Music Theory Shortcuts

Well kids, it has been a while since I’ve had the time to inflict you with my mumblings. Had a ton of fun recording with a bevy of beauties this past two months and now things have calmed down and my idle mind is looking for something to prattle on about. Today’s lecture will be on the subject of using shortcuts in Music Theory. The first thought off the top of my head is that I hate them, don’t like them, won’t give them the time of day, they are a cop out and inhibit constructive educational methods.

Okay, now that the vitriol has been flushed from my system and my musical elitism put back into the deep freeze, here’s the deal. Whatever you gotta do to remember things…that’s what you do. Yes, it’s always better to know everything at expert level. But something I’ve learned through the years is that every expert is shitty at something so there’s no shame in using some crutches when it comes to musical rules that seem random and disconnected at first. With an open mind, a ton of practice  and experience, even an idiot like me can one day hope to connect enough dots and make sense of it all.

When I was in high school I came off the basketball court into the music room and there was no-one, let me repeat, NO-ONE more inept than I was in reading a choral score. I can still remember the fear and confusion of looking at four part choral music and wondering why the words were repeated four times and what all the lines, dots, squiggles and letter abbreviations meant. And so, as if I were writing this to myself when I was that lunk-head jock, I will share a few of the things that made my life just a little easier at those early stages. This will be really basic so you geniuses can go outside and pull the wings off flies or cure a disease or something.

The Grand Staff

You might be confused by all the lines and dots when you look at a simple piano part. Don’t be. Just accept that music exists in time and in space. Time is represented by symbols that happen left to right just like reading these words. Stuff that happens first is on the left and as the stuff happens there will be little symbols on the paper from left to right to indicate that. The last stuff that happens will be all the way to the right. By space, I mean that music exists in pitch. This means that stuff happens up high in little girlie voices and other stuff happens deep down. This stuff is shown in symbols that are on the paper up high and down low. The background upon which all this stuff happens is called the Grand Staff.

The Grand Staff is ten horizontal lines in two groups of five with a big space in the middle. Don’t let this big space fool you into thinking it has mystic value. The pace between the two groups of five lines has the same value as any space between any two lines. Now, the top group of five lines is called the Treble Clef. There is a reason for this but for now just take a shortcut and memorize this. Say “Treble Clef.” The bottom group of five lines is called the Bass Clef. As you have probably already figured out, high sounds will appear up high on the Treble Clef and deeper sounds will hang out on the lower lines of the Bass Clef. If you draw a line halfway between the two groups of five lines you can call that line Middle C. And if you know where one note is on this confusing mess of lines and spaces then you can begin to figure out every other note. More on this later.

The Musical Alphabet

When students of mine balk at learning a bit of music theory I ask them these questions. 1. How many letters in the English alphabet? 2. How many letters in the musical alphabet? and 3. What are you so afraid of or are you just generally a lazy bastard? The answer to 1. is of course 26. The answer to 2. is 7…A, B, C, D, E, F and G. The answer to 3 ranges from “Nothing and no.” to “Looking stupid and yeah, I guess so.” But when you realize that the basic musical alphabet is made up of just 7 little letters, how can it be that difficult to figure out what they mean? And if you are afraid of looking stupid, no problem. Keep shaking in your little corner. It just leaves more “knowledge stuff” for everyone else to play with.

Alright, so what do all the lines mean in terms of the musical alphabet? The first thing to understand is that between the lines there are spaces. Every line and space has a name. But instead of Bob or Cathy we call them by initials like B and C. Let’s say that the very bottom line of the Bass Clef is called G. As you count up toward the top of the page, every space and every line will be called by the next letter in the musical alphabet. But wait! The bottom line is called G and that is the last letter! What do we do now? Ah, the great musical truth known as “We never run out of shit” comes into play. We just start over. So, the space above G is A, the next line is B and so on. It’s okay to point and talk aloud so point at each line and space and say the name out loud.

Ah, but what do we do when we get to that big space between the Bass and Treble Clefs? Remember, the big space isn’t any more important than any space between any two lines. Also remember that we drew a single line right between to two clefs and this line is called C. So, the top line of the Bass Clef is called A, right? The next space is called B. Then comes the line in the middle of no man’s land called C. The next space is D and that puts us on the bottom line of the Treble Clef. See if you can go the rest of the way to the top line.

The Nonsense Sentence approach to shortcuts

Most of you have heard the phrase “Every good boy does fine.” Some of you will make the connection that the first letter of each word corresponds with the name of the five lines of the Treble Clef. This is one of the first shortcuts taught to kids trying to learn their notes. The problem is that the kids memorize a nonsensical sentence without making a personal connection between the words in the sentence and the notes they are attempting to learn. If they get the sentence wrong all sorts of hell breaks loose. What if they say to themselves “All Good boys etc?” So the shortcut becomes a long cut which confuses rather than clarifies the student. But, being a strong proponent of nonsense myself, I would amend the process in the following manner.

If the Nonsense Sentence approach is to be used then each student should compose their own personal Nonsense Sentence. The old standard “Every Good Boy” is not only boring but casts an image of good little boys wearing school ties going around doing good little things while studying hard to be even better. Very few notable musicians fit into that mold so to hell with it. Make up your own. When I teach this method to my students we have a few laughs but I can guarantee that before they’ve made up three new sentences they already know the notes. Let’s do one together, hmm let me think, how about “Elvis Got Big Damned Feet.” or “Elephants Go By During Floods.” See, it’s easy.

How about the lines of the Bass Clef? The old standby is “Good Boys Do Fine Always.” Jeezus! I much prefer something a bit more original and with a twist. How about “Grannie’s Bed Doesn’t Fold Away?” Or, “Gertrude Beat Danny’s Fat Ass.” See how a little originality makes you want to learn? Go ahead, make up a pile of these things. And every time you get a good one it will drive those notes into your brain a little deeper. Every time you look for a word that starts with F your brain keeps repeating “F,F,F” and associating the letter with the top line of the Treble Clef.

Have some laughs, don’t be afraid to look stupid and quit being lazy bastards. Knowing stuff can be a lot of fun.

One Response to “Music Theory Shortcuts”

  • Qaadir

    I love your approach, I’m an older cat trying to learn new things. It helps to think the way you suggest…unless you are a lazy bastard…lol.