I’m a guy that really likes theory. A lot. My brain gravitates toward that type of thinking and I’m pretty good at it, so I have a strong tendency to play around with and memorize theoretical structures. This can be an asset as long as I take the next step to apply what I’ve learned to real music!
A friend of mine once told me a trick he used in elementary school to memorize vocabulary words. He would say “use it three times and it’s yours forever!” So that’s my challenge to you! Pick a purely theoretical exercise like 3-3-2 rhythm phases or the Rootless Chord Scaffold and make a point to use the ideas in the exercise in real music in several ways. Make a little checklist or write tally marks on a printout of the exercise to see what you’ve used and what you need to work on!
Here’s the trick: not everything that falls out of an exercise will be equally useful to you, and you have to be a bit choosy if you want to benefit. Music is infinitely wide and complex, and in creative space you can make whatever you want out of whatever you want. That being said, you might not like everything that you create, so searching for sounds and ideas that you like can create some limiting factors on the value of memorizing every chord of a chord exercise equally. Also, if your goal is to learn skills to excel in a particular genre, you need to be even more choosy and make sure you are actually getting inside of the space that you want to be in so that you can figure out which aspects of an exercise are the aspects that will benefit you!
First, the Theory
Most types of music theory aren’t actually all that theoretical. They actually just describe what people are doing in an abstract way. So it’s really more practical music thinking than theory, but no matter. The first thing you want to figure out is what you are interested in learning. It may be scales, meters, chord scales, the structure of a genre, whatever. At that point, you want to define the boundaries of your exercise as definitely as you can. This is important because it makes it possible for your mind to focus on goals and progress rather than get caught in spirals of unproductive thinking.
One of my favorite examples of this is the 3-2 Rhythm Phases. Certain rhythmic patterns like a 3-3-2 get used extremely frequently in music all over the world, and the 8th note modes of that rhythm are virtually all useful and present in real music. There are exactly 8 modes of a 3-3-2 rhythm if you phase shift it through a bar of 4/4 time by 8th notes, and those are very interesting and useful rhythms to know. There are a lot of other possible displacements by 16ths or other subdivisions, but I don’t find them nearly as useful or interesting, so I don’t worry about them. My constraint is that I’m doing the 8th note modes of a 3-3-2 rhythm and that’s it. There are exactly 8 rhythms there I can play with. No more, no less.
Second, the Embodiment
As I said, 3-2 rhythms are everywhere. They are in techno drum and synth rhythms, paul simon’s fingerpicking, Bossa Nova piano and pop vocal arrangements until you get sick of keeping track. They are in Indian music and African music and Eastern European music…it’s actually more difficult to find genres that don’t have them at all. So if you want to get to know these rhythms after you’ve written them out you can do something involving any of these genres to learn and master the patterns for use in other places! Here’s a list of examples.
- Play cover songs that use the rhythms and identify them as you play
- Write songs that use the rhythm as a characteristic feature
- Do a phase composition that uses all the rhythms systematically
- Write a fingerpicking riff that uses a steady bass and picks the 3-2 pattern
The trick gets to be doing this systematically so that you truly master the sounds you are working with. If you do an exercise and only pick up one or two catchy ideas, that can actually be OK too. Ed Sheeran pretty much uses one phase of the 3-3-2 rhythm in most of his songs and he does OK. That being said, if your goal is to be music savvy, you’ll want to figure out which rhythms are untapped and juicy and make them part of your vocabulary!
Third, the Mastery
There are always depths and heights with a particular exercise that we will be able to add as we evolve as musicians. The point on focusing on attaining some master in the beginning is so we can trust we have a basic competence with the skills we’ve acquired enough to relegate them to subconscious status for a while. If you are really focused on getting an exercise down, I recommend the following process.
- Pick an exercise/theory concept
- Define an exercise with definite and reasonable constraints
- Write out the exercise in exact detail
- Brainstorm a list of ways to embody the exercise
- Put those ideas into practice and keep track of which parts of the exercise you are still trying to master.
Again, you’ll find certain parts of the exercise are harder than others for you to grasp, but remember the ‘three times and it’s yours’ concept and aim to use the tricky parts in practice at least three different ways and see what that does!