WHY MUSIC THEORY BOOKS CAN HINDER LEARNING MUSIC

The best way to begin learning music theory is probably to ignore music theory books as much as possible. Along with books I’ll also include Youtube tutorials and blogs – most of them, anyway. Though for the time being, do please continue to read this one.

Use your ears

As a foundation I’d always advise learning the musical alphabet – which might sound a bit obvious but you’d be surprised how many musicians haven’t done this. A picture chord book at the start of your musical journey can also be invaluable, as it helps you to see how chords are put together.

Apart from that, you learn much more by using your ear. Sit down with your instrument and put on a recording of a song you want to learn. Be patient; play back any tricky sections and with time and persistence, you’ll get it.

If you find playing by ear difficult, then put in extra work. There are many good tutorials on Youtube that can help in this area. Get hold of a song book or chord chart that has the chords for particular songs you’d like to learn but don’t become too reliant upon song books either. I would also say avoid all apps like the musical version of the plague – not just because they get things completely wrong at times, but because you aren’t using your ears. Your listening ability is the most important skill you have as a musician (apart from avoiding being financially ripped off), and there are no short cuts.

Drawbacks of theory books

Music theory books basically do this: They will look at a selection of pieces of music. It’s then noted that many composers at a certain time were using particular kinds of chords, rhythms, approaches to melody etc.

Music theory books usually say something on these lines: “This is how a chord progression works. This chord is always followed by that one…” Unfortunately, what most of these books don’t tell you is that musicians have always CONSISTENTLY broken or ignored these ‘rules’.

Imagine how confusing it would be to learn loads of music theory, and then try to learn and understand a song. It would be even more confusing for someone to write a piece of music, having never used their ears.

So, when SHOULD you learn music theory?

First of all, you should only learn it if you think it’s really going to help you, otherwise do what works for you.

I think it’s best if you start once you’ve got enough experience of learning songs by ear under your belt to begin with.

In general, sheet music, music theory, and video tutorials on youtube can be useful, in moderation. Their number one flaw is that they each fail to develop the listening skills.

You can learn all the rules of grammar in the world, but that on its own can’t teach you how to write or tell a great story. The same goes for music theory. This is why there are so many instances of artists who haven’t gone through academic music training that have come up with brilliant tunes.

There are some things you can only learn by doing, by putting the books to one side and putting the ears to work.

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Reflections on ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’

MIRROR IN THE BATHROOM

 Mirror In The Bathroom is a remarkable song by British band The Beat, who came to prominence in the late 70s 2 Tone movement.

It went to number three in the British charts back in 1980 (it was their third single), and was their biggest hit. Yet if you were to ask anyone who knows the song to say what it’s actually about, chances are they’d go blank. It goes to show how a song can strike a chord with many people without them needing to understand it. In a lot of ways, it’s such a danceable record that the meaning is quite secondary to the ‘beat’. I’ll come to the lyrics later.

The music

When I first heard the Beat’s debut single, a cover of Tears of a Clown, I felt they had something different going on from their 2 Tone peers. From the beginning of the band, they’d set out to fuse the energy of punk with the supple, lilting rhythms of reggae. Among others, they initially took their musical cues from fellow Birmingham band The Equators but quickly established their own signature sound.

‘Ska’ became used as a convenient catch-all phrase to categorise the songs made by bands associated with 2 tone; look a little closer and you realise that ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’ isn’t ska at all. It’s a new music.

There’s a rich variety of musical ingredients in the pot. In Mirror, you have a mixture of uptempo steppers-reggae drums, dubby/Velvet Underground-styled bass, new wave guitar chords – neither major nor minor thanks to Dave Wakeling’s “wrongly” tuned guitar. On top of that, there’s Saxa’s jazz-tinged tenor sax with its soulful, dark yet sweet melodies. On paper, this mixture of styles shouldn’t work, but it does. Bassist David Steel’s description of their sound as a ‘weird chemistry’ kind of sums it up.

There isn’t one single element that defines their sound. Like with all great groups, the sum is greater than the individual parts. Though if I was to highlight an ‘x-factor’, it would have to be Everett Morton’s drumming. The drums always determine the sound of a band, and Everett’s playing – a sprightly Sly Dunbar-type of rhythm – gives the whole thing a unique energy, groove and edge.

The lyrics

If you listen to the words, what you have is a collection of images involving mirrors. That in itself is odd; what makes it even more obscure is the fact that there isn’t really a ‘story’ woven into the three verses. There’s an element of mystery about it, and you sense only the writer is privy to its meaning. Interestingly, the only other lyricist whom I’m aware of that writes in this way is Lee Thompson, saxophonist and founder member of Madness. Here’s Dave Wakeling revealing how he came to pen the lyrics.