Music Theory

The most fundamental insight into music theory is that anything is possible, and, sooner or later, all musicians realize this fact – usually when breaking from one genre to another. The truth be known, there is no one formula or secret to harness the power of music, and the theory that outlines its principles.



The reason we study these systems is simply to define an abstract and to learn more about other instruments. Most theory books present both treble and/or bass clefs, but don’t illustrate percussion notation – an impediment to a new student of music theory because developing a strong sense of time is critical.

The first thing that any novice musician must know is not only what their instrument is capable of, but also where it fits into an ensemble. After all, when have you ever seen just a bassist or a percussionist on a stage alone? Perhaps you’ve seen an unaccompanied guitarist or pianist perform, but that isn’t much of an example if you want to be or are in a band.

The point being, that in order to be a good musician, you should know as much about the other instruments you are accompanied by as your own. If you want to be a proficient guitarist, you must at least have a fundamental knowledge of both bass and percussion theory.

Though some would say that a bass is essentially a guitar with two less strings, the point is missed. Basses also come in five and six string models, as well as fretless. With these variations in mind, one should take notice that there are specific instances that warrant utilizing the relative model. For instance, a fretless bass is often used in melodic or “mood” music, such as smooth jazz (Peter White) and psychedelic rock (Pink Floyd) whereas five and six string basses will often be found in traditional jazz and fusion. You will not typically see a five string bass in country or blues because there is little or no need for the low bottoms that the fifth “B” string supplies; in both country and blues, bass lines are typically walks or variations thereof.

If you wish to be an accomplished guitarist, you not only need to know the types of basses that will best accompany you, but the realm of possibilities a bass can provide. I myself have learned to play classical bass. Classical bass? Yes, classical bass! Pieces like the Bach Prelude in C Minor and Greensleeves can be played on the bass as well as the guitar. Therefore, a bassist may use chords or arpeggios in some instances rather than a walk or single note sustains typically associated with bass lines. However, a guitarist without this knowledge misses out on many possibilities when working with a bassist.

By the same token, a guitarist who wishes to truly expand his or her horizons will go that extra step and learn some percussion techniques. This dovetails with being familiar with the bass because the bass is a two in one instrument – it not only holds the melody, it typically accents and keeps the beat.

If you are interested in playing jazz guitar, you ought to be aware of brushes, splash cymbals and “off” or “up” snare beats. These are found throughout the genre, and provide the guitarist an opportunity to feel out new chords and scales. Paradiddles, double paradiddles, triplets and rolls are not ordinarily at all found in guitar theory, yet if a guitarist is accompanied by a percussionist some or all of these techniques could be employed at one time or another. These are prime examples that give greater weight to the main assertion – that every musician should be, just that, a musician – and not just a guitarist or bassist or percussionist. One could miss out on tremendous opportunities to better their own compositions, as well as covers. If you are a guitarist who writes a song with a strong crescendo that sustains, you might suggest that the percussionist accent the downbeat with a China Boy cymbal. By the same token, you might also suggest the bassist play chords on that strong down beat – maybe even use diminished or augmented chords, so that you can solo and further accent the crescendo. Likewise, if you are the bassist or percussionist playing the crescendo in the above example, you ought to note that the guitarist does not necessarily have to be the focal point of the crescendo. Perhaps the singer (if there is a vocalist) or if it’s strictly instrumental, the bass or percussion could be the focal point.

Time signature can provide many effects, as well as a change in key or just a simple jump or drop in octaves. These are things not commonly mentioned in music theory books, other than for the sake of definition or illustration. Music theory books are designed to give a student (whether a novice or advanced) the guides on which to frame direction and understanding of every genre of music. Yet, music genres are not as universal as one would believe. For this reason, I have outlined a different approach to present basic music theory, starting with an overview of six contemporary genres, followed by a précis of each instrument typically found in these musical styles.

Continue to Lesson 1: Notation