Avoiding The Theory Cliff

A few days ago a friend posed this question to me: "I'm able to play songs on the guitar, but I don't really understand why one chord/note follows another. I have been trying to teach myself musical theory, but I worry that this approach is too technical. Any advice?"

As a friend, he should have known I always have advice for everything. Here is what I told him:

Theory is both the most beautiful and dangerous component of musicianship. It takes some restraint to achieve a working level of understanding without becoming a number cruncher instead of an artist. Sort of like getting close enough to a cliff's edge for a good view without actually jumping off.

It's too deep a subject to go nuts over in one simple post, so I'll give you the Cliff's (get it?) Notes version. Music (or any art, really) is about contrast. In music that contrast is called dissonance (notes that sound like they need to go somewhere) and resolution (notes that sound like they have arrived where they need to be). The reason one note or chord follows another is because it is next on the path the composer has chosen from dissonance toward resolution.

Just like a Sunday drive, that path can be a scenic route or the quickest way. The quickest way, and the way used in many rock, country, blues, folk, and pop tunes is call the IV, V, I. Whether you know it or not, you already recognize the sound of the IV, V, I chord progression. It is hardwired in every human being in the Western world. Sing the old "Batman" theme song. That's it. Ditto "Louie, Louie", and just about every blues song ever written.

So what exactly is a IV, V, I? It is three chords built out of the major scale, which can be used to quickly and efficiently create dissonance and resolution. They can be used in any order, as long as you end on the I (the resolved chord). Let's take the scale of C major, and assign each note Roman numeral:

C = I
D = ii
E = iii
F = IV
G = V
A = vi
B = vii

A IV, V, I progression in the key of C would be the chords F, G, and C, always resolving on C. Know any songs that just include those three chords? I bet you do.

Let's try another key (G major):

G = I
A = ii
B = iii
C = IV
D - V
E = vi
F# = vii

Know any songs that just just include the chords G, C, and D? I bet you do. In the key of G the IV, V, I always ends on G to sound resolved.

This is where the Cliff's Notes ends. This is what I recommend from here:

You may have also noticed that some of my Roman numerals above are capitalized and some are not. The ones capitalized are major chords, and those not are minor or diminished chords. This is because of the way the notes in a scale fall when you build them into chords. This is something you need to understand, so start here. Google "harmonize major scale" and I'm sure you find tons of stuff devoted to this.

For now stick with major and minor chords *only*. Don't move on to 7th chords or beyond (9th's, 11th's, etc) until you solidly understand how one arrives at major and minor chords from a major scale.

You also need to understand intervals. The most important two intervals are the 3rd (major and minor) and the 5th. Together with the root (the "1" of a scale) those intervals are what form major and minor chords.

Don't get bogged down in trying to understand "modes" or exotic scales like Harmonic Minor until you understand the basics of building chords, intervals, and progression in the major scale. Maybe not ever. Most casual players never need them.

A book I recommend is The Guitarist's Music Theory Book by Peter Vogl. It's the one I use with my students. BUT it would be easiest if you were sitting in my living room your guitar. I could have you understanding the majority of what you need to know in about an hour.

*photo by su-lin


Post a Comment