Coming up as a young wanna-be musician in Hawaii, I had a pipedream about being a rock star. I was convinced that if I could learn a couple common chords, I could play just about anything (at least the radio hits and Christian worship songs that my sheltered ears were hearing at the time). I bought a guitar- nixing to spend the money on a trip to Honolulu with friends because I was SERIOUS about it!- and got to learning my G, Em, C & D chords. It was rough going in the beginning (especially since I was a southpaw learning to play right-handed).
Over the years I’ve spent some time honing in on the craft of musicianship, and while I still consider myself an artist who happens to play a few instruments, I’ve gained confidence as a player. I’ve jammed with musicians of all calibers, from those who needed to stop every chord change and find their fingers to those who are advanced far beyond my musical prowess. And what I’ve seen is that while it’s not the end all be all, knowing music theory can definitely be useful.
I remember being in my first serious band (serious in that we put records out and did an interi-sland tour) LifeinPursuit. It was myself and my two friends, Chase and Carl Kauhane. I played drums and helped write the songs. We were all pretty young and dumb when it came to the music biz, and I was the only one who knew anything about chords, key and theory (and that wasn’t a whole lot). When learning a new cover, if the lead singer Chase didn’t know a chord he would just stay on the previous chord and sing the melody over it. Sometimes it actually worked out pretty well. Other times not so much. Carl and I both sang harmonies. We never really talked about what parts to take or tried changing the harmonies if there was a dissonant note. We just came up with our parts in our heads, and if they sounded good to us, we kept them. It was pure in a way, unrefined. We had confidence despite our lack of knowledge (it helped that Chase and Carl had two of the most naturally gifted musical ears of anybody I’d ever known).
The singer-songwriter community (of which I’m a part) seems to be less well-versed in theory and the left brained side of things. And why should they be? Lyrics are the most important thing in a songwriter’s toolkit (or melody if you write more pop-based music), and you don’t need a lot of theoretic music knowledge for those skills. Gone are the days when you had to be great at composing melodies, rhythm, lyrics, notation, in-depth chord progressions ala the George and Ira Gershwin era.
Another thing is that these days feel trumps all (at least in popular music) and everything is so specialized. The last few songwriting conferences I’ve been to can attest to that. When we’d break into writing sessions, there would be a “writer” (the lyrics and melody), “artist” (singer + helps with melody), “producer” (creates the track + helps with melody and direction) and “supervisor” (helps keep the focus on the feel of what the song is trying to emulate). Of course, these conferences are more geared towards writing for commercial purposes like film and TV, so there’s much more of a focus on the vibe of the song and how it relates to its potential placement (emotional backdrop for a scene in This Is Us, happy-go-lucky high & energy themes for a Coca Cola ad, etc.).
But as a performing artist, I can’t tell you how many times it’s come in handy to know basic concepts like how to change keys and what scale sounds best over a chord change. I’ve been at the other end too many times early in my career, where I was asked to take a solo on uke or guitar and wound up wincing my way through wrong note after wrong note, guessing the whole time. It’s not a good feeling. It’s like running a 5k without any training and having to stop and rest a mile in. So even though my artistic pride sometimes suffers when I focus on the “equations” of music (why does this chord sound good with this other chord? What note can I change in this harmony to get it to sound less dissonant? Etc.) in reality it’s very beneficial in real life situations. And unfortunately, even dream-filled creatives have to live in the real world.
I honestly believe that some people are just more inclined to the technical aspects of music, while others are more “feel” or “heart” players. The more artistic types seem to be less in the mathematical headspace required memorize inversions or refer to the circle of fifths. We just want to write and play music that speaks to us on a visceral level and knowing too much about the process can sometimes seem like a buzzkill. It’s fine and dandy if you have someone (or multiple people aka a band) who can do the other stuff, but as a solo artist sometimes you gotta grit your teeth and do things you don’t like. That’s what separates the successful people from unsuccessful.
One thing I’ve learned is that sometimes, you’ve got to wear multiple hats. During the process of recording my current album, I’ve been in the producer’s chair, the arrangers seat, been my own session musician, and of course written and performed all the songs. I’ve learned the limits of how much I can do that’s out of my natural element before getting burnt out and discouraged. But damn there’s nothing like having to figure things out, having to get a grasp on basic and complex chords, arrangement, even basic recording and engineering. Knowledge isn’t everything in music, but it does help a lot to speak the same language as your peers and be able to translate your ideas into reality.
Everybody has a different experience. I sometimes wish I could just write, sing and rap, that I didn’t have to push my brain to learn stuff that it’s not naturally good at, that I didn’t have to inflate my concentration to the level it takes to sing and play the chords (and simultaneous rhythm and sometimes percussion too), or think about things like inversions and dotted eighths notes that make my head swim. But I’ve come to appreciate the fact that I can see both sides of the musical coin. Sometimes it’s good to pull the curtains back and see what makes things work so that you can improve.