The Fast Practical Approach To Theory

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Cut the crap and give me a practical approach

When I decided to get serious about my guitar playing I also decided to become an expert on music theory. And so should you. Because music theory is a nothing less than a basic understanding of the mechanics of music. This understanding will help you immensely when you improvise, when you compose or when you want to learn any chord progression or solo simply by listening to it. When you're clear about the underlying patterns of the music you are playing, the lights are on and you know what you are doing. When you don't know what's going on, it's like trying to find the light switch in a dark room.

Simple truths

When I started studying this field, I got very confused. I read a lot of books on the subject but all of them seemed to have the same approach. The same words and explanations repeated themselves again and again. It felt as though they where explaining something very simple in a very complex way. In other words, they seemed to make it more difficult than it really was. As I discovered the simple truths about music I got more and more exited about developing my own approach to teaching this stuff. Because music theory it is really simple.

In this series of articles I'm going to give you the simple truths of music theory, after all, music theory is a tool that you need to have, but that's all there is to it. You don't want to spend too much time learning "about" music, you want to do the practical stuff like practicing, composing and performing.
So join me in this simple step by step approach to easy music theory and I promise you, you'll have this area handled in no time.

The first simple truth

So let's begin. Here's the first simple truth about music theory: Music theory is full of strange ideas and weird terms that don't make logical sense. Don't fight that, it's futile. Just accept that music theory has evolved over time and it has many contributors and authors who have tried to make logical sense of what was created intuitively. First came music from the human spirit and soul. Then someone tried to make sense of it.

A very good example of this is the "H" in European music. In the US the 7 notes of the A-minor scale are: A B C D E F G. Each note is named like the alphabet. But apparently there was a monk in Europe who, when he wrote the letter "B" it looked like the letter "H" instead. This monk must have been the king of the hill because people started using the "H" instead of the "B" consistently. So for a European guy the A-Minor scale looks like this: A H C D E F G. Now that's just plain silly but this is how it is.

The second basic truth

There are 12 notes in the "musical alphabet" These twelve notes is all there is. Every chord, every scale and every melody is made up of these same 12 notes. This goes for 99.9 % of the music that you'll ever hear in your life time. On the guitar neck you'll find the same notes in different places. That's why it can be a bit confusing to try and learn music theory on a guitar neck. But here's another instrument that makes a lot more visual sense than a million dots on a fretboard: The piano.

To play these twelve different notes on a piano, start with the bottom "C" then move on to the key right above that. That's the black one without a letter on it. Then play the white "D" key, then the black one right above that. Right until the point where you get to the "C" again. On a guitar, you can play the same twelve notes on one string, starting in the 8th fret on the high E-string like this:

These twelve notes are also called the "Chromatic scale" The word "Chromatic" comes from the Greek "Chroma" which means "color" There are two ways to interpret that word. One is that the chromatic scale is without color. The other one is that the notes of the chromatic scale is the basic colors that you "paint" your music with. But don't get caught up in words!

Giving the 12 notes a name

Now, the most logical way to name these 12 notes would be to give them a number like 1,2,3,4 and 5. Or to give them a letter like A,B and C. The musical monks of this world chose the letters. But they didn't just name them one by one. They excluded some notes first in order to create the scale from which practically all music is derived, namely what we call "The diatonic scale".

This is the white keys on the piano. Again this is just a name for something you already know very well so don't get confused, get curious! The Diatonic scale is a name for 7 notes out of the 12. 7 notes that make up the C-major scale. Then why not just call it the Major scale? Because this Diatonic baby has 7 different names depending on what note in the scale that plays the leading role in the song! The scale is called a diatonic scale no matter what note you focus on.

Chromatic Versus Diatonic

If you play random black and white keys on the piano it's going to sound like a very modern piece of orchestral music. But if you stick to the white keys, things start sounding a lot better. As I wrote earlier, the scale that these white keys produce has a name for every note in it but for now let's focus on the C and play the C-Major scale 8 notes up and down. On the piano that would be a simple task of playing all the white keys from the low C to the next C on the keyboard. On a guitar the same notes on one string would look like this:

Here's the piano version for comparison:

(Please note that if you start from the "A" instead of the "C" you have the first seven letters in the alphabet: ABCDEFG)

Whole tone and semi tone confusion

Now here's the last piece of information before we wrap this up: Notice how there's an uneven distance between the notes in this scale. Sometimes you have one fret in between notes and sometimes you have two frets. The monks of confusion call the one fret distance "A semitone" and the two fret distance "A whole tone" isn't it wonderful how they could have called it "A half tone" and "A whole tone" But they chose to confuse us students by using inconsistent names. Well, as I said, don't fight it just learn it and move on.

Now on the piano you clearly see how there's no black key in between the "E" and "F" notes. The same thing goes for the "B" and "C" notes. This is what corresponds to the one fret distance on the fretboard. So the keyboard is laid out so it's extremely easy to play in the key of C-major, because that's all the white keys. Any chord, melody or phrase you use in the key of C-Major, would come from and be played on those white keys.

A quick recap to make this information stick:

1. There are only 12 notes in our musical vocabulary
2. When you use all 12 notes you are playing the chromatic scale
3. 7 of the 12 notes is called the Diatonic scale
4. This scale is what we use to produce any song, chord or phrase
5. This scale is made up of semitones and whole tones
6. A semitones is the distance from one fret to another
7. A whole tone is the distance of two frets

I know that the information in this articles rises more questions than it answers. But every question will be answered in the following articles.

E-Minor Circular Neo Classical Lick

Today's lick is in E-Minor. It's a combination of three different techniques (Don't let that scare you) There's alternate picking, economy picking and sweep picking involved here.