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Traditional Music And 'classical' Theory


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#1 keeper

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Posted 02 November 2005 - 04:09 PM

Hi. I have been an anglo player for 30 months and I play english dance and a few Irish tunes. But before that I trained to a competitive level as a pianist, I've been an active conductor, arranger etc. I have a BMus and an MMus and I've been a lecturer in music theory/history at London University. That preamble is not by way of an ego trip, it just sets a backdrop for my question.

In the workshops that I have attended the (excellent) teachers have mostly been strong performers but with a rather mixed knowledge of music theory and of notated performance indicators (such as why a piece in 4/4 has a different harmonic rhythm to one in 2/4, for example). My contention (which is what I want you guys to debate/explode/affirm) is that a formal music training can add enormous insight into how tunes might be shaped and played, at all levels from the individual note to the phrase to the whole piece.

I have screwed-up the courage to start this debate because the other delegates who I have met in workshops seem to be ravenous for guidance on such matters, from how to pick harmonies to how to choose speeds.

So, is the general concensus that such insights are 'nice to have' stuff on the grounds that traditional music does not need that sort of art-music perspective or are there any kindred spirits out there who join me in thinking that it is better to understand structural theories before assuming they are irrelevant?

Peronally, I think that they are highly relevant as they help me to choose performance practice from a position of strength, not least when I reject them (e.g., when harmonising with consecutive 5ths).

#2 Samantha

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Posted 02 November 2005 - 06:49 PM

Oooooooooh! A can of worms! Let me plunge my hands right in!
I think an understanding of theory can add a great deal but probably only when you also have a thorough grounding in the sounds of the tradition you wish to play. If you apply too much theory to traditional tunes without reference to their aural traditions you end up playing stuff that sounds as though it was written by Percy Grainger ... (runs for cover).
I suppose I should explain that I came to the anglo from a classical music background (French horn/orchestral), but when working out harmonies to the traditional tunes I play (and I don't claim to play in any particular traditional style) I noodle about 'til I find something I like the sound of and use my theoretical knowledge to describe what I've come up with, rather than analysing the music first.
Samantha
(edited to add second paragraph)

Edited by Samantha, 02 November 2005 - 06:55 PM.


#3 Henk van Aalten

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Posted 03 November 2005 - 02:11 AM

I think an understanding of theory can add a great deal but probably only when you also have a thorough grounding in the sounds of the tradition you wish to play. If you apply too much theory to traditional tunes without reference to their aural traditions you end up playing stuff that sounds as though it was written by Percy Grainger ... (runs for cover).

As far as I can judge, I agree with Samantha, so I support Doug's quote below for great deal (in which I like the words can and might)

My contention (which is what I want you guys to debate/explode/affirm) is that a formal music training can add enormous insight into how tunes might be shaped and played, at all levels from the individual note to the phrase to the whole piece.

To place my remarks into perspective: I have no formal training in music, but the few things I learned from music theory were eye-openers for me.

OTOH: first there was music and then came the theory and maybe this theory (I'm guessing) is too much based/focussed on the Western-Christian civilization with a strong preference for certain scales (or modes). So I wonder if musical theory really covers all types of folk music :unsure:

#4 Robert Booth

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Posted 03 November 2005 - 04:20 PM

A bit like the "dots-or-no-dots" debate which storms along here from time to time.
I wish that I knew more theory if only to be able to talk with other musicians about what's going on in the music. It's frustrating to get to a point in the jam, or conversation and find that I don't have the language to communicate what I want to say.

OTOH, as has been stated, too much formality can douse the spirit of a folk tune pretty effectively; Think of Black Spirituals which are covered by opera trained singers. The two collide head on and cancel each other out.

Moderation in all things, maybe?

#5 Boney

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Posted 03 November 2005 - 05:58 PM

I've come to think that, for the most part, people who play in an "academic" style will play that way whether they learned through formal training and reading, or by ear. And those who play in a "fluid/organic" style will play that way even if they have formal training. If it seems that almost all people who play in an "academic" style come from a classical background, I think that's because they're the type of person that is attracted to that tradition. In other words, it's more the type of person choosing their path, instead of the path molding the person. A few can do both convincingly.

There's always a danger that an "untrained" player will miss out on the rich ideas in theory and musical history, and will only be able to play in a style which is fairly constrained, or limited, to a certain feel. And there's always a danger that a "formal" player will use theory and ideas instead of their ears and body, or will not have developed their ears and technique to recognize and play in styles with subtle, unwritten feels.

In a related observation, those who are most critical of themselves tend to be the best players. They will understand those "dangers" I stated above. Those who think they have it all figured out usually have serious blind spots.

#6 Samantha

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Posted 03 November 2005 - 07:31 PM

[snip] ... It's frustrating to get to a point in the jam, or conversation and find that I don't have the language to communicate what I want to say... [snip]


That's where I find my "theoretical" knowledge most useful in "traditional" music - to communicate what I want to say to other people who have the same vocabulary.
Samantha

#7 JimLucas

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Posted 03 November 2005 - 07:54 PM

My contention (which is what I want you guys to debate/explode/affirm) is that a formal music training can add enormous insight into how tunes might be shaped and played, at all levels from the individual note to the phrase to the whole piece.

I think "can" is a significant word here. It's not the same as "will, without fail". Like nuclear energy and so many other things, the good and bad of music theory depend entirely on how it is used. To the extent that it's used to help one become familiar with the music and its subtleties, it's good. But to the extent that it's used to substitute for such familiarity, it's usually bad.

"Music theory" is at its root an attempt to describe the various aspects of music and how they correspond to the feelings we get from the music. That description comprises a set of "rules of composition" -- at its lowest leverl a kind of grammar -- for the "language" which is music. It tells us how to construct "meaningful", "useful", or "attractive" phrases and larger compositions in that language. But problems can arise if one the grammatical and compositional rules of one language tries to use, compositions in another language to build. (That last sentence is a deliberate example, which should seem quite awkard to native English speakers, though I hope still understandable.)

So if you're proposing that training in the "music theory" that describes the musics of Bach and Beethoven, or even those of Chopin, Joplin, Coletrane, or Stravinsky would be a great help in discussing and understanding Irish or Swedish traditional music, I would say that only a few of the concepts really cross genres. On the other hand, if you're proposing that the teachers of concertina or traditional music workshops should develop their own explicit descriptions of the structural aspects of their playing, I think that's a good intention, but difficult to realize.

One problem is that there are already terminologies for many musical characteristics, but they often differ, and in many cases they are mutually inconsistent. An example from an old discussion is the distinction between "single jig" and "double jig" in Irish music, where the meanings I learned from Irish musicians are quite different from those which others said they learned from other Irish musicians. A recent example from another thread here on C.net was the confusion over "cross fingering" and "cross-row fingering".

Another problem is that to describe structural characteristics of the music, one needs to be consciously aware of them. Traditional musicians with no "formal" training often aren't used to thinking in such terms. Do you propose that they take off a few years to learn that way of thinking and talking about music before they teach any more workshops?

Also, "traditional" musicians who have formalized their own understanding of their music may have developed conventions quite different from what might be taught at a school of classical music or jazz. You mention as an example, "why a piece in 4/4 has a different harmonic rhythm to one in 2/4", yet I've discovered that some respected teachers/transcribers of Irish music have their own rules for notation, which apparently don't recognize such a distinction but insist on notating in 4/4 tunes which I feel are most definitely in 2/4.

...the other delegates who I have met in workshops seem to be ravenous for guidance on such matters, from how to pick harmonies to how to choose speeds.

To me that sounds too much like the "rules as a substitute for experience and feeling" attitude which I detest. But instead, I'll lock onto the word "guidance". The guidance I recommend is guidance in learning to recognize various aspects of the music, so that one can listen and make comparisons. In particular, for choosing speeds the only prescriptions that I think are worthwhile are 1) let the dancers decide (if you're playing for a dance), and 2) if there's no room for ornamentation, it's probably too fast. (I know there are those who disagree with that last one. I've heard them play.) As for choosing harmonies, in any particular tradition that's worth a series of workshops in itself.

So, is the general concensus that ... traditional music does not need that sort of art-music perspective...?

I consider what I'm used to thinking of as an "art-music" perspective to be generally quite destructive to the subtleties of traditional musics.

...or are there any kindred spirits out there who join me in thinking that it is better to understand structural theories before assuming they are irrelevant?

To me that's not an alternative to the previous, but a completely separate issue. And it begs the question of which structural theories one should start with. If it presupposes that there is only one set of such structural theories, I would say that's wrong.

...they help me to choose performance practice from a position of strength, not least when I reject them (e.g., when harmonising with consecutive 5ths).

The fact that you are willing and able to reject such theories at least sometimes indicates an openness of mind that I fear many others would not duplicate. It's a lazy but common practice to adopt rules without taking the effort to judge their relevance and to use them as a substitute for understanding. That's why I consider classical "music theory" training without training in how to be cautious in its use to be as much a curse as a blessing.

I wish that I knew more theory if only to be able to talk with other musicians about what's going on in the music. It's frustrating to get to a point in the jam, or conversation and find that I don't have the language to communicate what I want to say.

And it's my suspicion that even if you "knew more theory", it would be of limited help, because it was developed to describe a different kind of music.

Moderation in all things, maybe?

No. Passion in all things! It's the feeling that makes music music! :)

#8 m3838

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Posted 03 November 2005 - 08:30 PM

I studied Chromatic Button Accordion with trained teacher for 4/5 years. Getting the theory, learning about changing keys by moving through dominant of dominant, or about parallel minor etc. was an eye opener.
My playing was becoming more proficient[ and at the same time less emotional.
I started panicking. My teacher suggested that we part.
I haven't touched CBA for 6 months now, instead I picked long unplayed button diatonic.
My wife said a few days ago "Well, here's the result of parting with your teacher: there is lighness and flight again, and everything is un-rehearsed".
Here are a few phrases, probably indicating common misconception:
"There is nothing professional musician can't play".
"professional musicians and music theory improve folk tradition and music, make it richer and more complex".
Having learned English in very short time, I agree with other poster, who said: "First was music, then theory".
Sure, learn to walk first and then, with inclination, you'll learn what makes you walking.
This knowledge will NOT make you a better walker though, this myth must be destroyed once and forever.
Yes, knowledge will provide for a conversation and will help you to understand what you're doing after you've done it. You can better help others, having the terms ready.
No, it will not give you any advantage in playing. It depends on your talent, that can't be taught.
Being professional musician require at least some talent in a first place.
Musical establishment can make impression they make musicians.
But solid musicianship is a requirement to enter it in the first place and it should be considered, when we talk about this.
With great interest I followed history of Jazz. Most of 19 century pre-jazz musicians weren't trained. What we call jazz is aftermarket, simplified, commercialized activity, that simply followed the clues of earlier "pre-jazz" folkies. John Lennon and Freddy Mercurey were not trained composers, but their "tunes" are arranged for big orchestras, seeking fresh ideas and audiences.
Interesting, that Leo Tolstoy despised art schools, thinking they kill pupils' ability to percieve art. Keep in mind that he was not a stranger to art himself and had extencive knowledge of music.

#9 Peter Brook

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Posted 04 November 2005 - 06:03 AM

So, is the general concensus that such insights are 'nice to have' stuff on the grounds that traditional music does not need that sort of art-music perspective


I think the short answer is yes - nice to have but not strictly necessary. There have been many debates on mudcat and elsewhere about the fact that the populations (in England) that kept traditional music vital, particualrly in the 19th and early 20th century, tended to be rural, working class, with less access to formal education. They played the way they did and danced the way they did because it was fun, it sounded right, it was their entertainment, but also they could earn a small amount of money from playing this way which supplimented their other income. Most wouldn't understand music theory or notation (there are notable exceptions such as Joshua Jackson) and it wasn't particularly relevant to their understanding or experience of music. Kimber was quoted as saying that his father taught him by saying " there are the notes you play and you don't play any others". When collectors such as Sharp and Grainger, collected material they did so from a cultural background which was much more "priveleged", urban, upper middle class with access to a formal education.

As Samantha pointed out there was some filtering out done by people such as Sharp and Grainger, possibly uncounciously(soory about spellign!), and where we don't have field recordings we only have the "filtered" record.

I think I sometimes can fall into the trap of wanting to over-analyse a particular tune and it's harmonics when I would be better served by pracitising it and focussing on timing, lift and dancability (i'm particularly thinking of morris tunes).

So I say just play - and if it sounds right to you and your audience - it probably is right.

Edited by Peter Brook, 04 November 2005 - 06:04 AM.


#10 Guest_Peter Laban_*

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Posted 04 November 2005 - 08:43 AM

I am afraid it's often a case of the 'classical', 'trained' or 'art' musician's perspective that traditional musicians haven't the knowledge. Certainly it's true to a point but mostly and only from the above's point of view. Unfortunately these musicians fail to see that traditional music has it's own aesthetic and tha tthe best traditional musicians have an instinctive and very distinct feeling for the finer points of their music.

Some of the finest traditional musician I have been privileged enough to meet had an acute insight in their music even if in some cases they may not have been able to name the note they were playing.

One of the prime examples is probably the late fiddler and piper Martin Rochford who was unusual in that he kept a collection of manuscripts of unusual tunes and was well able to read them but one time helping out tuning his pipes I discovered he was at a loss when asked t oplay for example a c natural on his regulators.

Another example is concertinaplayer Kitty Hayes, whom I regularly play with and know very well, who has a very acute sense of structure and rhythmic patterns of the music she plays but she agian would not be able to call the notes, it's pure instinct many who have university degrees in the same music would be hard pressed to match her insight in the nuances of the tunes she plays.

Both players were/are very capable of changing keys on their instrument and especially Martin Rochford was very sentitive to the expressive effects of playing tunes in particular keys/modes. Again without being able to name the actual key other than saying they were teh 'darker' or brighter' modes for a tune (he favoured the lonely darker sound on the fiddle though, Martin Hayes has built a career out of trying to capture what Rochford did all his life). This is an example of Rochford's fiddleplaying which I recorded in 1989, when Martin was in his seventies.

It is also useful to realise that (Irish) traditional music doesn't move in broad harmonic developments like classical music but is an essentially melodic music and moves around minute rhythmic and melodic variation, it basically moves on different grounds and it has been written (Pat Mitchell 'Rhythm and structure in Irish dance music') that classical musicians just don't recognise that unless they take years and years to educate their ears to hear nuances that are very obvious to traditional musicians.

Edited by Peter Laban, 04 November 2005 - 09:09 AM.


#11 Chris Allert

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Posted 04 November 2005 - 11:52 AM

i would say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

after trying to play irish music for a little while, i found that when i learned tunes from sheet music, they came out sounding lifeless. on the other hand, i have also found that i tend to exaggerate and over-emphasize a lot of the subtle nuances in tunes that i try to learn from recordings. i would agree that formal training can shape how we will hear the music. there is really quite a lot to hear, and we must filter out most of it to hear anything at all. an audio cd encodes sound waves at 44100 samples per second, and even then, almost everything is being filtered out. so we have to make decisions as to how we will filter things, what we will choose to hear, and what we will chose to ignore.

i would take issue with the assertion that traditional musicians understand music more "intuitively" than outsiders. this is a bit like saying non-english-speakers have some kind of mysterious and spiritual way of communicating since i as an english-speaker don't understand how they communicate. i can see clearly that they communicate, but i can't understand the sounds they make, so i conclude that their form of communication is more "intuitive" than my own. but in fact there is something more general than english which is language. the foreigners speak a language much like my own, capable of expressing many of the same thoughts, capable of expressing both more and less than my own language since their language is adapted through the centuries to different people and places than my own. through careful study and experience, i can learn their language, though as a foreigner to them, i will never completely master it, i will never sound quite right, just as they will never sound quite right to me.

now to expand on the above example of languages, in addition to the various native languages that people speak, we have the language of science, or more accurately, several different specialized and incompatible languages of different disciplines, the lingo of particle physics, string theory, evolutionary biology, criminal psychology, forensics, statistics, and so on. there are no native speakers of any of these languages. but as people advance in their disciplines, they learn what kind of assertions work and what kinds don't, and those on the inside of any particular discipline will see what a thing of subtlety, beauty, and inspiration an important theory can be.

i do not believe that music is language, but i think language is somewhat analagous to what music is, just as western science is analagous to what western music theory is. and "proper english" (or french, not long ago) corresponds in the same way to "classical music". but since most people in the world, i think, distinguish between speaking and making music, i would argue that music and language are two different things that people everywhere do. there is a fundamental difference between the different kinds of folk music around the world and western classical music, and exactly what the difference is is a very complex matter, but the difference is certainly not how intuitive or structured one or the other is.

i think in every kind of music, there is a wide range of ability. there are mediocre musicians, completely inept musicians, good musicans, great musicians, and truly inspired geniuses. at the lower end of this spectrum people will try to get by on pure inspiration or pure rule-following. but as you get better, you must have an intimate knowledge of what all the rules are, and the intuition to know when and how to apply them or break them. (the same can be said about any other field of human endeavor as well, especially science)

the point i wanted to make, however, is that trying to ignore music theory is kind of like trying to ignore western science or western capitalism. while there are serious problems with both western science and western capitalism, you can't really understand today's world without familiarity with them. a very concrete example of how ignorance of music theory can effect us is in the very instruments we play. you may recall that recently i started a discussion of alternatives to equal temperment. not too long ago, the consensus of the classically trained music world was that equal temperment will be the standard and A will be 440Hz (please forgive me for simplifying the situation a lot). and so most instruments available to us are built this way. and the compromises of equal temperment will effect how the music we play sounds. but if we don't know why playing chords on an instrument sounds so bad, we are at a loss to even know how to improve the situation, and so we may just give up chords and drones altogether. maybe this isn't the best example, but those who are better educated than i can probably think of a similar situation.

sorry for the long-winded post.

#12 m3838

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Posted 04 November 2005 - 02:20 PM

>i can learn their language, though as a foreigner to them, i will never completely >master it, i will never sound quite right, just as they will never sound quite right to me.

Very well said. It's good answer to people who think that it is possible to play in any style if they want. The key word here is "Approximation".


>you must have an intimate knowledge of what all the rules are, and the intuition to >know when and how to apply them or break them.

I would argue this point. There are people naturally inclined to analyse and people inclined to follow instinct. It is irrelevant to the quality of their playing.

>the point i wanted to make, however, is that trying to ignore music theory is kind of >like trying to ignore western science or western capitalism.

Valid point. My agrument would be: on the other side of the above statement, it is impossible to ignore modern tendencies because they are pushed from the books, radio, TV, CD's. Considering this I must say that to become a better folk musician one "has to" ignore common knowledge, become a "weirdo" and develop his/her own style. Chances are this style will be more authentic to the culture, this individual is living in.
Of course, as with everything, there are more chances it will not be. But if one studies musical culture of today, strictly speaking there is NO chance of any authenticity at all.
Is it important? Yes socially, and not personally.

>but if we don't know why playing chords on an instrument sounds so bad, we are at a >loss to even know how to improve the situation.

I think this is over-simplification, as these chords don't sound THAT bad, and there is always a way around it, and people are not completley ignorant etc.
My example would be from the field of ballet. There were and are many attempts at constructing modern ballet by breaking the known rules. The problem is: dancers with "intimate" knoledge of the rules are traned to built upon them. Breaking them results in loss of expressive means. Unless there is someone like Isidora Dunkan, who has developed a 'training' system, based on entirely different priciples and gave the foundation for all the modern dance, there is no chance for classically trained ballet dancer to act outside of his/her training range.

Another note would be: don't ignore the existence of folk TRADITION, which IS the knowledge. In this respect when we talk about folkies, who can't communicate, we talk about ignorance, not a folk tradition. I accept that this tradition is gradually been replaced by classical, and see how classical can benefit from it, but fail to see how folk benefits from classical. The main reason for my doubt is assumption, that there is no well established folk knowledge compared to classical nowadays. The true folk tradition is corrupted and became pop. I see overwelming advance of heavy armored classical tradition on defenceless folk, with inevitable death of both.

#13 keeper

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Posted 04 November 2005 - 02:51 PM

Wow! What a lot of fine contributions to my initial question. I would like to develop a couple of points.

It seems to me that the actual expression 'music theory' triggers some very specific concepts in different minds. For one, it may trigger concepts of scales, for another, speeds, for another, rules of harmonisation. I did not proscribe what I meant by music theory except to suggest that we start with western art music, which happens to be my own taxonomy and the one closest to western traditional music. In fact, I would argue that the percieved differences between western art music and western traditional music are conspicuous by their absence, particularly when compared to musical traditions from other parts of the globe. See what I mean below with reference to other music traditions which are also art music and carry their own theory systems.

It seems to me that traditional musicians who claim some artistic or moral high ground for the purity of their tradition are pushing against an open door when they try to advocate concepts such as aural learning and improvisation to classical musicians. Classical musicians got into this stuff years ago. They are not a different breed. Nor are they superior. But I do think that they are lucky, in having a language of theory that not only enhances their ability to learn swiftly and accurately but allows transferred experience from day to day and from person to person. Sure, we have all met people who learnt piano, gave up or who can only play a few party pieces 'from the dots' but that is not the fault of the teaching system. If they did not engage with the potential of that musical world they were unlikley to engage with any other, in my experience.

One interesting aspect of the corpus of western art music is that it is one of the most liberal. I think that one reason for this is that it is notation-based, not aurally based. This turns the debate over 'the dots' on its head but think about it for a minute...if the only way you can learn a piece is by hearing someone play it then you are restricted to local personal data which is often quite opinionated. If you can learn a tune 'from the dots' then you are only learning the essence of the tune, permitting a wider and more liberal choice of how you perform it. If there was need for any proof that notated traditions can be just as liberal and empowering as aural traditions, reflect on Peter Brooks point that Kimber was only allowed to play the notes as handed down from his dad! Even Leopold Mozart (the control-freak of all time) allowed Wolfgang to improvise!

And we must distinguish between traditions which have a core of performance practice from ones which don't. For example, jazz is a very loose world with sections that have clear performance requirements (blues for example) but equally sections that have very few accepted norms. So performance norms are nothing to do with their visual represenation of music as dots. Gamalan music has a highly proscribed performance practice. Ragas of the Indian sub-continent do too (at the structural level). And these are both aural traditions. In fact, there is a lot more revolution in Beethoven's choice of keys for symphony movements then there is in much western traditional music, with it's heavy reliance on structural formulae (2 x 8-bar phrases, no syncopation, for example), coupled with restricted key colour due to instrumental constraints (I speak as an anglo player!)

Robert Booth makes the excellent point that a shared verbal language is useful to convey musical concepts, leading to better co-operative performance and facilitating shared experience [my additions]. Language only works if words have agreed meanings. That means rules. But a common feeling amongst traditional musicians is amply representated in this thread - that theory leads to rules. It doesn't. Theory is something quite different. When Mahler proscribes every performance nuance in his symphonies he is making a personal, compositional choice. Don't blame western art music or its notation system for the way one person uses it. Handel used the same notation system but decided to notate keyboard suites as block chords, leaving infinite performance choices as to rhythm and spacing etc. Yet we must surely agree that, substantially, they were composing within the same musical language (whilst recognising the different harmonic developments from the intervening centuries.) Jim Lucas might like to reflect on this view in particular because I think we see 'music theory' as very different things. Here's an analogy - freedom of movement is a civil concept. Now, you can either read the theory (as set-out in acts of law) or you can just have a working knowledge. Either way, it's still theory - the rule bit is that freedom of movement is governed by passports. That's governance. Governance is different from theory. I speak better French for knowing the grammar. I don't always get it right but even knowing that I am getting it wrong is a genuine help in an instantaneous, 'performance' way.

There is a school of musical analysis based on the theories of Salzer and Schenker. (Musical analysis is like forensics - it deals with what the composer was trying to create by deconstructing the finished piece.) Whilst these theories of structural analysis were designed for large, symphonic movements, they are not just applicable to traditional musics but are actually grounded in them. It works a bit like this...when a layman sees a house, he sees the external decoration. When an architect looks at the same house, he visualises the internal structure. As a beneficiary of my training in musical analysis, when I hear a tune, I hear the musical structure - the important notes and pivotal bars (to give a more concrete expression to what I mean). One reason this is particularly important to me as an anglo player is that it is easier for me to find substitute buttons for the meldoy than it is to learn a melody on the easiest buttons then hope there will be enough harmony buttons available in the same bellows direction. We have all heard tunes which are harmonised in a way that is highly compromised by a previous selection of melody buttons. How many other anglo players would benefit from a little structural insight like this? I think that a basic working knowledge of these theories would be both accessible and beneficial to any traditional performer who can grasp the simple knowledge of where a note lies in a scale and what the main chords are within that scale and how these two interact, structurally.

And I don't think it takes 'a few years off', Jim. It takes a few hours to learn the 'what', a few months to learn the 'how' and then a few years of increasing benefit as it becomes second nature. It is the old concept of moving from 'unconscious incompetent' through 'conscious incompetent' to 'conscious competent' and, finally, 'unconscious competent.' It is this unconscious competence which I have met in several teachers of traditional music who have had either the talent or immersion to bypass the previous stages. But many students have clearly recognised their 'unconscious incompetence' and hunger for development. Music theory can fasttrack that development.

I wonder if m3838 [unusual posting name!] will ever be certain whether his new found lightness of performance on the button diatonic was in spite of his theoretical training or because of it? He clearly thinks it's the former but one of the curious things about learning is that it's hard to reverse.

There also seems to be a sort of undercurrent that learning for it's own sake is somehow redundant. This is the old 'music only exists in sound' debate. I firmly nail my clours to the mast. Music as a theoretical representation of patterns and shapes has a valid life of its own. Performing it makes it more interesting for performer and listener alike but to say that performance is the only valid expression of the creation is like saying that Shakespeare's plays only have value on stage. I have read them. They have value on the page.

Peter Laban makes some interesting points about 'key colour' and the almost mysterious psychological effects of whether certain keys/modes are 'darker' or not in the performance practice of Martin Rochford. But I wonder if the mystery is innate or whether it comes from an inability to explain the sounds because of a lack of theoretical, musical vocabulary on the part of of Martin? I am reminded that there is nothing quite so good at creating mystery as obfuscation - all experts/magicians preserve their expertise from the masses by talking in codes (or not at all). I am honestly not suggesting that Martin falls into this category of 'self-appointed shaman' but I have found more of these in the world of traditional music than in the world of art music. One result of notating music and using a common language of theory is that it makes music democratic and not exclusive to those prepared to worship at the feet of local masters.

By the way, I have read (and written) papers about Verdi's use of key colour to express different social positions in his operas (aristocrats in flat keys, proletariate in sharp keys, rank extending with the number of accidentals) and Scriabin spent much of his life working on theories of pitch-classes and visual colour. There is nothing less valid in their emotional appreciation of key colour just becuase they have the vocabulary to convey the sound world that creats that emotional response.

So, I contend that western art music is just as liberal in performance practice as traditional music, each set of ' dots' being not only a point of departure for performance but also a symbolic representation of a distilled form of the piece which can be appreciated with increasing accuracy and meaning the more that the underlying theory is assimilated and understood.

Answers on a postcard in twelve words or less starting 'I love mental gymnastics because...'

#14 Guest_Peter Laban_*

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Posted 04 November 2005 - 05:23 PM

Peter Laban makes some interesting points about 'key colour' and the almost mysterious psychological effects of whether certain keys/modes are 'darker' or not in the performance practice of Martin Rochford. But I wonder if the mystery is innate or whether it comes from an inability to explain the sounds because of a lack of theoretical, musical vocabulary on the part of of Martin? I am reminded that there is nothing quite so good at creating mystery as obfuscation - all experts/magicians preserve their expertise from the masses by talking in codes (or not at all). I am honestly not suggesting that Martin falls into this category of 'self-appointed shaman' but I have found more of these in the world of traditional music than in the world of art music. One result of notating music and using a common language of theory is that it makes music democratic and not exclusive to those prepared to worship at the feet of local masters.


Martin was in fact a quiet man who loved his music more than anything else, like genuine traditional musicians as I know thenm he was extremely down to earth.

If you don't mind me saying, comments like the above always contain a voice I find more than a bit condescending. I don't get the impression you come with much knowledge of the music I am referring to, yet you are ready to talk obfustication, lack of theoretical, musical vocabulary etc.
As I pointed out above you come to this from your perspective, the musicians I am talking about may lack the academic musicians vocabulary but they are on average and in their own right quite articulate about their music.
I think it is more useful for this discussion to look at the music at hand on it's own terms i.e. looking at what is considered important by 'the tradition' if you like when playing this music. It is also important to realise that notations of differents sorts and complexities have always been in use among traditional musicians but without putting in the legwork (and that means going at it more than the 'few months' mentioned above) those from outside the tradition will not produce anything more from these notations than some sort of approximation that will not fool anyone 'in the know' into believing there's any content between the notes.
I think anybody who has heard musicians like Yehudi Menuhin or Nigel Kennedy having a go at the ' oirish folksy stuff' will have had an acute sense of embarrasment at the way these men were making a total arse of themselves by being at a total loss with their approach of very simple tunes and being totally oblivious of the fact (in Menuhin's case)they hadn't a clue whatsoever. The same holds true ofcourse for musicians with a traditional background who think they can easily branch out into pop, jazz, classical music, it usually ends in pathetic disaster.

Edited by Peter Laban, 05 November 2005 - 03:51 AM.


#15 Mark Evans

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Posted 04 November 2005 - 09:14 PM

as has been stated, too much formality can douse the spirit of a folk tune pretty effectively; Think of Black Spirituals which are covered by opera trained singers. The two collide head on and cancel each other out.

Moderation in all things, maybe?


Hear hear! ;)

#16 m3838

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Posted 04 November 2005 - 10:39 PM

First of all I am very impressed with the eloquency of Keeper. Well put points of argument and tons of iinteresting bits of information.
My name is Michael, sorry for m3838 thing, it was unintentional, but for now it is to stay.

>It seems to me that the actual expression 'music theory' triggers some very specific >concepts in different minds.

Well, to me this discussion is rotating around a perseption that any kind of theory will make you a better player. I am of the opinion it will not, as the theory is always secondary to performance. You are, perhabs, of the opposite opinion, foundation of which escapes me.

>I would argue that the percieved differences between western art music and western >traditional music are conspicuous by their absence

I disagree, because it is easy to distinguish between them by listening.
It's like saying there was no difference between an aristocrat and his servant in 18 century Russia. Opposite was obvious to everybody, although all agreed they had the same predecessor.


>It seems to me that traditional musicians are pushing against an open door when >they try to advocate concepts such as aural learning and improvisation to classical >musicians.

Good point and I totally agree with it.

>One interesting aspect of the corpus of western art music is that it is one of the most >liberal.

Another interesting point, but ... I don't see iberalism as the aspect of traditoional culture. Quite the opposite. Otherwise we wouldn't have the subject of conversation, nor we would be able to converse. If you are correct about "Art music's liberalism", it is the strongest proof of the difference.

>If you can learn a tune 'from the dots' then you are only learning the essence of the >tune,

It wasn't the system's intention, it's the system's failure.
Besides written music is widely used by folk musicians and has always been. It has marginal importance to the performance, otherwise why there are celebrities and loosers among equally well educated musicians?

>And we must distinguish between traditions which have a core of performance >practice from ones which don't.

You lost me here.

>a common feeling amongst traditional musicians is amply representated in this thread >- that theory leads to rules. It doesn't.

Lost again. The theory doesn't lead anyone anywhere. It follows. Let's not put a cart ahead of a horse.

>I speak better French for knowing the grammar.

I don't think it is true though. It sounds as though by real good command of a grammar your French is going to be better than of frenchmen, who don't know the grammar.
I think it's a self-dillusion. Any uneducated Frenchman will be able to correct you at any time. There was exellent point earlier about not soundinig quite right. This is a difference between a success and a flop.

>...when a layman sees a house, he sees the external decoration. When an architect >looks at the same house, he visualises the internal structure.

An excellent point. It implies that folk musicians don't know the structure. I doubt it's true. They know, or at least must know the structure, because it is much more rigid and specific than art-music. Again we're mixing "folk musicians" and amateurs, whose goal is to play like somebody else. Like "boy, I'd like to play like Noel Hill".

>As a beneficiary of my training in musical analysis, when I hear a tune, I hear the >musical structure - the important notes and pivotal bars

That's great. I'm sure most folkies do the same. It comes with expirience too. And from playing by the ear.

>is that it is easier for me to find substitute buttons for the meldoy than it is to learn a >melody on the easiest buttons then hope there will be enough harmony buttons >available

I'm not sure you approach anglo the right way though. You shouldn't learn the tune first and harmony second, to begin with. As you learn a melody, you must always probe the harmony, because it's the most important issue with choosing the bellow direction.
Hey, sometimes (too often) you will (despite your training) go with unfitting harmony for just the sake of rhytm.

>But many students have clearly recognised their 'unconscious incompetence' and >hunger for development. Music theory can fasttrack that development.

Then they should learn it. What's the problem?

>I wonder if m3838 [unusual posting name!]

Sorry.

>will ever be certain whether his new found lightness of performance on the button >diatonic was in spite of his theoretical training or because of it?

It has nothing to do with the bits of theory I leaned. My playing 'was' better before the schooling and became worse with it. It may be the teacher, the wrong instrument, the wrong repertory or the unfitting structure of teaching. Again, let's not mix what we do with the analisis of why we do it 'after' we are done. Yes, I learned alot. I just wonder if I'd learn the same or more in those 5 years, while performing emotionally instead of feeling like it was wasted time and money.

>to say that performance is the only valid expression of the creation is like saying that >Shakespeare's plays only have value on stage. I have read them. They have value on >the page.

Yes, written playes must be performed. And they are written with this intention. What you are doing is imagining a performance. So in a way you enjoy performance, not the page.
So to you reading the music brings as much joy as listening to the performance.
I think it's just a nature of been a professional. It's rather weird, but understandable.
The audience can't hear you though, so I think it has little relevance to the topic.

>I wonder if the mystery comes from an inability to explain the sounds

This conversation reminds me about talking with my friends-mathematicians. Having to deal with imaginary objects, like perpendicular, plane, angle, straight line, groups of digits etc., they deal with it as though they actually exist. When I point that there is no such thing as a straight line or perpedicular or (God forbid) groups of digits in the Nature, they give me a strange look. Why not explain the sound in emotional terms? No numbers of Khz or names of the modes can explain it, because it's a relative thing. C# is not really sharp, it's only "sharp" compared to C. But compared to D it's rather "flat". It's not really flat either. So "darker" modes are described so in painterly terms. It's neither dark, nor it really has a name.

>One result of notating music and using a common language of theory is that it makes >music democratic and not exclusive to those prepared to worship at the feet of local >masters.

Education in general is very democratic, you are right.
Reading Beethoven's manuscripts, loosely depicting his intentions, becomes a thing in itself and is exclusive. Being an artist depends on rarity of a talent and is exclusive. What is inclusive is performance, offering.

>each set of ' dots' being not only a point of departure for performance but also a >symbolic representation of a distilled form of the piece

Interesting how you interpret inadequate and impresize, illogical, difficult to read, traditionally derived way of writing music as a cherished liberal intention.
It's not hard to improve todays clumsy notation system, make it read the same in all octaves and (as a result) in all clefs. The reason it's not done - tradition. Too much re-doing, re-learning, re-printing etc. Rigid tradition, that's what it is.
I've come up with two new systems and showed it to people. I got positive and negative responces. Most of negative came from classically trained musicians. Main reason - it's so hard to re-learn.

#17 keeper

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Posted 05 November 2005 - 05:33 AM

If you don't mind me saying, comments like the above always contain a voice I find more than a bit condescending.



I don't mind you saying it at all, Peter. It was naive of me to link my point that some players revel in 'not knowing how they do it' with your point that Martin does not know how to express the sound differences in verbal terms other than 'darker.' In fact, all musical voicabulary is borrowed from other practices - we say a note is 'high' (altitude) when we actually mean it oscillates at a faster frequency, we say a sound is 'soft' (texture) when we mean that it generates fewer decibels, we say that a phrase should be 'smooth' (friction?) when we mean that the periods of silence should be minimal. But I hope you can see why your comment about Martin triggered my point. Whether readers agree that there is more obfuscation in traditional music or in art music is a matter for them to judge from personal experience. But there is little as condescending as the hungry pupil who is rejected with 'Oh, I don't know, I just twiddle my fingers and it sort of comes out...' I have seldom come across that in the classical world.

And I have just realised that you, Peter, are writing from an Irish tradition and I fully accept that I am not yet familiar with this tradition. But I rather hope my thoughts are shedding light on the differences between musicians who espouse the theories of their chosen tradition and those who feel that this is unnecessary. But, clearly, one has to accept my contention that traditional music at its fundamental level responds to the same theoretical principles as art music. This is obviously a hot potato for many readers.

I guess I disagree with those who feel it is unnecessary to explore music theory. I believe that they are missing out on one of the great joys of music, which is knowing why something sounds whole and 'good' and fulfullling - Geschtalt, to steal a German word. It is rather like doing a sudoku - it serves no purpose in itself, is highly theoretical and rarifed, but has reminded me that, in real life, a few reality checks on my domestic accounts can prove very useful!

Michael comments 'Well, to me this discussion is rotating around a perseption that any kind of theory will make you a better player. '

If so, it is a a valid departure and fits my sub-text about whether theory can fast-track performance improvement; but it's not the main tack. I believe that 'knowing for knowings sake' is a valid mental pleasure. I think that this is particularly true in my case as I only play concertina in sessions and, therefore, for the pleasure of myself as performer, without a mandate from an audience or client. But I still think that theory does lead directly to better performance, particularly in aspects such as harmonic rhythm.

Michael and I disagree about the extent to which art music and western music is different. I guess that a mile is little to a fighter pilot but an inch is long to an ant so this is just a question of degree: except that readers might be fascinated to see a graphic representaiton of an analysis of a symphonic movement which reduces the whole thing to a single page that looks remarkably like a 16-bar hornpipe. This comes back to my feelling that structure is largely mis-taught as if it simply depended on consecutive chord progressions. In truth, there is a hierarchy of harmonic goals that stand out like peaks, the intervening chords being subordinate structurally but (actually) containing the real essence of the music that differentiates it from other pieces with the same, high-level structure. For example, Bach keyboard preludes are invariably described as two-part pieces as they have two halves of equal length, pointedly underlined by repeat bars. But that is ony the structure of the duration of the piece. The 'emotional' structure in terms of harmonic progressions and synthesis of ideas is nearly always three-part. These insights are equally applicable to many pieces in English traditional music. So, when players talk about 'the A music and the B music' I often wonder if they realise that there is an Aa Ba Bb form going on within the 8+8 bars.

Michael's point that written transmission fails to convey the composer's intention rather than aims to allow freedom of expression is an excellent point and has substantially changed my perspective. I guess I ought to plead the cause of those composers who have embraced player-interpretation and point out that this is not necessarily a 'modern' concept. But is is interesting to ask whether the scraps of musical shorthand that remain from pre-recording days suggest freedom of interpretation or simply act as aides memoire to a rigid performance. I think that there is enough in performance treatises to be sure that performer freedom was widely prevalent and expected and only needed to be formally permitted after the stricter late Classical and Romantic period.

I am sorry that the distinction between traditions with set-rules and traditions with more liberal practices was not clear. An example might help. Blues is a sub-set of jazz which has a specific, set harmonic sequence. It can be more or less complex within certain boundaries but, if you wander outside those boundaries in structural terms you tend more and more towards a wider form of jazz until you can no longer call it blues.

If theory follows rather than leads performance practice, why are people so afraid of it? I think that much of the aversion to theory that comes through in some posts is that people fundamentally don't like being told what to do and they see theory as a set of rules which require adherance. It isn't. True, there are treatises from more authoritarian times which are but anyone who has watched a 'master' give a msterclass will find more ego and proscription in his/her personal certainty than in any written guidance.

The point that a native French speaker can correct my use of their language is an excellent argument in favour of grammatical theory! If they correct my pronunciation, I only learn how to correct that one usage in that one instance. If they are able to say '...in all cases where there is a plural or feminine agreement with words ending in 'e' ...' then I have a toolkit to correct myself in the future. That is probably the best description for the power of musical theory - a toolkit which offers a set of references that are transferable from piece to piece for selective use.

And I say again that my primary reason for starting this thread is to ask where those who come late to music theory get their knowledge, because there is a clear need as expressed by people I have met in folk workshops but no corresponding response from the folk community as far as I know.

[I am just adding another para here to note that I AM aware of Roger Digby's excellent booklet called 'Faking It' which deals with harmonising traditional English tunes for concertinas]

Edited by keeper, 05 November 2005 - 05:55 AM.


#18 Guest_Peter Laban_*

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Posted 05 November 2005 - 06:43 AM

I know, I was slightly irritated last night. I don't have any quibble with your point that there can be helpful tools, theoretical and otherwise, that may broaden your scope as a musician. I do think there's a danger mixing two 'schools' or 'traditions' if you like. There's a different emphasis in Irish traditional music which is esentially melodic and not as pre-occupied with harmony as classical music. I quoted Pat Mitchell above who asserted in his (very worthwhile) article that most of the things at the core of good traditional playing, in the mind of the traditional player and educated listeners (informed by the tradition), that totally escape those educated outside the tradition. Pat puts it like this:


While Irish traditional dance music may not have reached the level of development of Indian
classical music, when played well it is a multi-layered music full of subtlety and variation. The
scale of Irish traditional dance music is very different to that of western European art music or
other harmony-based music such as jazz. Both of these musics tend to move in broad harmonic
sweeps. By comparison, Irish traditional dance music changes on a microscopic scale with, for
instance, small variations in the timing of a grace note played at or near the end of a note greatly
altering the effect of the graced note for those who can perceive it. My own personal experience
suggests that those brought up only on harmonic music cannot actually hear all that is going on
in good Irish traditional dance music performance unless they spend a great deal of time
educating their ear.



People like Martin Rochford may not have been highly educated but Martin had a mind as sharp as a razor and he was very well aware of wha the had musically , and able to communicate his point. If maybe his communicating was in the way traditional musicians exchange music, from a different background with slightly different conventions.

I don't think it useful to create mystery and magic around music but I do think each music should be taken at it's own terms rather than looking at it only from the 'art' musicians point of view. Each have their own values and Irish music, simple as it is on many levels, has it own intricacies which may take a long time to learn, recognise and appreciate in full.

On the issue of 'instinct' and 'language' they are means of expressing how some traditional musicians who have grown up immersed in music internalise the music. I teach music (the Uilleann Pipes), may of my young pupils have grown up in musical families and have absorbed music like they have aquired their language(s, a few are both English and Irish speaking). Usally they have had a good grinding on the tinwhistle by the time they come to me
Teaching them tunes is a completely different kettle of fish compared to teaching musicians who have taken up their music later in life or who come to traditional music from a different background. There is an immediate insight in the structure of the tunes and all my pupils are able to pick up a tune instantly, with nuances present that would give an 'outsider' (forgive the term) a hard time grasping in my experience (I have come the outside route myself). I am sure this is not unique to any kind of music, the fact is though that because of the social context and the way most traditional musicians have aquired their music there is a difference in their perception of the material and in how they 'process' music presented to them compared to learners coming from a different angle. I call it 'instinct', for want of a better term, because a lot of things seem to come more easily, natural, like the fluency only a native speaker usually acquires. This doesn't mean ofcourse an 'outsider' is excluded, it will however take him/her a lot more work to reach something approaching a similar fluency and understanding.

For the sake of this discussion it is probably also good to realise that the standard descriptor 'oral/aural transmission', historically meant just that (although there are also instances known of various notation systmes used to aid memory, but only to retain the basic tune), many of the older musicans I have spoken with tell me there was no formal teaching, they listened to musicians, often family members, playing and started noodling with instruments at a young age. Once 'bringing out' something like a tune the basics would have been explained and from there on only the occasional tune would be given and maybe a hint of how to treat it. There are numerous stories of youngsters standing behind the fiddler's chair at dances trying to memorise tunes and work out bowing systems the players were using. There is no great history of musical education, transmission went (and still goes to a large extend) through tunes and the pupild pick up by ear whatever is going on ornamentation and variation-wise. Excercises and a lot of the things taken for granted by classical musicians were (and again to an extend still aren't) part of the package. Which explains hopefully the situation that started this discussion.

Edited by Peter Laban, 05 November 2005 - 03:35 PM.




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