notes correctly and doing the proper dynamics, phrasing, etc. You must have mastered that theory. Beyond that, learning more theory certainly will not hurt you, and if you are going to play jazz violin, for example, you need to know advanced theory inside out. However, for most classical players, knowing the theory probably increases the appreciation of the music and its complexities and improves your ability to interpret the music more than it actually improves the mechanics of your playing. You probably need an almost intuitive grasp of the theory (as a jazz musician would have) to have it help you with things like sight-reading. All of that said, I am enjoying learning the theory whether or not it ultimately helps.

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I'm just wondering now where to start. My music teacher is all booked up, so do I just get a book on Theory and start on page one by myself, or should I seek out capable instruction?


Soooooo.....anyone wanna tackle part 2 of the question?

Wes

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I would seek out an instructor. Self-teaching is fraught with problems. Also, there are aspects, like developing aural/sight-singing skills that go along with a theory course, that really require an instructor to do well.

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True,

"Music theory" is to help one's understanding the structure of music (singing, orchestra, harmony, keys, etc...) of general nature. If you are a string player, not a composer or a teacher, I do not think you need to know as much as a composer,or a conductor, or a teacher. Otherwise, you lose your focus.(e.g. a note G is in theory , just a "note". As a player, you should focus on how to play a "beautiful note" G ,execution aspect of the G ). That is what I meant. /yuen/


As a player a G note is NOT just a note to focus on playing beautifully if (for example) it is a 7th in the scheme of a piece. If it is a 7th then you might think of it as a tense note that you know will resolve back to home and as such you might want to also add some dynamics to undercore the tension of that G note as well as just play it beautifully. Every measure in a piece has these types of clues in them if you understand theory.

Music theory is ESSENTIAL for a player if that player wants to really play music as opposed to just notes IMHO. I am blessed by wonderful teachers who guide me quite masterfully in this area.

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I'm just wondering now where to start -- do I just get a book on Theory and start on page one by myself, or should I seek out capable instruction?


Another way to come at it -- and this is especially useful if you're a visual person -- is to learn at the piano. You'll be able to see what you're doing as well as hear it. If you live anywhere near a college with a music or especially music ed program, they probably have a course in "practical piano" or some such title. Music ed students planning on teaching classroom music need to learn to "comp" -- to play a song and add accompaniment, often of the "boom-chuck" or "oom pah pah" type. Everything you learn in a course like that -- how to listen/look at a tune and figure out what chords are needed, how to "voice" the chords to give a certain effect (thick and rich, stark, light and rippling) will tie in completely to what you do on violin. You could also take private lessons, of course, preferably with someone who teaches jazz. Jazz teachers ALWAYS know how to teach chords and scales and structure (or at least they should), as do traditionalists (Scottish, contradance, English country dance etc) since we have to be able to make it up as we go along. Classical folks sometimes only know how to do what they're told....

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Jazz teachers ALWAYS know how to teach chords and scales and structure (or at least they should), as do traditionalists (Scottish, contradance, English country dance etc) since we have to be able to make it up as we go along. Classical folks sometimes only know how to do what they're told....


Ain't it the truth! I went to Mark O'Connor's fiddle camp in '98 and '02. They group all the classical players together the first two days to make the rounds to all the different violin/fiddle genre teachers. Buddy Spicher is a regular there and I just loved his classes. When we got to Buddy's class and he started spilling out all the chords and such he wanted us to play, he mostly got stares in response!

A funny aside: the first year I went in one of the classes he was trying to teach us a tune. Everything at Mark's camp is taught by ear so Buddy played a phrase and waited for our response. The really hard core classically trained violinsts were vibrating all the notes. I thought Buddy would rip his hair out. He said "I always know when I've got the classical group. You guys can't play squat without vibrating every single note!" He's a hoot!

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Most "classically trained violinists" would not be able to make heads or tales out of a chart let alone know what to do when someone asks for the "changes." They have only the persistance of the traditional myths in the teaching establishment to blame for that.

When was the last comprehensive pedagogy book published that allows a student to learn and perform modern serious music...?

I'll tell you right now, that if you try using those traditional finger positions with stuff that is being written now, it will take you a moon and a day to get them right.

Not only is theory important to learn, but theory beyond the common practice period!!!!!!!

Funny thing is, that one would think that if tradition is such an important thing that every classically trained musician would be able to realize a figured bass on keyboard. Not very different than playing from charts. Seems some things come full circle. It's a pitty we had to leave some of this out of the general curriculum.

Now it's either viewed as someting that only a Jazz player would want to learn or some cerebral composer.

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+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

More (more musice theory) knowledge never hurts except in reducing prejudice.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Hey Andy,

I thought you were saying "reducing practice." (just kidding, Andy always got it right, you can count on it). I guess you all are right.

I assume in the discussion a player can do sign-read very well and can read quite fast,without problem in playing pieces as in book 5 or 6 in Suzuki or Handel sonatas. Otherwise, one needs attention to the basic stuff. /yuen/

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Hi WesRist,

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++====

Will learning more about key signatures and the like help me understand what I'm reading better, so much so that it will improve my playing? And if so, why?

(WesRist's quote)

++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I read more carefully the syllabus of violin study (10 year

study, I happen to have) in the later part it included some music theory For example (instruction): " Be able to write minor scales of (Harmonic, melodic,natural forms )...through 4 sharps to 4 flates...." from the syllabus.

I never was a music major in college. I took private violin lessons and my sigh-read ability was from other instrument. My increasing sign-read ability has been from many hours of practice. Confidence and technic of playing also follow . Considering so little I know, I am happy with the result. /yuen/

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I have a feeling that if one listens to and plays enough classical music, a lot of the structure becomes absorbed into one's being in the same way that a child absorbs the structures of grammar and syntax. I just had a smidgin of theory when I began the violin 3 years ago, and about the same amount with piano a long time ago with minimal instruction and mostly self-taught. Solfege with the resulting awareness of intervals in the form of the scale and singing arpeggio-type sequences probably gave a fair bit of backbone. But now that I am actually studying theory I'm surprised to discover what I "knew" before knowing it. A piece of music that I composed in my head as a child and never wrote, because I didn't know how to, has an ABA structure going from minor to major to minor, and modulates up a fifth and down again. There are repeated themes, contrasting moods, and the theme it begins finds itself in the concluding phrase. I am no genius, and as real music it probably needs a lot of development. What I see in this, however, is that these structures had to come from somewhere if they were not formally taught. It seems to tell me something about how the theoretical or structural component is learned.

That same structure, once it's internalized, makes playing music easier in exactly the way other people have written. Wohlfahrt (where I'm at) is insanely easy to follow melodically to the point that it's distracting if you're trying to force yourself to sight read and find that a) you have memorized it already or :) the next set of lines are all too predictable and you are no longer reading notes. It's easy to sight read because the perception of structure is there in the way another poster has already outlined. The structure is what theory deals with, and I can imagine that if that structure is not somehow perceived, almost predicted at times as one is reading music, that sight reading music would become a tedious note-by-note affair.

So are the patterns we absorb in passing enough (assuming we absorb them)? Maybe, if all we want to do is recognize runs, catch the tonic by ear and thus be able to deal with modulations, recognize arpeggios. But the more I pick up about theory, the more fascinating it becomes. For me it understanding the music's structure does improve the way I play it, if I want to do more than be able to play at the right tempo, use my "feeling" and follow the dynamic markings. A few times already just a bit of extra understanding has opened up a whole new world to interpretation. The more tools you have at hand, the more colours you have to paint with. Technique give us the physical tools. But I find that I play toward what I perceive, and if my perception is enhanced, then so is my playing. The body follows the mind, does it not?

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stillnew,

From your description of your studies it sounds like you are an older student learning the violin. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but Wolfhart may not be for you. Unfortuantely, the mainstream publishers do not produce much for older learners and you've enountered the greatest problem with most tutorials--the fact that they can be memorized all too quickly by a learner who has some musical background.

A good technique that has been employed by myself and used by others in learning music theory has been to incorporate (transcribe) exercises from Harmony (I'd suggest Piston) books into violin exercises. When learning the different chord structures, the violin can be used to perform arppegiations, scales, double stops or broken chords. Anything that is traditionally taught at the piano or sung, as far as traditional theory curriculum goes, can be arranged for violin. It can be a very good way to augment your regular violin studies while training the ear and training sight-reading/recognition of chord progressions/structures and ultimately help you to learn music theory.

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