Theoretically Speaking: S1E1

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Music Theory For Non-Musicians

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.

Special thanks to tnocs.com Contributing Author thegue for suggesting the idea. I hope to cover rhythm, melody, intervals, chords, inversions, and more. Maybe we’ll get into extended chords and modes. Let’s see!

1: Beat It

The first musical instrument was the human voice. We don’t know when or who, but someone realized they could do more with their voice than imitate animal calls in hopes of attracting prey. At some point, someone sang for the sake of singing, and put words to a melody, and this song could be repeated again and again. Other people could learn and perform it.

While information could be, and was, transmitted in song, some songs had no practical purpose. They were art. One of the first signs that civilization had started.

The next instrument was percussion. It was probably a rock or a stick banged against another rock or stick. Maybe it was just clapping hands. Someone somewhere started pounding things together with a steady beat. Others joined in. Someone danced.

The beat combined with singing is where music truly starts. That’s our best guess, anyway. It’s prehistoric. It’s a shame that we only have recordings from the last 140 years or so.

Before we go any further, let’s get this disclaimer out of the way:


The great thing about music theory is it’s only a theory. It doesn’t tell us whether a piece of music is good or bad, or whether we like it or not. It only tells us that the piece followed the rules in this section and broke the rules in that section. There are exceptions to every single rule in music theory. Don’t hold me to anything I might say here.

tnocs.com Contributing Author Bill Bois

In many respects, music theory is simply names for musical things. Those names make it easier for musicians to know what the composer wants. We can tell each other what happens in a piece before we actually play it.

Back to the beat. Here’s a lyric from a #1 song by Seal. Don’t sing these words, just say them out loud.

Kiss from a rose on a gray

I have no idea what those words mean, but I know how you said it. You emphasized some words and not others. That emphasis, in music, is called an accent and you accented the words “kiss,” “rose,” and “gray,” like so:

Kiss from a rose on a gray

You accented the first, fourth, and seventh word. That’s just how language works. It has an inherent rhythm. The word “rose” might not be accented in a different sentence, but in this arrangement of these seven words, it is. Naturally.

Accented syllables can even change a word’s meaning. This website has content and I’m content to read it.

This natural rhythm is used in poetry, too. Think of this rhythm: da dum. When a soft syllable is followed by an accented one, it’s called an iamb. Put four of them in a line and you have a rhythm called iambic octameter.

da dum da dum da dum da dum

And if you’re clever like Robert Frost, you can write something lovely using only iambic octameters.

Whose woods these are I think I know
His house is in the village though
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” goes on for three more stanzas but you get the point. Language has rhythm. Music has rhythm. Humans have rhythm.

Let’s go back to those Seal lyrics. That line isn’t in iambic octameter – it doesn’t use iambs, the da dum rhythm – it uses something else. Let’s figure out what it is.

Kiss from a rose on a gray
dum da da dum da da dum

Notice anything? The dum da da repeats. And if you listen to the whole song, that’s the entire rhythm. dum da da dum da da dum da da dum da da

It’s three syllables in poetry, and three beats in music. You can count it like:

one two three one two three

If a musician were explaining this song to another musician who hadn’t heard it before, she might say, “It’s a waltz” or “It’s in three.” That’s our shorthand, our name in music theory, for this kind of rhythm. It’s in three.

The number we use to describe how to count a song is called its meter. Three is the second most used meter. The vast majority of popular music is in four. When you listen to “Don’t You Want Me” by Human League, another #1, your head bobs on each of the first four syllables of the chorus.

Don’t you want me

Those syllables are in a steady rhythm that you can count as

one two three four

It gets more complicated after that as the melody’s rhythm becomes less static, but your head keeps bobbing at that tempo. If you’re dancing, your booty feels it.

Don’t you want me
one two three four

There are all sorts of ways to change the accents within the four beats, and entire genres have been built on just moving the accent. That might be why I love 80s ska so much. It’s punky, but the accent is on a different beat. That’s a story for another day.

Now though, try an experiment.

Wherever you are right now, count from 1 to 4 in your head over and over. On each number, tap your right hand on your desk or your thigh of whatever you have in front of you. Lefties, feel free to switch hands for this.

Right hand: 1 2 3 4

Try to keep it at a steady tempo. Not too fast, not too slow, just whatever’s comfortable. Don’t speed up and don’t slow down.

While you keep that going, tap your right foot on every 1.

Right hand: 1 2 3 4
Right foot:   1

Again without speeding up or slowing down, use your left hand to tap something else on every 3.

Right hand: 1 2 3 4
Right foot:    1
Left hand:          3

Can you do it? I can’t.

I’ve tried for decades now, but I’m too uncoordinated. I can pat my head while rubbing my belly, but I lose it once I get my feet involved.

Anyway, if you can keep that beat, you could become a drummer. It’s the world’s simplest drum beat. Whatever you’re tapping with your right hand represents a hi hat or cymbal. The floor is the bass drum, and whatever you’re hitting with your left hand is the snare drum.

Hi hat:       1   2   3  4 
Bass drum: 1
Snare drum:        3

In future articles, we’ll talk about more complicated beats, but today’s takeaway is that most songs are in four, many are in three. It’s much more rare, but some songs are in strange counts like 5, 7, or any number you care to come up with. Some songs will be in, say, 4 for a while then switch to 3 or 2 or 5 and back again. It doesn’t mean people can dance to these odd meters, but musicians can play it.

There’s one last thing to think about today. Drummers simultaneously do different things with both hands and both feet. It’s called “four-way independence.” Drummers who sing have five-way independence. As a bassist who plays one note at a time, I find drummers truly remarkable.

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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/138BvuV84ZH7ugcwR1HVtH6HmOHiZIDAGMIegPPAXc-I/edit#gid=0

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Phylum of Alexandria
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April 29, 2022 9:20 am

Great post! I’m really excited for this new series, as I have just (as in last night) started to learn to read music and play piano.

I really appreciate the effort to share your knowledge with non-experts, and I can easily follow everything you’re laying down here. I’ve got a ways to go, but maybe this old dog can learn some new tricks…

You know, tricks like mastering independence of playing like this guy clearly has:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXsRlMneOS0

ArchieLeech
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April 29, 2022 11:28 am

Bravo! (That’s Italian for, “More, please!”) I’m really happy that your first lesson is on rhythm and time, the heartbeat of music. As students progress through music they tend to focus on melodic and harmonic complexity. Maybe it takes a bass player to remind us all that rhythm is where it begins. Good job, V-Dog.

cstolliver
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cstolliver
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April 29, 2022 11:47 am

Great job, Bill! I can tell I’m going to learn a lot from you and this series.

Robert Henner
Robert Henner
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April 29, 2022 11:59 am

Hope to read the entire series as it evolves.

mt58
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mt58
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April 30, 2022 7:36 pm
Reply to  Robert Henner

Hello, Robert,
Thank you for coming by, and welcome!

thegue
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thegue
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April 29, 2022 12:24 pm

WOW. While I certainly wanted you to write this series, I never realized how much I NEEDED this.

Great start!!

Pauly Steyreen
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April 30, 2022 2:16 pm

“Drummers simultaneously do different things with both hands and both feet. It’s called “four-way independence.” ”

Neil Peart has entered the chat room.

Last edited 2 years ago by Pauly Steyreen
minor major 7th
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April 30, 2022 5:01 pm

Amazing post and a great idea for a series!

I need to put this out there: if you would like a hand on any posts, I am more than happy to help/contribute/assist/whatever you need.

mt58
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mt58
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April 30, 2022 7:35 pm

Hello and welcome, mMaj7! So glad that you’re here!

Last edited 2 years ago by mt58
minor major 7th
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May 2, 2022 3:53 pm
Reply to  mt58

Thanks mt58. Good to be here. Thank you so very much for brining this together.

minor major 7th
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May 2, 2022 3:53 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Done. 🙂

dutchg8r
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dutchg8r
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May 1, 2022 11:34 am

VDog, this is FANTASTIC! I loved reading this, and will be eagerly awaiting the next chapters, what a treat to have someone explain these things after all these years in language I GET where immediately I’m like – dude, that makes total sense!

Kudos to thegue for the terrific suggestion, and thanks VDog for delivering the goods.

Oh! Oh, here’s a potential future topic that’s eluded my understanding since high school band – what’s behind the different scales? I’m drawing a blank on the others, but I distinctly remember Blues scales being ridiculously difficult for me to conquer on my trumpet. Which really bothered me to no end because I loved how it sounded! (Apologies if my 30+ year old memory is completely warping the reality of a Blues Scale!)

JJ Live At Leeds
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May 3, 2022 10:59 am

Things I learnt today; I’m not a drummer 😁

Just had a chance to catch up with this. Chimes in pretty well with my admission in my piece that’s gone live today that me and music theory / ability are not on the same wavelength. Aside from adding another instrument to my list of musical incompetence though this is excellent stuff. If only school music lessons had been so clear and easy to understand. Look forward to reading and learning more.

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