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Is Knowledge of Music Theory Necessary?


Hello there fellow music lovers! I would like to welcome you to my third article for ActiveBass.com. I hope you all had a chance to check out my first two articles "Hand Coordination Exercise" and "Warm Up/Work Out" and found them both helpful. This time I would like to share with you a question posed by one of my students.

I had a student ask me the other day if music theory was really necessary to him as bass player. His point being that there are many of his "bass heroes" out there who can't read music, don't fully understand the modes and really don't even have a clear grasp of major/minor other than the fact that some notes sound better than others at times, (and some should be avoided altogether!) and yet these players are still on the covers of magazines, making CDs, and playing on MTV.

To this end, all my student wanted to know was technique, technique, technique! He didn't want to hear all that boring theory about the relative major/mino r - just show him how to do the four finger tapping riff! And forget about the modes, how do you do the double thump?!!!

I found myself searching for a way to explain to him why he should "eat his vegetables" and not just his "cake" without using the old parental sounding cliches of "... because they're good for you" or even worse, "... because I said so!" Finally, I came up with an age old adage:

"Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach him to fish and he will eat for a lifetime."

In other words, I could just show you the tapping riff you so desire, young Jedi, and you could use it to impress your friends, fans and possibly even a talent scout or A&R man (the first time they saw it), or I could explain to you what notes make up this riff, the scale or mode it is based on and how to apply this knowledge to other keys or even a progression and you could in turn adapt and expand upon this idea to suit your own playing style and use this technique to express yourself in many new, different and very musical ways, not just use it for what is called "technique for technique's sake" because all you learned was that one riff, in that one key or position.

But I could see by the look on his face he hadn't heard anything past the "use it to impress your friends and fans" part.

I have found my knowledge of musical theory to be a bit like a box of Crayons. (Follow me here...)

You may not use every color you have on every drawing, and in fact to most, that might be considered "overplaying" or in this case, "scribbling on someone else's drawing." In fact, sometimes you could even get by with just using only the black and white crayons to convey your ideas (major/minor?), but when you are able to bring out just the right color for a song, (say, Dorian Mode for a funky feel?) and bring out yet another color for the next song, (maybe Mixolydian for a Blues?) and then convincingly use yet another color for the next (coaxing a Spanish feel from the Phrygian Mode or throwing down some Diminished riffs for a Fusion feel) I think it makes your palette all the more interesting and in turn just may help you to express yourself better and help you to reach your musical goals.

In the same instance, extent of music theory (again, like boxes of Crayons) come in many different sizes. The basic box will consist of maybe 8 colors, but through synthetic scales (secondary colors?), harmonization and chords (tertiary colors?) you will find the palette of colorful possibil ities to be nearly endless! (Remember the 64 box?!!!)

Learning music theory is a great way of both improving your music vocabulary and expanding your appreciation of music in general. The bottom line to me is: why limit yourself?

Need a starting place? By just adding the Flat Five to your minor pentatonic scale, you will find you are in possession of a very cool shade of blue!

I hope this helps you as much as it did my students and me.

D.G. (Gonzo) Grogg is a solo bass artist.
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2 Comments
John Classick (11) wrote:
Oct 5 2012
As someone who is "in the know" about theory, and as someone who teaches, it's funny, I've actually found myself telling people that they don't need to know theory. I tell them it puts more words in their vocabulary, but it they want to only speak in simple sentences, they don't really need to know it. After that, they usually ask me to teach it to them. :)
Glen Canaday (13) wrote:
Oct 27 2012
I've told students that it's a good idea, and they've not wanted to learn it! Perhaps I'll try your method next time! Maybe that's why I don't teach too often....