Music Theory for the Non-Musically inclined: Finding Home

LorenFL

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I've been plunking around on ukes for 11 years now. I know a lot of chords, and I can play some tunes. I can improvise on some mostly memorized chord progressions. (muscle memory is a wonderful thing) And I can improvise "solos" on a few different scale patterns. Mostly the major scale and the minor blues pentatonic scale.

While I've studied my share of music theory, and I *can* understand it... I wouldn't say that I ever fully absorbed it an I don't remember a lot of it. My eyes glaze over when I get too deep!

But, while I was amusing myself riffing on the minor blues pentatonic scale a while ago, I realized something that I've been noticing more and more lately. That is... while I have NO idea what notes I'm playing (I'm generally not even playing the CHORDS that I think I'm playing because I'm tuned 2 semitones down, and playing standard shapes), I'm learning the SOUNDS and the RELATIVE SOUNDS, and my fingers and ears have learned where "home" is on the blues scale that I play so much. I can end a lick in a lot of different places and make it sound good... but, if it's not "home", it feels incomplete! So, I'll play another riff, and bring it back around. It almost sounds like I know what I'm doing.

Yeah, many of you are like, "yeah, I knew that after 3 minutes", but it's something for me. A lot of you grew up learning music, and you have that innate sense of what the "root" or "tonic" of a scale is and all of those other terms that go with it. For me to suddenly come to the realization that I now KNOW what the root of my scale is BECAUSE it feels like "home"... that's something.

I guess this is just a connection between being more inclined to be one of those "self taught, non-music-reading" musicians who plays by ear and actual music theory.

I'm sure there are a lot of other people like me. So, I just thought I'd share. Maybe it will help somebody. If you plunk around enough... eventually it starts making sense! And you can certainly enjoy playing, even if it doesn't make sense. The more you play, the more you develop muscle memory, AND train your ear.

This might help me actually start becoming more inclined to learn the notes on the fretboard! I can start by learning the C string, which will let me know (I'm not kidding when I say that I don't know) what KEY I'm soloing in! Once I figure that out (down 2 because of my tuning!), I could actually jam with other people or with recorded music. That would be an accomplishment for me.

To me, this is all about "feel". I'm developing a feel for where the sounds that I want to hear are within a scale shape. A sense of "home", a sense of that fabled "tension and release". A sense of rhythm and timing, even though I absolutely can't consciously COUNT while I'm playing. (just like I can't SING while I'm playing)

I think... I might actually be becoming a "a guy who plays a ukulele" rather than just "a guy who plays WITH a ukulele". I'm starting to think just a little bit like a musician.

In hindsight, I think maybe I might have figured this out sooner (well, first, simply by WANTING to) if I wasn't playing in Low G. With the root of the scale on the C string, I can effectively play above AND below the root and still be on-key. I dance all around that area! I'll easily go two notes below the scale, and I'll jump up to the next octave and go one note above the scale on the A string. Fun stuff, I'm playing 10 notes on a "pentatonic" scale. But, that doesn't put the "root" in an obvious place.

Another thing that probably helped was getting a better set-up uke that SOUNDED better. I used to play a lot more on the E string simply because it SOUNDED better. I couldn't get good bends out of the other strings, etc. Now that I've found a setup that works for me, I can bend on all 4 strings and have a lot more fun... my playing is becoming more fluid... and I've started consciously finding my way back home!
 
I understand and agree. I want to add that theory is just a tool and there's no point in having a tool until you have an application for that tool. We pick up tools over time to serve the needs of our life. I have a hammer, screwdrivers, wrenches, an electric drill. I have picked them up over the years because I needed them. Same thing with theory. In my musical life there have been times when I needed more information to do what I wanted to do and I picked up a piece of theory here and a piece there. So it doesn't have to be all or nothing. You can grab a piece of theory now to assist in a goal and leave the rest to later...or to never.
 
Except that that's a very inefficient way to learn either theory or how to play better—you don't realize the tools that could help you immensely until you've gone through all the hardship of learning the same things in a more limiting and arduous way first, by which time you think that part of theory is something you "didn't need." Students are usually the worst judges of what they need and don't need—they don't have enough of the picture, and can't assess the real amount of difficulty involved, nor the benefits. They inadequately prepare through their scattershot methods, so when they do approach something new, something that ought to be easy to assimilate if they had a more systematic grounding, they encounter gaps in their knowledge that first need to be addressed, and that makes theory seem "hard" (and hard to follow). If theory were learned in the same way as picking up chord shapes (and at the same time), it wouldn't seem hard or abstract or not very useful; quite the reverse.

If I were eleven years in and just coming to such basic realizations, the real take-away for me would be, "I wasted a lot of time and effort by not studying theory (and not finding the right help with it)." And my second take-away would be, "But if I want to make my progress easier and faster going forward, I can start now."
 
Except that that's a very inefficient way to learn either theory or how to play better

If I were eleven years in and just coming to such basic realizations, the real take-away for me would be, "I wasted a lot of time and effort by not studying theory (and not finding the right help with it)." And my second take-away would be, "But if I want to make my progress easier and faster going forward, I can start now."

I get what you're saying. But... you don't get it. And that's okay. We all have our own ways of doing things.

I'm not trying to be efficient. I'm not trying to make the process "un-fun" for me. (operative words there, "FOR ME") I'm not playing for anyone else, just myself. I've enjoyed my 11 year journey, and I really, really wasn't taking it seriously for a good long while. I've only been getting more serious since COVID hit. But, I'm still learning at my own pace in my own way.

I've just reached the point that I've immersed myself into the sounds and feels of what I'm playing that the THEORY behind it is making more sense on a fundamental level. As I said at the top of this thread... some of you were at this point when you were children. You're an astrophysicist mapping the stars. I've just expanded from making a drawing of my own back yard to mapping the 3-mile radius around my house.

To continue that analogy... I don't WANT to be an astrophysicist, therefore I in no way feel that I've wasted my life by not studying for decades to get a PhD in astrophysics.
 
If I were eleven years in and just coming to such basic realizations, the real take-away for me would be, "I wasted a lot of time and effort by not studying theory (and not finding the right help with it)." And my second take-away would be, "But if I want to make my progress easier and faster going forward, I can start now."
Sure, that's your take. Everyone learns differently though, and if this is what it took - physical internalization of sound and relationships of sounds - for LorenFL, and they've now figured out something, then that means a lot and has a lot more sticking power than intellectually understanding something. Not everyone works the same way.

Students are usually the worst judges of what they need and don't need—they don't have enough of the picture, and can't assess the real amount of difficulty involved, nor the benefits.
Fair enough, but some students need to take time to arrive at the point where they're ready to receive the information (been there, done that). You can introduce stuff when you think they need to receive it, but if they're not in that space, or you're not presenting it in a way that can be received by that student at that time, you're throwing your effort at a brick wall and both teacher and student will be exceptionally frustrated. I appreciate that theory is useful and important, just like learning the fretboard is useful and important, but we don't all get there in the same way.

Honestly, if you're playing a musical instrument, you're learning theory, you just don't necessarily know it. The relationships of the sounds, the intonation, the rhythm, the pitch, the dynamics - all of that is music theory, in application to the instrument you're using (voice, percussion, string, whatever). You learn what works, how to make things work, and you're making music. If you learn how to stick names onto the stuff you learn, great. Does it make you a worse musician if you only play by ear and intuition? Not necessarily, not if you're dedicated and learn from doing. Does it help you become a better musician by learning the relationships early on in your musical career? Maybe, but maybe if you're brilliant at theory, you're a crap musician, and that's not really much fun, either (unless you'd prefer to just be brilliant at theory). There are many paths, and we who choose to play the ukulele are a blessed lot: what a great little instrument, and if it gives you joy to play and learn what you learn, however long it takes, then that's pretty darned great.
 
Loren, even those of us who learned music theory when we were young have, on occasion, experienced similar “aha!” moments. And it’s an immensely satisfying feeling. What I find particularly interesting is that, despite the fact that I play multiple instruments and have been reading music my entire life, every one of my music theory “aha!” moments has occurred while playing the ukulele. I have no idea why, but I’m grateful for them nonetheless. I guess it’s proof that an old dog CAN learn new tricks. :)
 
All I really need to know are the chords that go in each key, and the notes of those chords. The rest of it befuddles me.
 
Sure, that's your take. Everyone learns differently though, and if this is what it took - physical internalization of sound and relationships of sounds - for LorenFL, and they've now figured out something, then that means a lot and has a lot more sticking power than intellectually understanding something. Not everyone works the same way.


Fair enough, but some students need to take time to arrive at the point where they're ready to receive the information (been there, done that). You can introduce stuff when you think they need to receive it, but if they're not in that space, or you're not presenting it in a way that can be received by that student at that time, you're throwing your effort at a brick wall and both teacher and student will be exceptionally frustrated. I appreciate that theory is useful and important, just like learning the fretboard is useful and important, but we don't all get there in the same way.

Honestly, if you're playing a musical instrument, you're learning theory, you just don't necessarily know it. The relationships of the sounds, the intonation, the rhythm, the pitch, the dynamics - all of that is music theory, in application to the instrument you're using (voice, percussion, string, whatever). You learn what works, how to make things work, and you're making music. If you learn how to stick names onto the stuff you learn, great. Does it make you a worse musician if you only play by ear and intuition? Not necessarily, not if you're dedicated and learn from doing. Does it help you become a better musician by learning the relationships early on in your musical career? Maybe, but maybe if you're brilliant at theory, you're a crap musician, and that's not really much fun, either (unless you'd prefer to just be brilliant at theory). There are many paths, and we who choose to play the ukulele are a blessed lot: what a great little instrument, and if it gives you joy to play and learn what you learn, however long it takes, then that's pretty darned great.
My two cents, having walked a similar musical path as LorenFL-
I have a cousin who is nearly two decades older than I am. She’s “classically trained”, a flawless pianist with an angelic singing voice.
When I’m attending an event where she’s performing (almost exclusively hymns), I’ve acquired the habit of closing my eyes. “Immersing yourself” is your assumption of my reason. Actually, that’s not it. I close my eyes because I can only enjoy her music that way. She always seems annoyed/ bored if you watch her facial expressions.

Meaning no disrespect to my aunt nor to anyone else, that’s precisely NOT the relationship with music that I’ve ever desired.
I just want to enJOY. Meanwhile, as Ripock has so accurately noted, I share LorenFL’s willingness and curiosity to find out how theory will help ramp up the joy. There are of course tons of examples of why two approaches need not be mutually exclusive.
 
... physical internalization of sound ... I appreciate that theory is useful and important ... but we don't all get there in the same way .... if you're playing a musical instrument, you're learning theory, you just don't necessarily know it. The relationships of the sounds, the intonation, the rhythm, the pitch, the dynamics - all of that is music theory, in application to the instrument you're using (voice, percussion, string, whatever) ... You learn what works ... and you're making music .... it gives you joy to play and learn what you learn, however long it takes, then that's pretty darned great.
Word.

(BTW, I have found Plovers nesting in my yard. In northern IL, they dig little pockets in the dirt and cover their eggs with grass.)
 
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It's a logical fallacy to set fun and efficiency in opposition, whether you mean efficiency in learning or efficiency in thinking as you play. A "journey" can be both fun and efficient. Indeed, the more you know and can do the sooner, the more fun you typically have both quantitatively and qualitatively. For instance, there's a lot of boring rote learning that can be greatly reduced by applying pattern thinking instead of treating everything as a discrete special case, the way most people learn to play ukes.
 
For instance, there's a lot of boring rote learning that can be greatly reduced by applying pattern thinking instead of treating everything as a discrete special case, the way most people learn to play ukes.
And math!
 
The mathematical side of theory is greatly exaggerated; mostly you're just dealing with numbers more as labels than as quantities to add and subtract (and when you do add and subtract, it's very basic). In the main, you're dealing with visual patterns, in a way similar to looking at a square and instantly recognizing it as a four-sided, four-cornered object with sides that look about the same length, with right-angle joints and parallel sides—but without having to count the corners or measure the angles and side lengths first, you just "see" it. The idea that one has to be mathematically inclined to understand and apply theory is largely bogus. (It applies far more to melodic playing than to chording, and even then, the math is basic.)

The main problem with learning traditional theory on an ukulele is that, for greatest universality across instruments, it's normally taught from the perspective of standard notation (or worse, the piano keyboard), which one has to apply transformations to in order to map onto the fretboard—transformations that many learners aren't yet fluent in or may not know at all. And the use of Roman numerals, which can be confusing to parse at a glance, doesn't help. If instead you learn the concepts directly on the fretboard, reducing the indirection and transforms, theory much easier to grasp and apply. (Also, since uke players impatiently dive into the deep end with chords in inversion, you need to take that as your starting point and work backwards to more fundamental concepts like intervals, scale patterns and uninverted chord construction, a reversal of the standard progressive approaches people follow on most other instruments.)
 
@ubulele lol I didn't mean that theory = math; I meant that if you learn math by rote, you're missing out on the patterns and depth of understanding, same as you had meant (I think) with rote learning in theory.
 
The mathematical side of theory is greatly exaggerated; mostly you're just dealing with numbers more as labels than as quantities to add and subtract (and when you do add and subtract, it's very basic)....The idea that one has to be mathematically inclined to understand and apply theory is largely bogus....
I'm glad to finally see someone say this. Math's always come easily for me, and every time I've heard things like "music is just math" felt like I was missing something. Maybe now I can stop expecting that ah-ha moment, at least.
 
I'm glad to finally see someone say this. Math's always come easily for me, and every time I've heard things like "music is just math" felt like I was missing something. Maybe now I can stop expecting that ah-ha moment, at least.
I have always liked the math=music formula, but that's because I didn't focus on mathematics as a set of operations but on mathematics as a logical system. Mathematics isn't random; it is predictable and with theory music becomes less mysterious and more explainable. That's why I've always liked the analogy.
 
I want to expand on what I said, but I think the more I explain, the more obfuscated I will make my point. So let me just say I think sunrises are mathematical. They are predictable and reliable and you can calculate when the sun will rise in 4 days from now. Same thing with music. If you have a B note, the next note isn't random. It isn't mystical. There is a system. And if you know the system you will be able to anticipate the typical next notes which western music will put after a B. That's all I'm saying when I'm saying that music is mathematical. I actually have studied both newtonian and leipnizian calculus in college, but that's not the vibe I'm going for when I say music is mathematical; I am shooting more for a general mathematical/scientific mojo when I reference mathematics. Hopefully that makes sense, even if you disagree.
 
I want to expand on what I said, but I think the more I explain, the more obfuscated I will make my point. So let me just say I think sunrises are mathematical. They are predictable and reliable and you can calculate when the sun will rise in 4 days from now. Same thing with music. If you have a B note, the next note isn't random. It isn't mystical. There is a system. And if you know the system you will be able to anticipate the typical next notes which western music will put after a B. That's all I'm saying when I'm saying that music is mathematical. I actually have studied both newtonian and leipnizian calculus in college, but that's not the vibe I'm going for when I say music is mathematical; I am shooting more for a general mathematical/scientific mojo when I reference mathematics. Hopefully that makes sense, even if you disagree.
Two words: Schrodinger's cat. That's him. On my uke. Is he dead, or his he alive? Is he both?
 
I want to expand on what I said, but I think the more I explain, the more obfuscated I will make my point. So let me just say I think sunrises are mathematical. They are predictable and reliable and you can calculate when the sun will rise in 4 days from now. Same thing with music. If you have a B note, the next note isn't random. It isn't mystical. There is a system. And if you know the system you will be able to anticipate the typical next notes which western music will put after a B. That's all I'm saying when I'm saying that music is mathematical. I actually have studied both newtonian and leipnizian calculus in college, but that's not the vibe I'm going for when I say music is mathematical; I am shooting more for a general mathematical/scientific mojo when I reference mathematics. Hopefully that makes sense, even if you disagree.
Mathematical, yes. But, I think what you're describing is more what I was alluding to in my first post. Music (and music theory) is "predictable". You can learn the math, but the "feel" of that predictability takes practice and experience. When I'm noodling around a scale, it just "feels" right to get back to that "predictable" root note. That's why it's taken on the term "home".

You don't have to know or care about the math to pick up on the feel.

Even my wife, who largely ignores my playing and is far less musical than I, commented the other day that she can often tell what sound I'll play next. She was thinking it's because I've been playing a lot of the same songs, and she's learning them. That's only partly true. I explained common chord progressions to her, and how many of them are hard-wired into our brains and that's a lot of what makes music "sound good" to us... that familiarity. Even if we've never heard the song before, if it follows a familiar pattern, our brain knows where to go with it... and hearing what we expect to hear is satisfying. (or hearing something that is dramatically different from what we expect, but still "appropriate" can also be satisfying)

Then I made her watch this, which is awesome:

 
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