Music Theory For Non-Musicians
…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.redditor u/COMPRIMENS
This occasional series is about how music is made, and it’s for people who don’t already make music. It’s part music appreciation and part music theory.
I hope to cover rhythm, melody, intervals, chords, inversions, and more. Maybe we’ll get into extended chords and modes. Let’s see!
My dad was the middle child. He had an older sister and a younger brother.
The sister, my Aunt Irene, lived a couple states away so I never knew those cousins very well.
The brother, Uncle Larry, lived 20 minutes up I-95. I’d see his sons, my cousins Mark and David, almost every weekend.
I think I became a musician first, then Mark, then Dave. It’s been so long I really don’t remember. Maybe Mark was first.
Mark took up drums and played professionally for quite a while. He played every season at the Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire. It was a highly reputable gig. And he did it for years.
When we lived in Florida, he drove down and left his car with us while he played a six week long gig on a cruise ship. When he came back, he said he never thought he’d get sick of prime rib, but he was.
He also didn’t expect to get seasick. But just before the curtain opened for his first show, he held up one finger for the director to see, grabbed what he could find, which was his cymbal bag. He threw up into it, zipped it, wiped his mouth, and nodded to the director that he was OK to start. The director just shook his head and counted off the first song.
The show must go on, but he never did another cruise ship gig.
At some point, he gave up drumming and found what they used to call honest work.
Last week, he wrote a long Facebook post that I think is worth including here.
When he talks about the traditional grip vs. the matched grip, they look like this:
It’s the left hand that’s different. With the traditional grip, the motion is a twisting of the wrist. With a matched grip, it’s a straight up and down motion of either the wrist or the forearm. Or in some cases, the entire upper body.
The other thing you need to know is that a practice pad is a small block of wood or other material with a rubber sheet on top. The rubber is about a quarter inch thick. Hitting it with a drumstick feels like you’re hitting a drum but without the sound. You’ll hear only a tapping, not the full snap of a snare drum. Drummers use them to practice without annoying their roommates.
Once you catch the music bug, it’s very hard to give up. Some pros become hobbyists, some become weekend warriors, but it’s rare that a professional stops playing music and never touches an instrument again.tnocs.com professor of music theory and awesome dude bill bois
Mark’s post is a glimpse into, not just finding pleasure in the little things, but the joy of playing with precision.
Anyway, here’s Mark:
It was purchased under the explicit condition that the seller, a very talented drummer and Nokomis High School/Stan Buchanan jazz program star participant by the name of Mike Pepin, agree to furnish me with some at-home private instruction for some indefinite near-to-mid term time period, so that I might at least get started with the benefit of some competent guidance.
To Mike’s great credit, he made good on his end of the bargain.
For the next several months on a nearly-to-semi weekly basis, he would make a point of being at home for his scheduled pick-up time for the 15-minute drive back to Pittsfield, and half-hour lesson. This continued until the exigencies of post-high school adulting came along to impose more pressing demands on his time.
On the day of my first lesson, Mike immediately ascertained that I had already informally taught myself an imperfect, but workably correct left-hand traditional stick grip. He then proceeded to dismantle my newly acquired kit, nesting and stacking it neatly in the corner of my bedroom before setting my snare drum in front of me, its playing surface situated perfectly level to the floor and at seated waist height.
He then took his pen and neatly inscribed a circle, dead center on the drum head and about two to three inches in diameter.
“Try to always hit the drum in the center.” he instructed.
That diagrammatically reinforced instruction must have really taken root, because from that time until my mid-twenties, the coating wear-through down to the clear plastic on my snare heads would always begin as a well-formed circle in the dead center of the drum.
The shiny spot would invariably expand as wear would probabilistically accumulate further away from the center, but it always maintained its generally circular shape and center-head placement. Granted, I probably only replaced my snare head two or three times during those years, but the wear pattern was always the same.
That is, until the age of twenty-five.
When confronted with and frustrated by my utter lack of preparedness for my first actual professional gig, I determined that a left hand grip change from traditional to match grip would yield some improvement. In hindsight, it really didn’t add any value to my playing, and on top of that the transition was slow and awkward.
And due to my spastic lobster-claw baseline level of dexterity, once the switch was in place I was pretty much married to it as I can only seem to manage one grip at a time.
I remained a match grip player until my gigging days came to a close in October, 2008.
Gone during that time, however, were the singular, nicely focused and symmetrically rounded center-head wear spots once produced by my now bygone traditional grip.
In their place would emerge these sloppily less focused, lopsidedly bifurcated, augmentation-gone-wrong-splay-lobed wear spots whose gradual enlargement seemed to mockingly slow-mo flash my 18-year misadventure.
Jump cut to 2016 and the beginning of my current low tempo/high responsibility day gig. It forced me to seek a strategy for warding off mid-afternoon narcolepsy due to my as then yet undiagnosed but nonetheless impactfully severe obstructive sleep apnea.
“A practice pad!” I thought, having determined that the available workspace could accommodate the low volume but incessant sonic imposition.
And, out of the blue, what should unexpectedly return from its quarter-century absence?
The prodigal traditional grip, greatly improved in its fundamental rotational mechanics… (Where’d that come from?)
…well rested, and ready for further development.
All of which brings me to the photo below of my workplace desktop mini practice pad and its single, symmetrically circular and well-centered dark wear spot.
This was not Photoshop-ed or hand drawn, but was instead rendered over the course of six years and probably a couple hundred million or so drum strokes. It’s like having an old friend come back full circle. Sort of like if volleyball Wilson had floated back to Cast Away Tom Hanks.
Which is especially nice, since I clearly don’t get out much.
Speaking of family, I’m taking a couple weeks off to go to my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary celebration. Mark will be there. We’ll stop on the way to see my wife’s family, too.
So this concludes Season 1. I have some ideas of what to write about in Season 2, but I’m happy to take your suggestions.
Is there anything in particular you’d like to talk about?
I’m all ears.
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