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DulciTheory Newsletter -- Issue #4: Back To Basics

Here are the first three issues:



Why Learn Theory?

This is probably the most fundamental question we have to ask ourselves, and there are no complete answers or correct answers to this. We will ALL have different reasons for deepening our understanding of music, as we have different approaches to music and the dulcimer.

I can only answer this from my own unique and individual perspective:

1. As an improvising musician, a solid knowledge of theory helps me to visualize and plan ahead when I'm in the heat of real-time improv. There are MANY great musicians who improvise on a totally organic, intuitive level -- without thinking too much about the structure of what they're doing. I don't deny these abilities in my own music -- I've simply made theory a trusted friend -- a kind of "toolbox" I can reach into anytime I want. Theory INFORMS and GUIDES my intuitive senses, and often allows me to expand upon the ideas that occur naturally and intuitively.

2. As a composer of mostly modal folk-like melodies and harmonies, I have found that deepening my knowledge of the structure of the modes, and how they lay out on the dulcimer, has been extremely helpful in spinning out my own tunes and taking them to some strange and different places.

3. As an arranger of music for the dulcimer, I am often faced with transcribing multi-part music written for piano or some other instrument. Again, my theory toolbox allows me to make hundreds or even thousands of decisions on the spur of the moment.

It is this last application that I know many of you already have a strong leaning towards -- I guess I know this "statistically", instead of being a mind-reader or anything like that :-)

Why Are There All These Numbers Everywhere?

Don't we have enough numbers already with our tab fret numbers? Yes -- I suppose we do, but I'm afraid that the numbers are quite fundamental to studying music theory: for intervals, chord formulas, scale ingredients, and much more. The numbers allow us to:

1. Understand the STRUCTURE of musical elements like chords and scales

2. Port them "lock-stock-and-barrel" ANYWHERE we want in any key!!!!

It is this portability trick that is just so incredibly cool once you get used to it: once you know the structure of the major scale and all its indigenous triads and seventh chords -- then you know ALL the major scales in every key.

[of course, the dulcimer with its mostly diatonic fret pattern, does not let us port any structure anywhere on the fingerboard the way a guitar will. But there are still many uses for this concept as it works away behind the scenes, grinding away in our mental gears.]

Music Theory is all about RELATIONSHIPS -- the numerical scale degrees, intervals, and Roman Numeral Chord Symbols -- they are all teaming with information about RELATIONSHIPS. Now....once you become familiar with some of these relationships and the inherent tendencies of some chords to want to pull in a particular direction....its what you DO with all this insight and its the DECISIONS you make based upon this information that actually make it useful. I'm going to try real hard to make everything we cover in DulciTheory an APPLICATION of theory, rather than an academic "Beethoven did it this way, so go and analyze it to figure out why it works."

I've always liked to draw an analogy between the many amateur piano players I've known over the years and the many dulcimer folks I've had the pleasure of teaching. The piano players, with VERY few exceptions, are tied ABSOLUTELY to the printed page of music: take away the sheet music and the performance ends abruptly. The dulcimer players, with some exceptions, are tied ABSOLUTELY to the tablature in a book or handout.

There is a very interesting parallel here: neither of these musicians is likely to get at the essence of the music at hand, nor are they likely to expand upon, or improvise around, the structures inherent in the music they're playing. Why?

Because in both cases, the music is merely a set of rough instructions on how the music is supposed to be played: its like the music or tab is the software and the player is the hardware!

Of course, this is a very rough generalization, and doesn't refer to the great classical players (though they always know the music by heart) nor to the many fine dulcimer players who use tab frequently, but often go way beyond what is on the page.

What's even more interesting is that I don't think the piano player has any advantage over the "play-by-number" tab-oriented dulcimer player. This is because the piano player was taught to look at the music on the page and play EXACTLY what is written -- no extra notes, no embellishments, no variation the second time through, no soloing around the changes, etc. So the traditionally taught piano player doesn't SEE the structure implied in the music. In fact, most of these players cannot play chords from a lead sheet or rhythm chart -- they need all the notation written out EXACTLY how its "supposed to" go!

As dulcimer players, then, we might consider standard music notation from a totally fresh viewpoint: with an eye toward deep structural understanding -- so it becomes a scaffolding that we can hang variations on -- so that it becomes a REFERENCE STRUCTURE.

Anyway, these are just some thoughts to chew on for a while -- feel free to email me with your reactions or questions: