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Practical/Useful music theory

lmschgo

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As I have learned (self-taught) to play the accordion, I have also learned more about music theory.
Circle of fifths, scales, chord formation are a few of the basic elements of music theory that I have employed in my practicing and playing, as I imagine we all do/did.

As a help to less experienced and/or self-taught players, are there other areas of music theory that have propelled your musicianship to the next level?

Or, with reference to circle of fifths, scales and chord formation, which of these do you feel deserves more than a cursory study or understanding to improve one's playing.



Howard
 
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JeffJetton

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My first thought was "chords". That's mainly how I approach understanding a piece of music: I look at the harmonic structure of the piece. What chords are used, how they relate to each other, how they relate to the key, whether the melody is using notes from them or not... that sort of thing. That leads to being able to fake up arrangements, improvise, transpose more easily, more quickly memorize repertoire, etc.

And when you start to think of chords in terms of the role they play rather than their letter names, it helps the ear tremendously. Same with thinking of melody in terms of intervals rather than specific note names. It's a lot easier to begin to hear relationships than absolute pitches, but that assumes you're aware of those relationships, which is where the theory comes in.

But chords and intervals are intertwined, and both are ultimately based on scales. So for someone just starting out, I'd say learn the scales first. Everything else flows from that.
 

lmschgo

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My first thought was "chords". That's mainly how I approach understanding a piece of music: I look at the harmonic structure of the piece. What chords are used, how they relate to each other, how they relate to the key, whether the melody is using notes from them or not... that sort of thing. That leads to being able to fake up arrangements, improvise, transpose more easily, more quickly memorize repertoire, etc.

And when you start to think of chords in terms of the role they play rather than their letter names, it helps the ear tremendously. Same with thinking of melody in terms of intervals rather than specific note names. It's a lot easier to begin to hear relationships than absolute pitches, but that assumes you're aware of those relationships, which is where the theory comes in.

But chords and intervals are intertwined, and both are ultimately based on scales. So for someone just starting out, I'd say learn the scales first. Everything else flows from that.
I know some forum members are not keen on playing or practicing scales. I find doing so beneficial: as a warm up; I have better recall of the notes in a scale when playing; and improves my fingering and dexterity when playing melodies flush with 1/16 and 1/8 notes.
 
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dan

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And when you start to think of chords in terms of the role they play rather than their letter names, it helps the ear tremendously.
Yes! I love how ear, theory, and touch/visualization reinforce understanding when using Stradella bass system. Say Tonic is in D. What’s key sig? Two buttons up from marked C bass = 2 sharps. Relative minor? Up three rows to Bm. The vi-ii-V-I progression is just back down Bmin Emin A7 Dmaj. I used to practice those chords plus IV and III when I did a scale to warm up. Helps you recognize what chords will be diatonic to scale and alert you to accidentals. Made a chart but maybe you already know this, lmschgo

To Jeffs point, when I was first doing this it was to get familiar with the most likely notes and chord buttons in the key signature I was practicing. Or maybe just “Wow music theory”. But now I can hear the sound of a IV chord pretty reliably and work out chord progressions by ear. Handy for popular music because guitar chord sites are often unreliable and I can’t use the tabs!
 
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Tom

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I second "chords" in terms of adding chord tones below the melody line early in your musical journey. I went for years playing single note melody concentrating on my first two or three fingers. Then I had to shift to feeling the chord, while playing melody with the "right" side of my hand. Please, Imschgo, if you are not chording yet, please try it today, do not pass go, do not collect $200.
 

lmschgo

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Yes! I love how ear, theory, and touch/visualization reinforce understanding when using Stradella bass system. Say Tonic is in D. What’s key sig? Two buttons up from marked C bass = 2 sharps. Relative minor? Up four rows Bm. The vi-ii-V-I progression is back down Bmin Emin A7 Dmaj. I used to practice those chords plus IV and III when I did a scale to warm up. Helps you recognize what chords will be diatonic to scale and alert you to accidentals. Made a chart but maybe you already know this, lmschgo

To Jeffs point, when I was first doing this it was to get familiar with the most likely notes and chord buttons in the key signature I was practicing. Or maybe just “Wow music theory”. But now I can hear the sound of a IV chord pretty reliably and work out chord progressions by ear. Handy for popular music because guitar chord sites are often unreliable and I can’t use the tabs!
Practicing and recognizing the the diatonic chords of a each scale is good advice. As you mentioned, particularly helpful, is making a chart or table with each scale's diatonic chords.
 

lmschgo

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I second "chords" in terms of adding chord tones below the melody line early in your musical journey. I went for years playing single note melody concentrating on my first two or three fingers. Then I had to shift to feeling the chord, while playing melody with the "right" side of my hand. Please, Imschgo, if you are not chording yet, please try it today, do not pass go, do not collect $200.
I am making an effort to play with a more robust right under the melody note, either with chords or an ascending/descending arpeggio on occasion. When not overdone, filling out the right hand makes even the simplest of melodies more interesting to hear and play.
 
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Ventura

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if you haven't yet played "Peg o' my Heart"
give it a try... the chords are contained in the melody
so it is really easy to find them just by using all your
fingers making all the notes whole sort of
 

dan

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As you mentioned, particularly helpful, is making a chart or table with each scale's diatonic chords.
Maybe that’s beneficial. I made just one chart showing positions of ii V IV etc relative to the tonic on the bass board. Maybe make another one for minor and modes—it’s the same chart rearranged. I never memorized that F#min7b5 sounds good with the key of E minor on a bossa nova, instead I remember “up two buttons” and use the bass buttons as a “cheat sheet” to work out the note names!
 

lmschgo

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Maybe that’s beneficial. I made just one chart showing positions of ii V IV etc relative to the tonic on the bass board. Maybe make another one for minor and modes—it’s the same chart rearranged. I never memorized that F#min7b5 sounds good with the key of E minor on a bossa nova, instead I remember “up two buttons” and use the bass buttons as a “cheat sheet” to work out the note names!
Next item on my 'to do' list.
 

colinm

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I suppose if you can play by ear then chords knowledge can be useful, to me its just like witchcraft, something that sounds good but has no relevance to reality.
Practice scales, arpeggios and exercises that strengthen 4th and 5th fingers if you want to play from music, leave the rest to composers and arrangers.
 

lmschgo

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I suppose if you can play by ear then chords knowledge can be useful, to me its just like witchcraft, something that sounds good but has no relevance to reality.
Practice scales, arpeggios and exercises that strengthen 4th and 5th fingers if you want to play from music, leave the rest to composers and arrangers.
On my right hand, the fifth finger works well with the other digits. On the left hand, not as much.
So, I have been practicing scales and walking base lines on the bass side to train the little finger to be a more active participant in my music, instead of just idly hanging around.

An unexpected benefit of practicing with the little finger on the bass, (it seems)I have gained more dexterity and accuracy with my other fingers.
 
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JeffJetton

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I suppose if you can play by ear then chords knowledge can be useful, to me its just like witchcraft, something that sounds good but has no relevance to reality.
Practice scales, arpeggios and exercises that strengthen 4th and 5th fingers if you want to play from music, leave the rest to composers and arrangers.

That's a good point. Any practice/learning recommendation should take into account the player's goals. If you're content to exclusively play written arrangements, from music that's on the stand in front of you, you probably don't need to go very far down the theory rabbit hole. Just as someone who always cooks out of cookbooks doesn't necessarily need to study food science, and can concentrate on technique only.

That said, even classical musicians who play standard repertoire will often memorize the pieces that they play. When the notes come "automatically", they can concentrate more on the other aspect of the music--phrasing, color, articulation, dynamics, paying attention to other musicians and maybe a conductor, etc.

Knowing music theory helps with memorization in the same way that knowing grammar helps with memorizing lines in a play. (Imagine trying to memorize a play in a language you don't speak--it's possible, but it's it a heckuva lot easier/faster when you know a bit about what the words mean and how they relate to the sentence?)
 

NickC

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I would say that (left hand) chord progressions are worth studying. Before I was an accordionist, I was a jazz bassist. I'm certainly not at the same level on accordion, but knowing some common chord progressions helps me to hear where the left hand is going so that I can focus on the melody. This helps with reading, too, since I am not trying to do two things at once. For memorizing tunes, I can just think of 2 progressions instead of 10 chords. There are often curve balls thrown in, but even some of the curve balls are standard for certain genres. As a plus, a lot of the common chord progressions work really well with the Stradella bass system too. Chord substations are a lot of fun too. Tunes can be re-harmonized to be made more 'our own.'

Another example of theory being useful would be if I forget whether the next note in a run is B or Bb, or if I forget whether the next chord is Maj or min, I can find clues in the melody or harmony.
 
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lmschgo

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That's a good point. Any practice/learning recommendation should take into account the player's goals. If you're content to exclusively play written arrangements, from music that's on the stand in front of you, you probably don't need to go very far down the theory rabbit hole. Just as someone who always cooks out of cookbooks doesn't necessarily need to study food science, and can concentrate on technique only.

That said, even classical musicians who play standard repertoire will often memorize the pieces that they play. When the notes come "automatically", they can concentrate more on the other aspect of the music--phrasing, color, articulation, dynamics, paying attention to other musicians and maybe a conductor, etc.

Knowing music theory helps with memorization in the same way that knowing grammar helps with memorizing lines in a play. (Imagine trying to memorize a play in a language you don't speak--it's possible, but it's it a heckuva lot easier/faster when you know a bit about what the words mean and how they relate to the sentence?)
Your last comment about Knowing music theory... is an excellent analogy.
 

JeffJetton

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knowing some common chord progressions helps me to hear where the left hand is going so that I can focus on the melody. This helps with reading, too, since I am not trying to do two things at once. For memorizing tunes, I can just think of 2 progressions instead of 10 chords.

This is sometimes called "chunking", and yes, it is a great way to build up your song memory. (And why it can be easier to memorize new songs the more songs you already know... you have a larger library of patterns built up.)

Reminds me of an interesting experiment I read about where they gave a series of chess position diagrams--taken from actual games--to a group of chess masters and also to a group of "normal" people, and had them all try to memorize them. When called upon to recreate the positions from memory, the masters did very well while the non-masters were dismal.

But then they repeated the process using randomly-created chess diagrams, where the positions would rarely, if ever, show up in a real game. In some cases, the positions weren't even possible or legal. Now both groups were terrible at the task of reproducing what they'd seen.

It turned out that the chess masters didn't have photographic memories or anything. Their memories were no really any better than the non-masters. But they had experience that gave them the ability to chunk to the diagrams into just a few familiar patterns, perhaps with the odd variation here or there.

Not too different from memorizing music based on familiar harmonic patterns and chord progressions!
 

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