Music Theory Workshop (Moustache Optional)

Jan 13, 2021

By the time I was thirteen or fourteen, I would have gone practically anywhere to learn about music if it involved my electric guitar. And in retrospect, my parents were pretty accommodating. Too young to drive, I dragged my dad around to dumpy Somerville and Cambridge apartments answering want ads about used guitars, not to mention some pretty grimy secondhand stores in Central Square. So one summer, probably just before high school, someone found the time to drop me off and pick me up from a couple weeks of jazz band classes at Minuteman Tech. At the time, the irony of being taught to play jazz at the town's brand new vocational school was entirely lost on me, and I don't think anyone actually thought we would proceed to make a living from learning bebop licks instead of welding or automechanics. Still, it was the late '70s so people were thinking a lot of things that are a mystery to me now, like what constituted good sartorial choices for the average 8th-grader.

The class was taught by a saxophone player the high-school kids in class seemed to already know, and from my vantage point I could barely discern an age difference between him and the students, except he was old enough to sport a mustache (it was the late '70s). When he wasn't aiding and abetting our murder of "Blue Bossa" and "Red Clay" or making jokes with the wind players about inhaling that went right over my head, Mustache Saxophonist taught us music theory, or attempted to.

I've since counted it up, and this was one of four times I was taught theory before I got to college. Once in my ninth grade "jazz-rock ensemble" (again – it was the late '70s), once in my eleventh-grade jazz-rock ensemble, once with my high school guitar teacher (who also had a mustache, but the David Crosby kind, with, more often than not, a Gitane poking out from it, which I knew was cancerous, but was also cool) and once in this summer class. All four times, it simply failed to compute. The White Album made sense. Triads, the Dorian mode, b9ths and major sixth chords did not.

I blew into college determined to learn everything I had missed about music so far. More fired up at this point by John Renbourn than George Harrison, I signed up for classical guitar lessons, Modal Counterpoint, Tonal Counterpoint and 18th Century Harmony. I found classical guitar physically uncomfortable and hard to get right, and counterpoint a muddle of rules I could barely follow, much less make anything musical out of. 18th century harmony was a good place to meet girls, being full of graduating violin performance majors who had put off their theory requirements till the last minute. And yet, Neapolitan sixths and foxy string players proving equally incomprehensible, I completed the year not much clearer on things than I had begun.

By the following spring, I had regrouped and entered the jazz program. Modes, again! 9ths and 13ths! "Blue Bossa," and "Red Clay," again. But this time, about halfway through the semester, I was up late at the library with a couple of classmates, and one of them was struggling with Dorian and Phrygian and all the rest. I took her pencil and paper. "Lookit," I said, "I think it just means if you're using this scale, but you start on this note, you wind up with..." Holy moly. I hadn't even realized, until that moment, that it had finally sunk in. I finished explaining how modes are constructed, and then quietly freaked out. (By now, it was the eighties. A more measured, conservative kind of freakout was in order).

A few years later, I started teaching theory for real, mostly to fifteen-year-old blues guitar kids more interested in Stevie Ray Vaughan than in Slonimsky scales. In such circumstances, one learns to choose one's spots wisely, and to be succinct. In short, you gotta read the room, and I learned to pack about a semester's worth of information into an hour or two halfway through the week, just after teaching the groove to "Pride and Joy" and before explaining the chords to "Riviera Paradise." And I tried to keep in mind something I still try and keep in mind now: I don't know if this is your first attempt to learn theory, or your fiftieth. Hopefully, this will be the time you get it. But if it isn't, at least we've gotten you one time closer to that time when you do.

During my recent Chord Substitutions and Improvisation classes there were several requests for a workshop focusing specifically on theory. Since I fancy myself responsive to the Will of the People, this Saturday I'll be offering a two-hour workshop called Music Theory From Zero To Sixty. We'll start from the very beginning, with half steps, whole steps and the seven notes of the musical alphabet, and take it all the way up through 7th chords and modes. Along the way, I'll take all the questions I can while illustrating practical applications like creating scale fingerings, finding chord voicings and learning the notes of the fingerboard.

For details, registration and a video explaining more about the class, you can go to the link below:

Music Theory From Zero To Sixty

As always, if you're interested in the topic but can't make the live event, you can still register to gain access to the complete replay afterwards. And if you've got a logistical question, just drop me a line. I'll answer as many of them as I can in a follow-up Letter tomorrow or Friday.