This is a question I’ve been pondering my entire life. I even went to the trouble to get two degrees in the subject in an effort to answer this question, and I still go back and forth on the answer. There are times when it seems that I just couldn’t get along without theory, and times in which it only seems to get in the way. It’s kind of like a pendulum thing: On the one hand, I believe that the best music I’ve ever made has come from the heart as an intuitive reaction to the sound I’m hearing, and that while making this music, nary a thought entered my head at all; on the other, I wonder how many sounds I’d be hearing at whatever level I hear them if I hadn’t studied each sound individually as an independent entity at some point. Which came first, the intuitive understanding of the sound, or the study of the sound? Chicken or egg?
For me, music theory is nothing more and nothing less than the study and scientific labeling of sounds that have already happened in the past rather than a means to create sounds which might happen in the future. I always learn something when I look at theory in the former way, and always get into trouble when I look at it in the latter. My solution to this problem is to only think about theory and/or technique issues when practicing, and to do my best to not think at all while playing and just react intuitively to the sound. When I’m able to do that, everything seems to go well. When I’m not able to do that, I notice I tend to play a lot of contrived crap that doesn’t really fit.
To me, music is about the sound, the whole sound, and nothing but the sound. I’ve known players who know a lot of great technical stuff (licks, patterns, etc.) to play and can plug it in all over the place, and yet still manage to sound as if they are “reciting” stuff they’ve rehearsed rather than reacting to what’s going on and creating something they’ve never played exactly quite that way before. While I can never truly know what’s in another person’s head (and that’s probably a good thing) at any given moment, I imagine that what people are thinking at times when I feel they are “reciting” is something along the lines of, “Well, let’s see…this lick will fit over this chord progression. If I play this lick here, it’ll look like I know what I’m doing, so I think I’ll play this lick here”. And if I’m honest, I can cite times in which I’ve done just that on numerous occasions. But if I’m really honest, I’ll admit that this strikes me as a really dumb way to play, even (especially?) when I’m the one doing it, because learning to recite platitudes and clichés – whether verbal or musical – is not what I believe life to be about…on the contrary, I believe it’s about living in the moment and reacting to it in a meaningful way. And “reciting” doesn’t exactly meet my definition of meaningful. In other words, if I hear one more player play that tired-*ssed “1-2-3-5 ,1-2-3-5” line over the opening chords of “Giant Steps”, I may well just lose my lunch from sticking my finger down my throat. And if anyone ever catches me playing that same line on a gig, they may as well just shoot me since I’ll already be brain dead at that point.
Okay, that might be a little extreme, but I hope the point has been made.
So how can theory be used effectively? I like to think of the human brain as being similar to a computer in that it has both RAM (Random Access Memory) and ROM (Read Only Memory). Your RAM is what processes what’s going on at any given moment, and your ROM is your storage bank for information you’ve retained from past experience. RAM can dip into ROM and access its contents in order to react to the moment, but it’s generally too slow (at least in my case) to learn and program the ROM while it’s doing something else. What does this have to do with playing music? For me, it means that if I want to have the energy and resources to create music on the fly, I need to have all of my RAM free (in other words, no thinking or running other programs/apps is allowed while playing) to deal with the sounds I’m hearing at that precise moment, and I also need need to have a lot of information and experience programmed similar sounds/progressions/harmonies into my “hard drive” that my RAM can use to react to the sound that my ears are hearing. In the case of my own somewhat addled brain, information takes a long time to download to the hard drive (I must have been born with a 14k phone modem upstairs), but once it’s there, it can be uploaded to RAM very quickly, a la broadband…so I feel it’s very important to spend the time “programming” your own hard drive in the practice room, so that you can use the information freely while playing without having to think about it. And it is in this “programming” that I feel that music theory can be useful – it’s just like a data code for sound.
I guess I could sum this all up by saying that I believe that music theory is useful in the moments you spend in the practice room, but not so much in the practice of making music in the moment.
Right. Like I said, I’m still working on this topic…
Say what? If I don’t understand it, it must be deep?