Friday, September 30, 2011


Language—we communicate very poorly with it, and we can’t hold a thought without it. It’s essential to every element of our existence, confounding us at every step of the way. This dichotomy deserves…requires, in fact…careful attention and consideration.

As one way of dealing with the dilemma I encourage friends, students, and colleagues to pause and consider definitions before taking a stance and becoming embroiled and entrenched on an issue. If you immediately began arguing with me at the sight of the present title I’m talking to and coaxing you, too. Before you recoil to your pre-established corner regarding the topics at hand let’s investigate the words in the title.

The word “myth” is commonly thought to be a pejorative that classifies a thought as untrue. However, I am using it differently. I view a myth as of a way of thinking, a reference point that lends meaning to various facets of life. Religious beliefs, for example, are myths that provide meaning whether one holds them to be utterly true or as ideas that have merely developed over time. Many myths prove to be valuable for people who embrace them. Some don’t.

What is music theory? Arguments are conducted with such vehemence that one would expect it to be a preexisting concept, an objective actuality that appeared with the Big Bang. I suggest that music theory is a set of thoughts that have been assembled to describe how one guesses specific music was, and subsequently should be, created. In sports it’s called armchair quarterbacking. Theory as traditionally taught describes music practice up to the 19th century. It certainly is interesting to consider a frame of reference around the work of Bach or Mozart, etc. Problems arise when those considerations, based on work already done, are turned into rules to be imposed on future work.

19th century composers significantly stretched and challenged the established rules, all the while keeping an eye turned to the history they were expanding upon. Another wrinkle was added in the 20th century when music theory pivoted and began to make arbitrary rules that looked forward instead of back. Schoenberg and his descendents began a trend of predetermined rules (12-tone “theory,” subsequent serialsim, etc) that dictated subsequent actions. Coincidentally, jazz and blues began to come into their own as other systems with imposed rules that eventually followed comparable pivotal trajectories.

So when we argue for or against the idea of theory what are we exactly talking about?

Musical rules are actually descriptions of cause-and-effect. Follow such-and-such a rule and you’ll get an expected result. But what if you want the opposite result? Break the “rule.”

The idea of reading music isn’t simply disposed of, either. Guitar teachers love to argue about the comparative values of reading standard notation for guitar (which has some distinct and important differences from, say, piano music notation) vs. tablture vs. “just” playing by ear.

A friend recently described to me the agony of his sight-reading audition when he entered music school. That skill was the deciding admission issue. I wonder how complex players like George Shearing or Lennie Tristano would have done in a sight-reading audition. These two highly evolved jazz musicians were both blind. They couldn’t read cereal boxes much less sheet music. (BTW, when I did lights for a George Shearing-Mel Torme run at the Venetian room in San Francisco Shearing complained about the violent novel Torme gave him for Christmas. Torme responded, “Novel? That was a cheese grater!”)

I read a recent interview with a famous classical guitarist who acknowledged that some players function without reading skills. His ostensible open-mindedness carried a thinly veiled condescension. He even used the patronizing cliché of blues musicians, and went on to include Bob Dylan in his list of nonreaders who have done interesting work. Now, I don’t know how much this guy hangs with Bob and I haven’t personally assessed Bob’s reading skills, but the ubiquitous blues reference passively demeans those “uneducated” street players who of course didn’t know anything about music. I wouldn’t argue with someone who suggests there are racial prejudices buried in there as well.

Whatever your reaction to the above thoughts I hope you take the point that our terms aren’t etched in stone the way we like to think, and are comfortable with our thinking.

I’m suggesting another way of addressing the issue of thought and awareness behind one’s music activities, something that applies to players at every level. Try the term “musical understanding.” Whether a fresh beginner or a seasoned player a musician’s activities are defined by their understanding of those activities at the current point of their development. That understanding is embedded in the way they describe to themselves and to each other what they do.

The bulk of my musical activities have been centered on the guitar so that’s my frame of reference in the examples that follow. Accomplished guitarists have a wide range of frameworks for describing their music actions: the Nashville numbering system; Roman numeral chord names and formulae, e.g. IIm7-V7-IM7, etc.; traditional theory; visible chord blocks and shapes that treat the fretboard for what it is, a piece of graph paper; the CAGED system; and others.

I must interject that the CAGED system is widely misunderstood and sometimes mistrusted. It is in fact an unavoidable description of the guitar in standard tuning that is not fully comprehended by most people using the term. The CAGED system means nothing to a pianist or flautist, but it offers decidedly useful thought constructions to aid the guitarist. I go into it in depth in my classes, private lessons, and workshops.

Fear is at the base of entrenchment. People are afraid that they’ll be caught out for not being “good” enough, for not knowing enough. They are afraid of their own insecurity and of the little voice in their head that keeps whispering that someone might find out that they still suck. They are afraid of humiliation. They are afraid of competition. They are afraid of loss of esteem, not to mention income. The more staunch the stance, the more underlying fear can be assumed.

You may be wondering if I have a favored belief system and whether I’m defending my own point of fear. In fact, I continue to find all approaches useful. I hope to keep growing in each one. I encourage “students” (I’ll address this regrettable word in another blog) to learn to use both tablature and standard notation because they both have advantages, as does shape thinking. If they reject either, or both, and it supports satisfying results for them I encourage that as well.

The limited context of the blog imposes generalizations. I hope that they lead to further thought and discussion. My aim is to coerce you into thinking in an expansive way about the issues at hand.