Music theory is the grammar of music

Glance at these letters for a moment.

IXW     ZDA     RSN     TRV     NCL

How much can you immediately recall? Ugh, my brain hurts just thinking about it.

Now try the same thing with this set of letters:

JFK     USA     FBI     CIA     NYC

This time, you can probably recite the whole sequence painlessly after just a glance. Why? Instead of being just random letters, there is a meaning you can assign to each set of three. Instead of fifteen ugly letters, you have five familiar concepts.

Below is an excerpt from Grieg's Op. 17, No. 22 for piano, "So lokka me over den myra." If my Norweigan serves me, it's a folk song about a Scandinavian cowboy. If you do not read music well, it will look a little scary.

I counted thirty-five notes. Yikes! For years, I had to decode each one of those notes individually to be able to play a piece like this.

Luckily, in the summer after my sophomore year of High School I had the opportunity to attend the annual Summer Youth Music School at the University of New Hampshire. There, in a stuffy dorm lounge on an afternoon in late July, Lisa Lemay taught me all about chords. Several classmates slumped over half asleep but I was rapt, taking detailed notes and hanging on every word. This was the secret to reading music! Finally.

After that, the Grieg looked like this to me:

In other words, it wasn't thirty-five notes anymore. It was two or three musical ideas that had meaning to me, just like JFK or USA.

In the blue boxes above, everything except the circled note is either G, B, or D. That is somewhat helpful in itself, but together, those three notes are the G major chord, which is like a musical word. D7 is another chord, composed of four different notes. The smaller orange box contains two D's which are shared by both the G chord and the D7 chord.

Even better, there is a relationship between G and D7 - each of these "words" has a meaning in the larger context of the musical piece. Since we're in the key of G, I would expect to see both of those chords, which means that the whole excerpt can be thought of as one idea (a common I - V7 - I pattern).

I suppose if you're a conspiracy theorist you'll see one idea in JFK USA FBI CIA (maybe DFW instead of NYC).

Whether you read music or not, I hope I've illustrated that all this music theory is not so much "theory" as distinctly practical knowledge that immediately helps you to play music.

Musicians are not decoding the printed score when they read music - they are reading fluently, digesting ideas and concepts the way they read words. Music theory is the grammar that makes this possible and the not-so-secret key for unlocking the door to significant musical growth.

Chords are colors

Imagine that you are in a room that is illuminated by one strong light. As you are listening to a piece of music, the color of the light changes with every chord change - from blue, to red, to green, back to blue.

In that blue light, everything in the room looks blue, and when the light is red, everything in the room glows red. Everything you see is affected by that color.

Photo by DocklandsboyEverything you hear is affected by the color of the chord as well. Violin, flute, guitar, bass, piano: each instrument that produces a musical tone will obey the laws of harmony and become a part of that chord, reflecting its color just as each visible surface will absorb and reflect color in accordance with the laws of the light spectrum.

Chords are not like colors. Chords are colors. Harmony is color you can hear, and with this understanding you can solve the mystery of what chords you are hearing in a given piece of music.

Although the options may seem limitless, the list of most likely chords in a given song is actually pretty short: They are a family of six, who will often have friends over for dinner.

Based on the seven notes of the major scale, you'll get three major chords and three minor chords. And 80% of the time, you will use the three major chords.

Yes, for all you music theory nerds, there is a diminished chord too, but that's like the end of the onion - you throw it away unless you're making soup stock.

The subtle, muted palette of our Virginia Avenue location is clearly visible here.The diatonic chords (those that are native to the key) are called I (one), ii (two), iii (three), IV (four), V (five) and vi (six). Each chord (and for that matter, each tone of the scale) has a different color that you can train yourself to hear. Their friends (chords borrowed from other keys) have distinctive colors as well.

When people sit down and play a song perfectly on the first try having only heard it a few times, it seems like magic. It's not. Trained musicians recognize the colors of the chords and scale tones they hear and have a command over the physical interface used to produce them (that's, you know, the instrument).

Here are a few ways in which chords are colors:

  • They can be described but not defined. You can describe blue as calm, peaceful, cool, but that is completely subjective. Likewise, I can describe the I chord as grounded, settled, and warm but that is a subjective description of an objective reality. Each musician must develop their own experience of each chord.

  • They can match or clash. Fluorescent orange really stands out if put in a baby's nursery of lemon, baby blue, and lavender, just as the bVI (flat six) chord sounds jarring amidst the usual I, IV, V, vi. I learned to identify these "borrowed" chords before I learned their normal, diatonic cousins because they stood out so much.

  • They can be used strategically to evoke emotion. Combinations of colors can be soothing, patriotic, aggressive, sophisticated, neutral, or romantic, whether visual or aural.

  • They can become dated. Avocado, rust orange, and the major seventh chords of Bread and The Bee Gees were all very much at home in the kitchens of the 1970s.

  • Variations can be too subtle for the casual observer to detect. To the layperson, it's green; to the designer, it's sage. And that's actually a minor ninth, not a minor seventh.

  • They are learned through trial and error. We start learning about color when we learn to talk. It's amazing that toddlers learn so abstract a concept so early in life. However, there is a lot of, "No, this isn't purple. This is green," on the way there. "No, that's not the V chord, that's the IV chord."

As you listen to music to hear the colors created by the chords, don't just listen to your instrument in the mix (for example, the horn section). Remember the room with one light in it, and how everything is affected by the color.

Hearing these colors is not an innate talent that you either have or you don't. Identifying chords by their color is an ability that anyone can develop. I hope this post will help you to better understand the nature of this skill, so you can put it to good use!