Learning music theory

Another of my plans for the next week is to get my head around some basic music theory. I know bits here and there but not enough to link them together. My guitar teacher talks about modes, and I’ll ask questions to figure out exactly what they are, but because I can’t link that to anything else I quickly forget.

I learned the piano when I was much younger (failed grade 3; gave up) but unfortunately we never went into music theory. It wasn’t until I started learning the guitar that I even found out why some notes on a keyboard have black keys between them and some don’t. In hindsight that’s actually pretty bad; I used to have to remember scales note-for-note, whereas some understanding of tones would have made it far easier. I guess it’s possible I couldn’t figure it out at the time so my teacher skipped that part, but I don’t remember anything like that. School was much the same – we went over the notes and basic chords, but there was no explanation of what we were doing, it was just rote.

This evening I was looking at keys, and it seems to be a matter of piecing together information from various descriptions on the web. I want more than ‘it’s the base note of a particular song’, but not so much as ‘in western traditions we use major keys, while the japanese tended to stick with pentatonics blah blah triads blah blah tonic’. My brain just switches off – I need something written for beginners but that doesn’t over-simplify. Hopefully it’s just a matter of finding the right tutorial, somewhere.

Particularly frustrating are the tutorials designed for songwriters. It’s not their fault, it’s me. When they say ‘some chords just sound happy, others sound sad’ my brain explodes. I know exactly what they’re referring to, but it’s stupid. Ok, not stupid, but you’re telling me this is the only difference between major and minor chords – one sounds happy and one doesn’t? I’m used to there being satisfying reasons behind things; it’s the rationalist in me 🙂 Are there psychological explanations for chords sounding happy and sad? I know notes are based on sound waves that oscillate at certain mathematical intervals – maybe reading up on them would help.

It doesn’t help that I have little ear for music. I first tried to tune my acoustic guitar using the piano, but had to give up and buy an electric tuner. I just couldn’t hear any similarity between the sounds – one sounded like a piano, one sounded like a guitar, and that was as much as I could tell. I’m hoping this is something that can be learnt! How on Earth people can remember tones well enough to recognise and name them I have no idea.

Even if guitar playing is as much about feeling the music as understanding the theory, I know I’ll feel much happier if I understand what it is I’m doing. Plus, I’ve read interviews with writers I admire – Aaron Sorkin, for one – who say that their writing style is heavily influenced by musical patterns. As long as I can find something understandable, I’ll definitely keep working on it.

Update: It’ll also help me get the second half of this joke, I hope…