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Making Theory Work

Wayne Shorter “Juju” chart

Q: I’ve tried to learn music theory many times. I’ve studied it in a classroom setting, private lessons and on my own, but it just doesn’t click with me for some reason. I’m classically trained, so I can read bass music just fine, but when I play anything that relies heavily on memory or improvisation, I generally just play by ear. I feel that I’m not tapping into my full potential as a musician. Do you have any tips or resources for someone who has a difficult time learning music theory?

A: You’re not alone. There was quite a long time when I was convinced that I must be missing the gene that allows jazz theory to sink in to my brain. I was utterly confused in music school. I started at Berklee as a self-taught metal drummer and switched majors because I just felt out of place at a jazz school. I had always played bass for fun and was taught how to read and knew my scales, but I had never taken the instrument out of the house. I was a drummer who worked around on bass on my own.

This being the case, I didn’t know theory at all. I had never played anything that wasn’t already written down for me. I could read through play-along books and nail the notation, but I didn’t know blues changes, had zero idea how to come up with a bass line on my own and forget about playing through changes.

I left school thinking that I was obviously not cut out to be a bass player. But I didn’t know what else to do but take every gig I could get my hands on for whatever instrument I was asked to play. Everyone needed a bass player. I sucked, but I kept at it. I hated sucking, so I worked pretty hard on it. After every gig, I would dissect whatever it was that kicked my butt and try to tackle it. I also asked every good pianist and guitarist that I played with for lessons.

It started to sink in. Why now? Because I had a context! I was trying everything that I was learning every night on the gig and discovering what worked, what didn’t, what sounded cool, what didn’t. I could never internalize theory as an intellectual pursuit, I had to play in order to realize on my own what the hell they were talking about in Harmony 3.

I was never an ear player, so I was coming from a different place musically and had to train my ears later in life. I do however have students who developed as ear players and they also have a hard time not just trying to hear their way through the changes and ignoring whatever we’ve worked on with regard to chord-scales and upper structure triads, etc. It’s a safe zone, whether it works for them or not, it still feels more comfortable.

I had a breakthrough with one such student who has since really taken off with his ability to utilize chord-scales and substitutions while playing over changes. His playing changed drastically within the span of a week. Basically, we were playing through a Wayne Shorter tune (I love his tunes in the shed because they really stretch me harmonically), and I could hear him tuning out the chord sheet in front of him and playing by ear whenever the changes got outside of his comfort zone. I stopped him and we talked about it for a bit, and I realized that he thought that it was one or the other: either you read the changes and play through them using “jazz math” OR you use your ears and hope for the best (not a great idea when somebody tosses a new tune in front of you). It never occurred to him that you could (and should) do a little of both simultaneously!

Essentially, I said, “Of course you should use your ears and follow your internal sense of melody. That is exactly what you should be doing but you should also keep your eyes on the changes and use your knowledge of chord/scale relationships to help inform your decisions. You can make micro-adjustments to your lines based on what your eyes are telling you with regard to note choice while also following the melodic input from your ears”. Essentially, you are listening and reacting but also keeping tabs of what notes you are playing over the changes and making sure that you know what you are playing and how it will interact harmonically.”

This comes through experience and repetition. Nobody can learn Italian simply by buying an “Italian 101” book and reading it from cover to cover. You must get out there and begin speaking with someone. Learn the slang, learn a few curse words, learn how the book says to ask the location of the bathroom but then have somebody tell you, “we don’t really say it like that. Too proper. Here’s how you say that in real life”. You learn through context, experience and repetition.

I would analyze how you are going about not just trying to learn jazz theory but how you go about trying to employ that knowledge and make sure that you are giving yourself the context, the time it takes and the repetition to let it sink in.

I stink at memorizing tunes. But when I have to memorize something for a gig, I can. How? By playing it five times a day for a week or two without my charts or cheat sheets. Repetition and focused practice is the key to memorization. Using it in context is the key to owning and really understanding it in a meaningful way.

Have a question for Damian? Submit it to the Ask Damian Erskine Forum. Check out Damian’s instructional books at the No Treble Shop.

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Share your thoughts

Brandon Miller

I can completely agree with Damian on this one. There’s an old saying at the school I went to among myself and some of the other students: “In theory, practice.” Which basically means, any time you get a piece of new information, dissect it and practice it in any way you can. Funny, we got this one Duke Ellington tune with an irregular resolution (it was Isfahan, one of my favorites in the Ellington/Strayhorn songbook) that resolves a dominant chord a tritone away from the chord it lands on. In my opinion (since sound is totally subjective) it was one of the most beautiful resolutions I’d ever heard, so I wrote a tune around the Eb7 -> Amaj7 resolution in a ‘matrix’ (Eb7 – Amaj, G7 – C#maj, and B7 – Fmaj) which helped me work on Giant Steps as well (which I still have plenty of trouble with).

That taught us to think of things in odd ways, outside of the box. We were handed the b6 pentatonic scale another day (the major pentatonic literally with a b6 instead of a natural 6) and I couldn’t think fast enough to throw it over every dominant chord (the assignment). So, my friends and I tried to sit down and think of all the combinations where a series of five fixed notes could be utilized more as a sound than as a way of playing over specific chords and writing melodies based around the sound. This also allows you to hear when other people are doing the same and gives you the freedom to hear this information as it is (“Kate Song” by Walter Smith III is a great piece of information on using like a million different techniques with this). So that way you’re kind of doing twice as much work with half the brainpower, instead of looking at what “not” to do, looking at the possibilities for expansion on a single idea. When that happens, I think playing these ideas sounds more melodic than fixed, as long as you’re not just taking one piece of info and trying to repeat it until it sounds right. Rather, you’re finding what sounds right to your ear first and then utilizing than for a performance.

Craig Snazelle

Craig Snazelle

And learn the melody,