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Some thoughts on music theory, algebra, light bulbs, cars and learning to play the banjo

Posted by redbear on Saturday, May 9, 2015

*note: This article makes excessive and gratuitous use of analogies. Consider yourself warned.

Consider algebra

Some folks see algebra as a hopelessly confusing set of formulae and equations that seem to have no relationship to real life. Others see it as a perfectly practical tool for understanding and predicting real world events and phenomena. Both perspectives can be true. Suppose you find yourself at the store with instructions to buy as many light bulbs as $20 can get you. If so, what are you likely to do in that situation? You'll probably find the light bulbs, compare the different prices, determine which product offers the most inexpensive price per bulb and then calculate just how many bulbs you can buy at that price for $20. In doing this, you're "doing" algebra. You probably didn't write down any equations or solve for any variables but what you did could, I imagine, be expressed and understood using such things. Someone who does have a strong understanding of algebra could likely communicate that shopping experience in algebraic terms. So algebra isn't some mysterious magical system that we humans impose on the world but, rather, it's a system for organizing and making sense of what's already there. It's a tool that allows its practicioners to better understand and to better communicate "how" certain experiences work. So, not knowing the ins and outs of algebra is not necessarily going to prevent you from having a successful trip to the light bulb store but, on the other hand, having a firm grasp on its practical applications could make your shopping excursion more efficient and possibly more fruitful. *note: I haven't studied algebra since high school so I'm not sure why I've used this analogy.  8-)

Music theory is like algebra

There are countless musicians in the world making perfectly good music without knowing the "musical algebra" that theoreticians use to express and organize the phenomenon. Its only when we go searching for a deeper understanding of "how" music works that we need to turn to music theory. At some point in their journey, many musicians start seeking answers to some "what" and "why" questions like:

  • What makes a chord a chord?
  • What does it mean to say that a tune is in a particular key?
  • Why do particular patterns of notes make a particular type of scale?
  • What is a scale?
  • What's the difference between a major and a minor chord?
  • What does "modal" mean?

To answer these questions we use music theory.

An Automotive Analogy

Think of music theory as the mechanics of music. To start contemplating "what makes music tick" you have to take a look under the hood. You start by learning what each part is called and what it does and then you lean how these parts work together to form systems. Then you learn how all of those systems work together to "make the car move down the road". Of course, there are many drivers who have no desire to understand the inner workings of their vehicles. They know "how" to drive the thing and that's good enough for them. Likewise, many musicians are content in simply learning where and when to put their fingers. They want to know "how" to play a chord but aren't concerned about the "what" and "why" of a chord. That's okay. Everyone has to find their own way in this world. Some of us think more like mechanics while others think more like drivers. What I'm suggesting is that a driver's experience is enhanced when she understands a bit about what makes the car go and a banjo player's experience is likewise enhanced when he understands a bit about what makes music come out of his banjo.

A challenge for you


If you're a "driver" who tends to stick to the more practical aspects of the art and shy away from music theory and the "mechanics" of the music then dedicate a little time over the next few weeks to expanding your horizons. Check out some music theory resources (books, courses, websites) and then take what you've learned and see if you can relate it to your banjo playing. You'll likely gain some useful insights.


If you're a "mechanic", chances are you're spending a disproportionate amount of your time analyzing music theory and performing routine maintenance on your banjo when you could actually be playin' the thing. Commit to playing your banjo for twenty minutes a day for the next two or three weeks. I'm not talking about practicing your banjo or learning some new song, scale, technique, or exercise. I'm talking about playing that thing. If you know some songs or tunes, play them...everyday. If you just know a couple of chords, play a basic strum with your right hand while switching between chords with your left hand...everyday. You may be the most skilled mechanic in the world but, if you don't know how to drive, you're going to have a hard time getting where you want to go.


In music as in life, balance is the key. Happy frailin',       *note: If you decide to study music theory as it relates to your banjo playing, consider my 30 Days to Better Banjo course as that is one of the many subjects explored within the course. 

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