Theory, a bad thing?

Theory, a bad thing?

Another effort to not hijack an thread.

VMurphy just asked for a ‘zouk book and was directed to Chris Smith. I have it and agree that it’s largely about theory. (As important is the need to be intimately familiar with the fingerboard of whatever instrument you play). That me starting me thinking. Western music ( the larger context and not old Hank Williams songs) is to me, about theory, the math of music. There is nothing special or unique about any of it, including Irish Trad that separates one genre from another except for the way we apply, or adapt, the math, the theory, to self-imposed limitations unique to the genre. Each genre has "rules". You can follow them or creatively break them, but they are indeed there. A simple example here, the Dominate 7 Sharp 9 chord. Jazz players use it all the time. Jimmy Hendricks made a career out of it. Yet if you put it into an Irish tune, even where it nicely fits, someone would "get a rope". Same theory, different application. So how does that work here?

Simply put, by learning about theory ( you don’t have read music to learn this but it helps) you have solid starting place from which you can start to put things together, You may choose to go to the solid, safe, I-IV-V, pattern, the ubiquitous Am-G, and so on, or thrown in a iii, ix, or vi, or an inversion of any chord. Point is, there is a theoretical basis for it and you can "hear" it before you play it. Without a working knowledge of theory every tune is a re-invention of the wheel , a repetition of every other (similar sounding) tune, or recalled from memory. Theory is what lets you spontaneously create a new voice to a tune. Note: this new voice may or may not work, but you have some ideas about that before you play it. Not everyone in the group will agree with the sound, but that has as much to do with their notion of the right or wrong sound as anything else. (Re-read the discussions on fusion). Theory is what lets a competent if uninspired, backer play about 80+% of this music with only 8 chords. Theory is what lets melodies flow smoothly, or clash wonderfully. It’s why some drones and some passing notes work, or not. The application of theory is what brings out the joy and creativity of the music and keeps it from being yet another string of sounds adding to the din.

Many players, myself included, played long before we had any familiarity with theory and where limited by it. I only suggest that anyone who aspires to be a musician learn something about theory, about why some sounds work together and some don’t, about how to use music to create and resolve tension. It’s all in the theory and learning about it gives you a "leg up". There are many, many good players who are not musicians, and many musicians who are not good players . Best of all are the great musicians who are great players. I posit the notion that it’s theory plus talent that makes it happen.

Sound like a love-affair with theory? Yeah, it kinda is. I feel quite strongly about it, but I’m not going to start a fight over it. I have way too much respect for the different ways each of us approach music and life. For that end I’m gonna stay out of the rest of this discussion. No arguments here. Still I am curious about just how others look at how theory applies, or not, to their own playing. Do you care to share your thoughts?

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Theory is great!

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I took a semester of freshman theory and of freshman ear training at the university where I teach (in a very different field), and when I started playing the harp, I found them invaluable because of the need to improvise base lines to go with melodies. I couldn’t have done it if not for that theory class — as well as later independent studies working through harp arranging books. I don’t use theory as much with the whistle or mandolin, though the theory class did finally teach me how to count 16th notes properly (but I still hate doing it!).

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Ross, I pretty much agree with everything you say. Sometimes one is applying the theory without even thinking about it. I play guitar and piano as accompaniment instruments, and the knowledge of chord theory has helped a lot.

A lot of good players do get by just knowing the chords are where to apply them properly, but I think it’s also good to really understand in musical terms what you are doing.

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I happen to be a teacher of music theory at the university level. Whether this lends any weight to what I have to say is up to you!

Music theory is description, and I tend to think of it in terms more linguistic than mathematical. It’s more grammatical than anything. And you can absolutely follow rules without knowing they’re there. For example, have you ever seen a black big dog? English has a whole set of rules about what order adjectives go in that most people never think about.

As an aside, I’ve been involved in more than one argument on this very site that could easily have been alleviated if everyone involved had had a solid understanding of music theory.

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The camp in Trad Irish music who get dismissive about describing the music in conventional musicological terms and imply that one is spoiling it for them are simply admitting to their ignorance.
Those that claim to ‘not like’ ‘theory’, simply do not understand it and are intimidated and embarrassed by those of us that do!
‘Theory’ is not a bad thing, it is the best thing about music!

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It’s good to know some theory, many times I have heard backers struggling to find the right chords when just a little theory and ear training would have informed them where to go chord-wise. I am glad I took the trouble to apply myself to studying music, I sometimes wish others would too!

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Theory is theoratical.

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A little (theory) knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

In my own experience, some of the worst ‘offenders’ regarding inappropriate chordal ‘accompaniment’ (yes ross, it is also possible to get it *wrong*) have been those with a little, but incomplete, knowledge of chord substitution theory. For example, the assumption that *any* major chord can be substituted by it’s own relative minor (and vice versa), regardless of the actual key (and mode) of the tune.

A guitarist who needs to ask what ‘key’ a tune is in shouldn’t (in general) be playing that tune.

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Those who believe their incomplete understanding to be sufficient, without realizing their deficiencies, are indeed capable of causing worlds of trouble.

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"Music theory is description, and I tend to think of it in terms more linguistic than mathematical."

It only becomes linguistic when you write it down or talk about it. 😉

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What I meant was that music works in many ways like languages do, and studying it feels like studying the inner workings of a language.

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"Western music ( the larger context and not old Hank Williams songs) is to me, about theory, the math of music. There is nothing special or unique about any of it, including Irish Trad that separates one genre from another except for the way we apply, or adapt, the math, the theory, to self-imposed limitations unique to the genre."

It is these "self-imposed limitations" which define the genre, and they are indeed, in that respect at least, unique.

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In science, a theory makes an attempt to explain a phenomenon. Same in music. It attempts to explain why thing sound the way they do. Theory doesn’t make music, it makes it intelligible, in a sense, as I see it.

It certainly is useful to have under the belt in lots of musical situations. I won’t diss theory.

And sure, someone can certainly misuse a good thing. Misuse of a good thing has led to lots and lots and lots of bad things in history. Why would theoretical music knowledge be any different? Doesn’t make it the culprit. The abuser is the culprit.

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Knowledge of music theory cannot be a bad thing. Subservience to it, however, can be a handicap. Music theory is descriptive, not prescriptive.

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Well Ross, I have not got a clue about what your post was about. I have been trying to come to terms with the GHB and whistle for thirty years and have enjoyed every minute of it, the good and the bad minutes. When I read posts like your one about theory it makes me very glad that I spent my time playing and not reading about theory.
What about the old guys in the tradition , did they spend a lot of time labouring over the maths of the tunes or did they just learn them and enjoy them for what they were.
I think that there is a lot of false snobbery about music theory, I hear people in sessions and on this site going into great detail about the theory side of the music we play and because I am not theoretically minded I find it all very confusing and distracting. I play a lot of Scottish tunes and some Irish tunes and have enjoyed the journey without immersing myself ln the theory aspect of the music.
Perhaps if you play guitar or another instrument to accompany tune players then the need for some theory is necessary but I still cant help thinking that the players of yesteryear played intuitively from hard work, listening and experience.

Just my thoughts as you asked for, hope I have not overly offended anyone and if I have then that is just how it is.
Ian.

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> What about the old guys in the tradition , did they spend a lot of time labouring over the maths of the tunes or did they just learn them and enjoy them for what they were.

Well, if we actually look at the records we have, it is clear that, for example, Joseph MacDonald in his Treatise had a very complete understanding of music theory and took some pains to explain bagpipe music in the context of the language of theory of the day. Other GHB collections were published with piano basses. David Glen published music and took some pains to apply appropriate key signatures.

Yes, many trained musicians in traditional music have always understood and been able to apply the lessons of music theory. Equally, many have not. The Beatles knew no music theory, and Bach did. I’m not sure what that tells us.

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Creadur & I said description; Kendrich said explanation. There are subtle differences between the words but it’s the same basic idea. And some, like Ian above, don’t care at all about having the music explained or described. I think the desire to explain the music and the desire to not have the music explained are equally valid, and I further think that the desire to think that whichever side of that question you’re on is the only correct one is the source of much unneeded angst.

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I kinda said I was going to stay out, but I might have lied. No argument just a clarification, or agreement, intended and absolutely no offense taken. First knowing theory isn’t a guarantee of getting it right just as knowing about brain surgery makes a good outcome. And, yes, many good players got that way with no knowledge of theory. All it took was talent, effort, and time. With enough time you can, through a lot of trial and error, find out what works and what doesn’t. Many of the early players did just that. Some are doing it now. Theory is not a pathway to perfection, it a loose guide. Backers would do well to know a little about it. Many melody players would get a lot out of theory too. I find no more"false snobbery" surrounding theory than I do from those who ignore it. Think of it this way, theory doesn’t shape the music it explains it.

I like to make the analogy to creating mathematic models to explain the world. First you build a model, then you put it into practice. If, and usually, the model doesn’t match the world, it gives a pointer to a better way. Theory takes some of the randomness out of the process. Understanding theory, or maybe any process, doesn’t make you subservient to it. Understanding gives you a much larger "tool bag". Some tools work better than others, some don’t. and many are just different ( and thereby maybe more interesting).

I agree that a little knowledge can be a bad thing, sort of. No knowledge is a bad thing. It’s a bad thing when a little knowledge is combined with lack of understanding of how little knowledge one has. Why did I put this out there in the first place? Decades ago when I first started to play I had no understanding of theory and how it applied to what I was playing and it made for a lot of confusion and difficulty. Personally I think time spent learning theory isn’t wasted, it compliments the time spent playing. I just wanted to say that. You may feel differently. No hard feelings about it. Thanks all for your contribution to this discussion and for the tunes.

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Theory is not a bad thing so long as you do not allow it to encumber your consciousness while playing…It is a way to gain insight while studying and practicing. While performing your decisions must be instinctive and in the moment.

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Eulic Mac Aoidh: your last sentence is right but I would add ‘but informed by a study of theory’.

"While performing your decisions must be instinctive and in the moment but informed by a study of theory". (Italicized would have been more suitable and arguably more aesthetic but, apparently, unavailable)

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I fail to see how this is even a point of discussion? It’s like saying astronomy is a bad thing because you’d rather just lie in the grass and look at the stars. It’s like saying biology is a bad thing because you’d rather just playfight with your dog. Like saying calendars are a bad invention because you prefer living in the moment.

We’ve all jammed with people who theoreticized that the Kesh could really use an D#dimb5 (okay, maybe not, but you get my point). Then again, we’ve also encountered people who keep playing in D major, even though the set has changed key three times since.

Theory and ‘just feeling it’ strengthen eachother. You learn something new. You internalize it. It turns into your ‘just feeling it’. Or you ‘just feel’ something. You analyse what you just did. Then add it to your personal theoretical-trickbag.

Balance is the key.

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Theory is great for conversation, comprehension, evaluation, lessons, structure and conceptualising music.
It’s good for figuring out where to put your fingers, when. It can be useful, though it’s not the only method, to understand beat, accent, phrasing and articulation. It is not limited to measurable aspects of music.
Advanced theory is thinking outside the box, not for the faint of heart. Basic theory is predictable.
It’s just a matter of how much one wants to accept the basics, first, and then push the envelope to explore theory outside the textbook/classroom. Then theory becomes exploring the wilderness.

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"Theory and ‘just feeling it’ strengthen each other."

Yes, thank you.

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Does "theory" matter at all in this music, if you’re just playing the tunes, and not backing with chords?

I think it does to a certain extent. It can help if you have the background to know the difference between "minor" and "dorian" and "mixolydian" to anticipate the likely notes in a tune you’re trying to learn. On the other hand, in sessions I’ve seen excellent fiddlers call out the wrong key to clueless guitar backers, because they just aren’t thinking that way when they play the tunes. And what do you do with shifting modes between parts like Kid on the Mountain or Knocknagow, or anything that’s "hexatonic" and intentionally obscure as to tonal center?

There are places in The Music where western music theory doesn’t have any real predictive or analytical power. So, I try to keep some minimal theory chops in mind when I’m backing on guitar, because it can help anticipate some things, but not all things (see above). I don’t think about it when playing melody on flute or mandolin. The tune is what it is.

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It helps to know the player’s intention. Theory which applies in one context fails terribly in other interpretations.
Caveat emptor!

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Since I play a melody instrument and have only the sketchiest conscious knowledge of music theory, I figured I belong in this discussion. The ideas expressed here are actually very appealing to me. Especially the notion that music theory is decriptive and explanatory rather than prescriptive (or, to an extent, predictive). This really does imply that a decent knowledge of music theory will help you be creative in making (designing, playing) music, even ITM. That’s what makes a living tradition.

As for me, I barely know what I’m doing most of the time. I can read music (slowly) and count out most chords, but that’s it. However, my fingers seem to know a lot more than I do. They get confused when there’s no G# to be found in an entire reel in A. They know where to go in variations of tunes, they can even catch up fairly quickly when someone starts a tune in a different key than they’re used to. In backing or tension building they do sometimes ‘mess up’ by going for bluesy notes rather than the folky alternatives, but hey - personal history will do that to you.

The common themes in music, the ones that go straight from my ears to my fingers, are also the themes easiest to describe in theoretical terms, I suppose.

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Gotta say, I can’t really see how much help music theory is in the playing of Irish music. I’m classically trained (violin) and so I can sight-read music pretty well but I was always terrible at music theory. I can never remember the names of different modes. But I know I prefer, to massively generalise, modal-sounding tunes, and I get quite quickly bored by tunes that are unambiguously, straightforwardly major or minor.

I notice the initial post is focused almost entirely on accompaniment – the music theory behind which chords sound good with which melodies. I don’t think you need to study music theory to become adept and creative at that. You can get that by playing along to songs by The Beatles. I got more on that front thanks to the Casio electronic keyboard my parents bought when I was 10 than anything I got out of the several attempts it took me to pass Grade 5 theory.

Said keyboard had one of those auto-accompaniment functions, where you would press a button for a major chord, press a different one for a minor, a seventh, a minor-seventh, a ninth or whatever. So after a few months I could quickly play more or less any pop song I heard, cos you rapidly learned what kind of chord patterns fit beneath them.

To return to Irish music though… I don’t personally like 99% of the piano or guitar accompaniment I hear on recordings. I find it imposes far too much unambiguous conventional non-modal I-V-I seesawing. Makes the music sound trite and banal. A piano or guitar accompanist following music theory will think ‘ah, major chord tonic here, go to V here, down to relative minor here, back to V for the B-part’ and it ends up sounding like the Archers theme. All my favourite ITM recordings are either completely solo or traditional unison (everyone playing more or less the same melodic line) playing. I do quite like drone-based accompaniment though. You don’t really need to know any music theory to have these sort of preferences; you just need to know what you like hearing.

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"A piano or guitar accompanist following music theory will think ‘ah, major chord tonic here, go to V here, down to relative minor here, back to V for the B-part’ and it ends up sounding like the Archers theme."

What that shows is not the redundancy of music theory but the danger of relying more on theory than the ear. Without an aural understanding of music, music theory means *absolutely nothing* - it’s just a rather quirky form of arithmetic.

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The word ‘redundant’ is too loaded a term, and too absolute (it’s not one I used). I’m not gonna say ‘music theory is completely redundant’. Because it plainly isn’t if one person somewhere finds it helpful at some point. I can, however, go so far as saying that in my own practice, music theory is redundant to ME.

(Unless you consider knowing that something ‘sounds modal’ to be music theory, in which case… I’m a music theorist!)

An accompanist can end up producing exactly the kind of trite accompaniments I’m thinking of whether they know music theory or not. Whether they are using their ears or not. On the other hand, some people might find the kind of trite accompaniments I’m thinking of as successful – they are consonant, they resolve, nothing jars, they ‘fit’. But knowing music theory is no more likely to get you that ‘success’ than having developed an intuitive, sophisticated approach to harmony practically, by just working out hundreds of songs and tunes.

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If you know that most tunes are going to resolve to the tonic, or that the minor has a flat third, you are using theory. How much further you want to go, will depend on what you want to do with your arrangements.

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When someone (tdrury) who teaches it at university level starts with "music theory is description" I pay attention.

Having reservations about the way some people do or don’t apply theory is not at all "like saying astronomy is a bad thing because you’d rather just lie in the grass and look at the stars". Before Gallileo, Kepler, Newton and others came along there were detailed and thoughtful *descriptions* of movements of the stars and planets and theories to explain them - now we call it astrology, not astronomy.

Use music theory to explain to me the effect that a certain chord sequence has. Now us it to really *explain* to me *why* it has that effect on me.

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David50: Yes! And we all know what a ridiculous patronizing load of old doodah astrology is!!

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Matt Milton wrote, "I do quite like drone-based accompaniment though. You don’t really need to know any music theory to have these sort of preferences; you just need to know what you like hearing." By saying that you like drone-based accompaniment, you are using theory. Theory is just describing what happens in the music (like "using a drone").

If you notice that two different tunes use the same set of notes, you are using theory. If you know what to call that set of notes, then you are using deeper theory. If you know that the same set of notes can have a different "home note", you are using even deeper theory. If you know what the frequencies of those notes are, you are using much deeper theory. Understanding the way the vibrations are manipulated and transported to your ears is a WAY deeper level of theory.

If you know that there are four parts in a certain reel, you are using theory. If you know that one of those sections has a different "home note", you are using deeper theory. People use theory all the time, whether they know it or not.

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I get the impression that ‘theory’ is being used for everything that is not ‘practical’ .

Though I am not sure where that leaves twanging a monochord and measuring the string lengths on it etc.

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>"I get the impression that ‘theory’ is being used for everything that is not ‘practical’ .

Though I am not sure where that leaves twanging a monochord and measuring the string lengths on it etc."

"Theory" is thinking and talking about "practice". Twanging the monochord is "practice"; measuring the string length is "theory".

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I’ve been playing fiddle for less than 2 years and have only begun to study theory during the last year. Exactly what do you mean by

"A guitarist who needs to ask what ‘key’ a tune is in shouldn’t (in general) be playing that tune."

I’ve heard meany musicians ask what key a song is in before they start playing when in a group. I thought it a normal question.

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"A guitarist who needs to ask what ‘key’ a tune is in shouldn’t (in general) be playing that tune."

I didn’t say that, but I might have, so I’ll chime in. This music is complicated enough that simply knowing that a tune is in D major or E minor (really E dorian, almost always) won’t be enough to tell an accompanying player which patterns exactly will work well, because different tunes will work in different ways. For the most part, you need to know the tune to know which chords might work where. It is possible for an accompanying player who knows the music well to chime in on an unfamiliar tune, but when I do this I will listen to the tune at least once through to hear where the changes in implied harmony are. An accompanying player who fails to pay attention to the underlying patterns, playing every tune in the same key the same way or, as noted above, fails to notice that the key has changed (or who fails to keep tempo with the group), will absolutely diminish the enjoyment of the shared musicmaking for everyone else. At least, for everyone else who understands the music.

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‘Use music theory to explain to me the effect that a certain chord sequence has. Now us it to really *explain* to me *why* it has that effect on me.’ (sic)

Theorizing on the psychology of music will require much more than theoretical explanations of music itself - currently, humans are mostly enamored with bio-chemical explanations of the universe, but this only accounts for (one purview of) sensation and perception - the ‘mechanical’ understanding of music. There is vastly more about in the universe than what we ‘know.’

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Philip stone and tdrury seem to have my perspective pretty much covered on this one.
I’ll add that I’ve learned a good few few languages with varying levels of formal instruction and grammar lessons in isolation are almost completely useless. You learn a language by experiencing and interacting with it. By practise. Grammar does sometimes give you a structure to hang all your disparate observations onto though and it can be useful to have your observations confirmed.
Where it really excels is when you go to learn another language. The process of consciously analysing the rules, the common vocabulary to describe those rules, this kind of stuff can really help you work out how a new language works.
I would argue that music is much the same.

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@Mike Troxell asked
Exactly what do you mean by "A guitarist who needs to ask what ‘key’ a tune is in shouldn’t (in general) be playing that tune." ?

a) What tdrury said in response.
b) They are asking for the Key, where the minimal amount of information required (in general) is the Mode and Root. For example, "The High Reel" https://thesession.org/tunes/44, an A mixolydian tune, often accompanied by chords of A Major and G Major, is technically in the key of D major.
c) If the tune *has* started, and they can’t hear it/work it out for themselves, then my comment stands.

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Rick Payman said, " For example, "The High Reel" https://thesession.org/tunes/44, an A mixolydian tune, often accompanied by chords of A Major and G Major, is technically in the key of D major."

No, it is NOT in the key of D major! It is in "A mixolydian", you said so yourself. "A mixolydian" happens to share the same set of notes as D major, but it is NOT the same key.

If I was playing accompaniment chords, asking what key beforehand will give me certain information and expectations for chords. I would still listen to the tune through, but at least I would have a starting pitch. That is unless somebody tells me the WRONG KEY! (Like calling A mixolydian the key of D major)

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I dont think the "ignorance is bliss" argument stands up; knowledge always wins.

The idea of simple, backward tradition bearers is insulting. Iconic players inspired their peers, they understood their music in contemporary terms.

There are plenty of players who don’t know, or don’t feel the need to figure out, what key or mode a tune is in. IF we all know the tune it is immaterial.

And, a key signature in its own, without notes, is simply a ghost, a phantom, a mythical creature.

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@catty "Theorizing on the psychology of music will require much more than theoretical explanations of music itself "

The modern process started over 150 years ago: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensations_of_Tone (the English version is still in print), but doesn’t seem to be regarded as ‘music theory’.

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Students in Ireland were expected to read Latin and Greek for hundreds and hundreds of years along with French And English. The idea that they had no access to music theory is preposterous. but, one doesn’t have to be good at math to know they are making money!

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I like to read and learn just about anything, and so yes, I have often enjoyed and absorbed reading music theory and the math behind it (even the physics behind it). But for me that knowledge only came in handy when I played back-up instruments. Since I took up playing fiddle tunes I never give a thought to musical theory;- I just play what’s in my head, and that’s what I truly love about playing nowadays;- i.e., the absolute freedom of it.

(P.S. and completely BTW, in Australia, as in other places, we say ‘maths’ and not ‘math’, as in the USA. Out of long habit I struggle to write the word ‘math’, but I did once read about this difference and the American explanation, although I forget what it was, appeared to be valid).

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@David L
Let Us at least agree that "A mixolydian" is NOT a/the KEY, which was being asked for!!

Perhaps for interest, you could elucidate which notes are a in the mode of A mixolydian, and NOT in the key of D Major.

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[beer goggles mode]
@David L - actually, let me leave it at that.

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I think we all know what you mean Rick. I myself felt the confusion of agreeing with both of you.

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… on the other hand…
Are you seriously suggesting that A mixolydian is not the 5th MODE of the D Major scale?

I think the issue boils down to the concept/definition of ‘Key’, and the DIFFERENCE between that a MODE, which was my original point.

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Playing my fiddle if I was told a tune was in Amix, I’d know where I was better than if I was told it was in D. But in the days I played guitar, if I asked what key a tune was in and somebody said A mix, I would have asked them what the feck they were talking about. Then it would be in D! I guess this actually demonstrates that theory is required. I don’t see how knowing theory could ever be a bad thing. Theory is knowledge and knowledge is always preferable to ignorance. To my mind it’s the Key of D and the mode of Amix. The same thing but different!

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Just waded through this thread a little belatedly. I confess I have studied some theory and it holds some fascination for me. Never use it when I’m learning tunes or playing fiddle in sessions. It was much more relevant to understanding accompaniment (when I mainly did that).
I feel much the same about music theory as I do about street names. I know my way all around where I live but I really only know 2 or 3 street names. I don’t need to know the street names to get around..
The problem is when I have to communicate with someone else.
It can be useful to explain why a particular accompaniment isn’t working if both you and the offending guitarist know some theory. Its just a useful language to get you where you want to go, quicker.

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Hi, Rick! Maybe you’re still on here, and maybe this will help. A mixolydian is indeed the fifth mode of the D major scale, and it does use all the same notes, but you would not say that a tune in A mixolydian is in D major. A tune like the High Reel is in the A mixolydian mode, and wouldn’t be said to be in a key at all, if you want to be precise. Major and minor, in reference to keys, refer (in the strictest sense - we’re often more relaxed during sessions) only to tonality, which Irish music is on the fringes of, neither quite in nor out. Irish music is best described as "modal" though it often contains references to tonality.

You would probably use a key signature of two sharps to notate a tune in A mixolydian. You would use the same key signature for all the tunes in E dorian.

The difference between "mode" and "key" is subtle, and I don’t usually feel like interrupting a session to go into the particulars, so I (and most others, I think) would say "A major" for A mixolydian, "E minor" for E dorian, etc. That last is a particularly interesting distinction. I’ll write all about it if you really want to hear it, but if you don’t I won’t worry about it. That topic was the source of one of the disagreements/misunderstandings I referenced in my first post.

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That’s a good analogy and good answer Donough.

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Re: Theory, a bad thing?

Kind of referring to the "key/mode" thing. I have been, in years past, in "jams" (not Irish, I would never use Irish and jam in the same sentence) where someone signaled a tune change by lifting fingers to indicate the number of sharps, or lowering fingers to indicate flats…i.e. 2 fingers down meant B flat…I think someone may have written about this before. It was up to the group to listen carefully, and quickly, to pick up the tune and mode. Without a pretty fair understanding of theory it was easy to get lost. With that understanding things went a lot smoother. Melody players with a deep tune list may get away with a modest knowledge of theory and very often do. Others might find it useful to find the scale that avoids discordant notes. This knowledge can be taught or absorbed. I’d even argue that things taught must also be absorbed to be useful. I just don’t think theory can be ignored.

I’ll use myself as an anecdote for the value of understanding theory. I once joined a rock cover band (actually more than one). After the audition, a couple of hours of playing through their book, they commented that they’d never found anybody who knew all their songs. I had to say that I didn’t know very many of their songs, I just knew theory. Didn’t mean I’d play what the last guy played, but that I wouldn’t be playing anything that would make them look bad. Stayed with them for several years. That’s why I have this deep respect for theory. Still it’s just my way of being. I hope everyone finds the way that works best on their musical journey.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

"It can be useful to explain why a particular accompaniment isn’t working if both you and the offending guitarist …."

You’re way too kind to the guitarist. As a melody player, you command the guitarist to do your bidding. Simple as that.

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Re: Theory, a bad thing?

I’ve never heard of using the finger method that Ross describes. We just used to yell the out key if somebody didn’t know. The last band I was in consisted of an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman and albeit we were good friends, if anybody had raised fingers at one of the others, a brawl would have broken out on stage.

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Re: Theory, a bad thing?

"I would never use Irish and jam in the same sentence"

You just have, Ross 😉

"After the audition, a couple of hours of playing through their book, they commented that they’d never found anybody who knew all their songs. I had to say that I didn’t know very many of their songs, I just knew theory. "

I think you’re being a bit modest here. *Knowing* theory helped, no doubt. But what got you through the audition was having a well-trained ear and knowing your instrument well. Whether learned intellectually as ‘theory’ or found intuitively, the stuff that music theory represents has to be deeply internalised and bound up with your listening and playing skills to be effective.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

Theory is excellent because it helps you to understand what you are doing and what you are not doing. Learning bye ear is equally important but for different reasons.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

"By saying that you like drone-based accompaniment, you are using theory … Theory is just describing what happens in the music (like "using a drone"). If you notice that two different tunes use the same set of notes, you are using theory."

No, music theory is more than describing music in a non-specialised way: it is a codifying and formalising of music that exceeds everyday description. If it weren’t, there couldn’t be exams in it. You might, at a push, say: if you notice that two different tunes use the same set of notes, you are not using music theory; but if you name those notes, you are. But even that isn’t conventionally how human beings refer to what ‘music theory’ is: I might have the formal codification of music to thank for the fact that I know that the strings on a violin are called G, D, A and E, but it’s silly to say I am ‘employing music theory’ every time I refer to them as such, every time I to buy an E string in a music shop. There are points at which quantitative differences become qualitative ones; otherwise everything would be everything else, otherwise absolutely everybody in the world would be a music theorist every time they said ‘I like this happy song cos it makes me feel happy’.

Anyway, none of that hair-splitting is really all that relevant to the original post in this thread – the usefulness of music theory regarding accompaniment. On that front, I really don’t think the learning of music theory will necessarily help you any more than learning your ‘harmonic chops’ via practice, by working out the chords to lots of songs. If it’s music theory that extends to a proper understanding of modes, then yes, maybe, perhaps, for some people, if they’re not great at learning and working things out intuitively or by trial and error. But personally, I got everything I need to know about modes from listening to a lot of music, and by playing a lot of music: their names and their intervallic relations, all the formal stuff, will never stick in my head.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

I’m sorry if this is rude, but I have to directly contradict you. "Music theory", at its heart, is not codifying, nor formalizing. It is describing. Analyzing. Understanding. You can have tonal theory, jazz theory, Irish music theory, Indian music theory, what have you. In all these, the idea is never "this is how the music has to be" but always "this is how the music is". Exams, when music theory is formally taught, always concern how the music is, and how it works. But music theory does not have to be formally taught to exist, or be "used". You do not have to give the notes names before they can have meaning.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

> when music theory is formally taught, always concern how the music is, and how it works.

Though I don’t think it would be unfair to say that many people taught as children in the Western classical tradition really ever had that explained to them.

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Re: Theory, a bad thing?

That would not be unfair at all. It’s why I’m taking the time to point it out here.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

"I’m sorry if this is rude, but I have to directly contradict you. "Music theory", at its heart, is not codifying, nor formalizing. It is describing. Analyzing. Understanding."

What are crotchets, quavers and semi-quavers if not a codifying or a formalisation? But perhaps what I immediately think of as music theory radically differs from what others think of as music theory. Music theory to me means things like: cycle of fifths, relative keys and resolving of them, note lengths formalised into things like crotchets and quavers, tonics, dominants, subdominants, chord progressions etc etc. Those are all formalised terms.

I can describe music without using those terms, sure, but that’s not using music theory. Saying "that guitar solo rocks when he hit the high notes and they go weeeeeeeeeee-vudda-vudda-fftoom!" is a description of music, but it’s not what I, or I suspect, the majority of people in the world, think of as music theory. I don’t think the OP was asking the question: is it useful to be able to articulate some kind of description of music? He was asking whether it’s useful to know about relative minors, what harmonises with what, and all that jazz.

Also, for what it’s worth, to codify or formalise is not the same thing as saying "this is the way music has to be". It is simply to say that "this is what a crotchet has to be" or "this is what an A major scale has to be".

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

Thanks for all the responses guys. Much insight here. I’m really glad to have had the chance to view the topic from different points of view.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

Glad you posted this, Ross.

Hi again, Matt. Thanks for responding. All the things you brought up - crotchets, cycle of fifths, etc. - are definitely topics in music theory. But so are drones and sets of notes. You wrote above "if you notice that two different tunes use the same set of notes, you are not using music theory; but if you name those notes, you are." We might have to clarify what we mean when we say "using music theory" before we have a semantic argument. I don’t know that I would think you could play or sing music at all without "using" music theory, any more than you could say something to a friend without "using" grammar. Obviously you could do so without *thinking*, or talking, about it. But all the things one might think or talk about would be present.

I think it’s worth mentioning that many of the things you brought up don’t always apply to traditional music in the same way they do to Western classical music. The concept of a crotchet is meaningless in a slow air; likewise, you won’t find a dominant in a Dorian tune. And so, often, people who’ve only been trained in Western classical music (and often by people who fail to understand that "Western classical music" is not a synonym of "music") throw up their hands at anything else and say "it can’t be explained". But, back to the grammar example, just because somebody’s speech doesn’t follow your formalized grammar doesn’t mean it doesn’t have grammar. That’s my objection to your term "formalized", I think - it seems to me to imply that only formal music can have music theory. Think of somebody saying, in my part of the world, "dere ain’t no fish ‘n’isheer lake". Music theory isn’t about "that person should say ‘there are no fish here in this lake.’" It is about "in this dialect, the double negative and the colloquial contraction "ain’t" are common, the word "here" is used as an adjective to denote a particular object, and the dental fricative is replaced by an alveolar stop."

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

Not to interfere with an earnest roundabout discussion, but it could be clearer to view it (in this case, music theory) as much as we view (formalize, abstract) any other sensory phenomenon in our experience (albeit, for the moment leaving aside any but traditional conservative approaches and paradigms*): it (experience, roughly, or our subject at hand) can generally be given between ‘practice’ and ‘theory’ - the latter being a cogitative abstraction applied to any beast of human activity, differentiated among its parts such as elements, features, etc as presently being hashed about). We can usually easily sort between and among our corporeal and cognitive processes. (It’s when these items aren’t easily objectified that the matter becomes forthrightly interesting and the exercise of fomenting a new language, inspiring. ‘Imagine a color you don’t know’..)

Theory and its applications is great for a jazz player, obviously. But as applied here, much different of course. (I like the discourse about ‘microtonalism’ (in this case how we apply it, etc) - when we think of old trad, temperament, esoteric or obscure systems the matter is especially relevant -

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Re: Theory, a bad thing?

Wow. " dental fricative," " traditional conservative approaches and paradigms," "codifying or a formalisation" (sic) . Now I really just want to play some tunes.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

I love playing tunes. And when I play them, I’m not usually thinking of all these things. I’m lucky to remember the name(s) of the tunes I’m playing.

But I do also love talking about the tunes.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

I haven’t quite digested those posts from tdrury [the recent long one] and catty yet, but I had been thinking about black big dogs and apples.

I suspect most native English speakers could talk about big black dogs for a lifetime without giving it any thought. Hearing a non-native speaker’s black big dog may, however, give some cause to think "Oh, that’s interesting" and wonder about it some. Many would think "that’s wrong" and continue not giving adjective order any thought. I don’t see how that last group are ‘using theory’, just as a I don’t see how, say, someone brought up on diatonic music would be using theory if they thought an accidental sounded unusual.

There are some things, such as the sun coming up in the morning and going down at night, where I suspect that for millenia it has been hard, in most communities, to get through life without coming across someone’s non-descriptive theory about it. Is there a musical equivalent?

And then the apples. They had been falling off trees for millenia before it occured to someone to wonder why they went downwards? Is there a musical equivalent of that - or don’t we know yet?

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

"Perhaps for interest, you could elucidate which notes are a in the mode of A mixolydian, and NOT in the key of D Major."

"… on the other hand…
Are you seriously suggesting that A mixolydian is not the 5th MODE of the D Major scale?"

Neither of which I said. I said that "A mixolydian and D Major share the same notes", not that they have different notes.

Yes, A mixolydian can be thought of as the 5th mode of D major. But D major is also the 4th mode of A mixolydian. They are two different keys/modes that have the same set of notes. D major is no more basic or important than A mixolydian.

Some people make a big distinction between "key" and "mode", reserving "key" for just major and minor. I see no reason to make major and minor any more important or different than other modes.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

David L, this is another instance where whether you’re talking about Western tonal music or traditional Irish music makes a difference. For the music this site exists for, there’s no reason to think of D major/Ionian (speaking modally, the words mean the same thing) as having any primacy over E Dorian or A mixolydian. But in Western tonal theory, major and minor keys generally function as systems of notes and melodies and chords and harmonies, and you would not think of them as working the same way as modes do.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

tdrury, Yes, Western tonal theory of the Common Use Period does use major and minor more than any other modes or scales, but I don’t think that that gives major and minor any special place in overall music theory, which includes ITM.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

But surely David L, you couldn’t know that without a some knowledge of theory?

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Re: Theory, a bad thing?

"Overall music theory" is probably a little too big for either one of us, David L. But the words "major" and "minor" are specifically tonal music words. And furthermore, they refer not just to a scale, but to an entire system. They are distinct from modes.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

@David L
Apologies to you (and others) for my Guinness-fuelled rants.

We’ve been arguing over semantics; I concede your use of "Key" to include the mode, especially as that precedent has already been adopted by the abc notation standard.

Maybe some entrepreneur could fill a gap in the market for A mixolydian whistles … 😉

I could take issue with your demotion of the Major scale to a mode of said scale, although maybe now in a different universe.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

>"I could take issue with your demotion of the Major scale to a mode of said scale, although maybe now in a different universe."

Calling it a "demotion" underlines my point: why is major any more basic or important than mixolydian? Just because certain styles in certain periods used it more? They are just inversions (modes) of one another.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

> why is major any more basic or important than mixolydian?

The point is that western/classical music is built around a system in which there is major, and there is minor, and all classical music is an exploration of this. In Bach’s world, the mixolydian doesn’t exist as a valid musical form (of course he knows about it, but he doesn’t use it).

From the Irish theoretician’s point of view, major, minor, dorian, and mix all fall out of the same set of notes, which gives no particular primacy to any one of these.

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Re: Theory, a bad thing?

Calum, I agree, except I would say that SOME western/classical music OF A PARTICULAR ERA is built around the major/minor system. That still doesn’t make it more important, as your comment about Irish music shows. (Remember, this IS an Irish music site)

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"Why is major any more basic or important…?"

It’s a sociological answer. (They call it the "Grande" tradition)

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Re: Theory, a bad thing?

We are remembering that this is an Irish music site, and have been careful to distinguish which aspects of music we’re talking about. But you stated above "I don’t think that that gives major and minor any special place in overall music theory." And your statement about "some" and "particular era" is misleading. The vast majority of music called classical (and jazz, and rock, etc.) is tonal and dependent on the major/minor system.

And look. Irish music is modal in nature. Sure. But are you really contending that all the modes are treated equally? Let me list all the modes possible on a D whistle, excluding half holing (so C nat and C sharp but no G sharp, F nat, etc.)

D maj/Ionian
E Dorian
F# Phrygian
G Lydian
A Mixolydian
B natural minor/Aeolian
C# "Locrian"
D Mixolydian
E natural minor/Aeolian
F# "Locrian"
G maj/Ionian
A Dorian
B Phrygian
C Lydian

That’s fourteen modes. Do you know approximately the same number of tunes in each mode? I don’t. I know tunes in D major and G major, in E Dorian and A Dorian (and the Dorian mode contains only notes occurring in at least one of the three minor scales), in A Aeolian and B Aeolian (this scale is identical to natural minor), and in A mixolydian and D mixolydian. Approximately in decreasing order of frequency. And only the last two do not fit into what most musicians think of as major or minor.

All this is to say that there is a reason major is the first mode. There is a reason people say that A mixolydian is the fifth mode of the D major scale, and that they do not say D major is the fourth mode of the A mixolydian scale.

Cheers to you. I’m on spring break now.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

OK, after seeing tdrury’s list of various modes that may be played on a D whistle, I was curious about how the number of reels, (just the reels,) break out that are commonly played in our extended group. Here are the numbers:

D maj/Ionian ———————— 24
E Dorian ——————————- 10
F# Phrygian ————————— 0
G Lydian ——————————— 0
A Mixolydian ————————- 2
B natural minor/Aeolian ——- 5
C# "Locrian" ————————— 0
D Mixolydian ————————- 2
E natural minor/Aeolian ——- 3
F# "Locrian" ————————— 0
G maj/Ionian ————————- 14
A Dorian ——————————— 9
B Phrygian —————————— 0
C Lydian ———————————- 0

We have some odd few that don’t fall in this list. Those would be in keys such as Amaj, Ddor & C that would be more difficult on the D whistle. The majority of our reels are played in Dmaj, Gmaj, Edor, Ador & Bm in that order of frequency. I would say that same relative frequency would probably apply to other forms such as jigs, polkas, hornpipes, etc. that we play.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

@Roads to Home.

I’m surprised that A-dor and E-dor are not about as frequent as G-maj and D-maj. I don’t have numbers for around here, but we seem to do a lot of dorian tunes. My personal playlist has more E-dor than any other single key.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

To the OP

I’d have to say that the idea of "The West" is a distinctly European concept - the idea that we are fundamentally different (and often superior) from the non-West.

This dividing line exists only in the European psyche - there has been no formation of "Western Studies" like there has been "Oriental" studies. The idea of "Western" exceptionalism is pernicious.

To draw a line with "Western Music" and non-Western Music would be false and unhelpful - imagining that it’s somehow fundamentally different. Music is the same the world over, and musicians over the world know this.

Let’s not let old colonialist baggage get in the way of our human tradition.

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Theory is everywhere.

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"My personal playlist has more E-dor than any other single key."…. Without actually checking, I suspect that’s the same for me. I’m not sure why that would be. Maybe it’s just what my ear likes best.

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Re: Theory, a bad thing?

ITM has wonderful subtlety and underlying structure in very many tunes. This can apply to simple tunes as well as more complex ones and of course there are tunes that don’t have much going on in them as well. As a listener or a melody player it is not essential to understand the theory behind them, however many people inherently feel the beauty, variety and different musical points being made in the tunes. If they didn’t I don’t think that ITM would be as enduring or popular.

The accompaniment of ITM can bring out and strengthen the underlying beauty of a tune if done properly. There are lots of approaches to this from traditional ceili band vamping to more contemporary approaches such as the Gloaming. I think that all successful accompaniment needs great depth and understanding of the music. Accompaniment needs as much variety and subtlety as there are interesting tunes even if the accompaniment is very simple and restrained allowing the melody to speak through. It is in many ways as challenging as playing the melody if you are looking for a top class result.

So how does theory fit into this? In the same way as melody players develop their musical skills and repertoire if they want to get better, accompanists should do exactly the same but should also get some relevant theory under their belt. It is very useful to have a practical understanding of the modal nature of the music, to be able to identify the modal structure and keys of tunes and to develop the possibilities of accompaniment in the common modes. Experience and personal taste will dictate how well individual players use this knowledge.

I am often asked by guitarists at my regular open session what key is that in. I nearly always reply with the modal description of the key if appropriate rather than a key. Those that don’t understand this in my experience are not able to contribute much to a tune and in many cases cut across the structure of a tune. I mainly play trad piano, melody with accompaniment, and am also a classical organist so bass lines and voicings are hardwired into my approach to ITM accompaniment.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

I read your post, Choons. I have to say that I don’t think it’s entirely unhelpful to think about tonal music as a distinct musical thread (of which there are many), with distinct characteristics, such as the relative importance of harmony and the tendency to write music down, thus elevating the status of composer. This is not to say that such characteristics do not appear in other musical threads. There is fascinating polyphonic vocal music made by the Aka and related tribes (sometimes they are called "pygmies" but that term is often seen as perjorative), and I think Indian music writes stuff down regularly (Indian music isn’t my area of expertise, so I can’t go into more detail). But I think it’s fair to say that tonal music is a distinct thread. Interestingly, the first distinction I think of, the importance of harmony, isn’t really shared in Irish music.

I fully agree with your statements "Western exceptionalism is pernicious" and "Theory is everywhere".

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

Theory is just part of the craft. You can get by without much of it. You can get by even better with a lot of it.
Quotes like this crop up a lot:
"I am often asked by guitarists at my regular open session what key is that in. I nearly always reply with the modal description of the key if appropriate rather than a key."
The guitarist is obviously a learner, doing exactly what learners should be doing i.e. asking questions.
The respondent is just being unhelpful and showing off, unless he also pauses long enough to explain what "E dorian" etc. actually means.
What is "trad" piano? Bach, Scarlatti, or honky tonk? You don’t get many itinerant Irish trad musicians carrying a piano around.

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Thanks tdrury!

I see what yir sayin 😉

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"The guitarist is obviously a learner, doing exactly what learners should be doing i.e. asking questions.
The respondent is just being unhelpful and showing off, unless he also pauses long enough to explain what "E dorian" etc. actually means." ……… I disagree! I don’t think a melody player has any obligation to be teaching a rhythm player how to do their job. The back up up player really needs to know the theory first.

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Re: Theory, a bad thing?

if you want to play with other people you all have an obligation to each other. It’s not a competitive sport it’s a cooperative venture, for most people at any rate.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

No it’s not a competitive sport but if back-up players want to play in sessions the obligation is for them to learn the theory required. I’m not saying that it’s not necessary to ask what key a tune is in, but that should be about the limit of it. I don’t ask a guitar player how to play my fiddle. I’ve had to put my own years of work into it. That includes learning the necessary theory. I could play guitar or zouk backing myself but that’s because I’ve done the work, as everybody should.

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Re: Theory, a bad thing?

Theory is a bad thing if understanding music is a bad thing.

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Marvellous long thread. Nerves have been touched. Obviously this theory business is an important, if contentious, issue. Some poster whose name begins with Creadur and who describes him/herself as, amongst other things, a ‘fiddle wrestler’, piled a bit of scorn on theory and ‘those who sail in her’. Put simply, understanding something—anything—can only be better than not understanding it. What more is there to say? Well….this: someone who implies that an understanding of music theory is a disadvantage in a player of ITM is telling us that he/she a. doesn’t understand music theory and b. doesn’t think much of anyone who does. Neither of these can possibly be good.
‘Nuff said.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

Three things.

First, Jack, I absolutely agree that knowing theory, whether by study or assimilation, is a good, even necessary thing. Thanks.

Next, I didn’t get any feeling that Creadur scorns theory. I think he’d place more value on the territory (what is heard) than on the map (the theory) and that they are not separate things, but I didn’t get a hard edge to it. Quite valid.

Oh and last, the guitar player that asks for the key might just as well be trying to save a bit of time, or she’s asking as a courtesy to avoid starting out on the wrong foot and doesn’t want to make the group sound bad. Many tunes may be backed more than one way, maybe as a skilled player, she wants to know what your preference is. Must be a she, ‘cause most men I know, including myself, would rather be hopelessly lost than ask for directions. (insert a string of smiley faces here).

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

No, I don’t think theory is a bad thing. I learned a lot of it when I was quite young and working up through the piano grades: always easier to learn anything when younger, from music to foreign languages! Later, took up guitar, and later still, button accordion, even later, back to piano but playing in ceilidh bands, an entirely different can of worms, and where chord stuff is invaluable, as others have said.
Music theory also helped me in learning by ear, also a later acquired skill after years of having to have written music in front of me. How? Why? Because I could think in terms of intervals after all those aural tests in my youth, e.g. that note is a 5th above the last, or that run of notes is a D arpeggio.
I also write songs, tunes and harmonies, or add chords to tunes that friends put my way: I couldn’t do that without a bit of theory behind me. I always sang alto in choirs, so can harmonise tunes quite easily, having often NOT been on the main melody.
OK, I’m not suggesting it is the definitive way forward for everyone, but just describing how useful theory has been to me.

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Fair play, Trish, about often NOT being on the main melody.
So, are you often SHOUTING w/the melody or harmonising?
;)

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Re: Theory, a bad thing?

An anecdote about theory: My wife used to play a bit of lap harp. When my daughter was a freshman majoring in music, she brought some classmates to our house. Two of them saw the harp sitting out and began playing around with it. They were sitting on the floor cross-legged, one facing the harp in normal position, the other facing the back end (bass end) of the harp.

They loved its tone, and soon the first was picking out some familiar melody, and doing quite well indeed. The student facing the harp backwards soon figured out the meaning of the string colors, and began plucking bass notes and simple chords to accompany the first. The sound was beautiful, and the feat was very impressive.

When the tune ended, the guy playing bass notes said "Music theory makes you cool."

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

I hope appreciating music is not simply reducing it to something which makes a person appear *cool*.
That would not be the best thing for music.

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The tune matters.

Sorry for countering a few posts about using harmony. I appreciate harmony. I appreciate exploring theoretic properties of music. I never want to limit the tunes from any sort of variation or innovation, in fact I want nothing more as long as it always comes with appreciation for the tune. The tune matters.

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Re: Theory, a bad thing?

Jacob, do you mean you’d tell him the tune was in D major rather than E dorian? That seems.. unhelpful.

Re: Ignorance of Theory, a good thing?

The OP’s thread title turned around sheds a certain insight.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

Good point, Yhall House! Yes that appears to be the implication.

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

Theory would enable a poster to this forum to know the difference between a slide and a jig.
Should someone be composing tunes if they do not know the difference?

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"Theory would enable a poster to this forum to know the difference between a slide and a jig."

Really? Please elucidate.

"Should someone be composing tunes if they do not know the difference?"

Extraordinary! If anyone wishes to compose a tune they are entitled to do just that, whether you think they "should" or not. What exactly is your objection?

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

Anyone can compose tunes if they feel like it Richard, but not everybody can do it well. Someone may be very gifted at creating compositions even though they haven’t the first clue about the differences between a jig and a slide. Being experienced helps but it depends. Someone may know every detail about different styles of music but not have the ability to compose whatsoever.

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"I am often asked by guitarists at my regular open session what key is that in."

I just say "E minor," no matter what the tune is. After a while the guitarists leave me alone.

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"Jacob, do you mean you’d tell him the tune was in D major rather than E dorian? That seems.. unhelpful.

# Posted by PhilipStone one day ago."

Yes I agree that would be unhelpful because the tune would not be in D major!
But you might have to explain this to your guitarist; "it has 2 sharps in the key sig which is the same as D major but the notes start on the E with an Em chord so it’s not D major,,…..etc etc."
Actually this seems to crop up a lot with very common tunes - somebody says why does it have 2 sharps but is in E minor (is it?) and you have to have a go at explaining.
We are all in it together, trying to be helpful!

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At best I’d suggest what chords I’d us if I was playing guitar, but then I play different chords for Irish trad. than I would in say, Cowboy music. Lots of what I call neutral chords; i.e., neither minor nor major… but how much explanation can you be giving people when you are trying to play a tune? That’s why I say that the back-up player has an obligation to learn the theory for themselves, to the degree that if you tell them that the tune is in (.e.g.) E Dorian, then they should know how to handle it.

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Re: Theory, a bad thing?

To compose tunes that sound as if they are ITM, it is necessary to have listened to a lot of ITM.
No one can compose good tunes unless they have absorbed the tradition, Anyone who has done this does not need to ask whether a tune[when played ] is a jig or a slide.
Theory CAN help in composition of ITM, 100 per cent of ITM is in particular modes, that is an example of theory being able to guide people like Kellie to write convincing sounding compositions., but it is still not as good as having listened to the music for years

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

Wow, who would have guessed that such a silly question would spawn such a long thread!
I can’t resist adding my two cents worth, even if it’s redundant.
Knowing more is good. Knowing less isn’t good.
I don’t care if the subject is quadratic equations, culinary chemistry, astrophysics,
sailing, brain surgery or Irish grammar. To hold that there is anything to be lost by understanding the theory of anything is to trumpet ignorance of what should be obvious to an eight year-old.
Anyone who holds that a knowledge of music theory is a disadvantage for us ITM players
really should shake his head: his eyes are stickin’. Maybe the fearful think music theory will bite them!
As is commonly said here in Québec when confronted by such pitiable ignorance: Tabarnak!

Re: Theory, a bad thing?

I missed the silly question bit in the original post, Jack. Could you point it out in better detail, please?

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