The Theory of Music: A Personal Arc

When things go south, I find solace in work. I do always think about things – I think long and hard, and I think things through. I’m a compulsive overthinker. It is my hamartia, I’m aware of that. Work consoles me. It gives me the opportunity to shut my brain away from the thinking when it’s counterproductive. It allows me to shut out the outside world and concentrate wholly on efforts that are entirely within my sphere of control to try to achieve ends I’m searching for. It gives me space to think about other things for some time before I go back to thinking about everything else. When things weren’t going well for me because of my actions at the end of 2019, I went home and after some time, decided to try to find things to put my mind to.

My history with music is documented too much on this blog. Quick recap: went to lessons, dropped out of lessons, posted stuff on Soundcloud, stopped playing for a while, resumed lessons now.

When I started studying music, my teacher made me study music theory – to prepare me for exams from the board that I was learning from at the time. I didn’t enjoy it. Especially Grade 1. I sort of knew most of it, so it never felt like I was learning anything new at all. At that age, I struggled to see how the knowledge contributed to my ability to understand music or my playing in any manner. There was also a large amount of homework to do each week, which didn’t materially help my levels of satisfaction. Grade 2 was a little better but we stopped midway through because my practical examinations needed a lot more in terms of my time and attention given that I was skipping Grades. Getting older has given me some maturity in terms of appreciating holistic knowledge. I enjoy knowing things to the most complete point I am capable of, and searching for gaps in my knowledge to plug them in with information. It feels like continuous improvement that I can materially see, and it gives me an enormous amount of satisfaction.

So when, in winter, I resolved to relearn my piano playing, I decided not to half-ass it this time. I committed to going to lessons properly. I wanted to learn how to read music again, because it’s a skill that’s equally as fascinating as being able to understand how to play music by ear. I also have come to realize that music, and most pieces of education aren’t things you can separate from each other. As you study portions of things, you sort of build overlapping competencies that help you along the way. I’ll explain and illustrate with two examples.

  1. The Musical Example: Learning scales and playing scales repeatedly. While useful in their own right, and a component of most examinations, playing scales repeatedly and perfecting them can get boring. Then you leave lessons and you’re trying to figure out pieces by ear – as you hear them. It’s easier to identify your keys and the key the song is in because you know what the scales sound like, note to note, and what notes are in the scale and out of the scale. It’s easier to identify progressions because you understand the tone and pitch any given key produces. If you didn’t play scales, I doubt you’d figure that out as easily.
  2. The Non-Musical Example: Studying the multiplication of fractions is extremely frustrating because it is difficult to see any practical use to when you will have to multiply fractions in your life. It is reasonable that you will come across some circumstance where you multiply fractions with whole numbers (here are three halves of a cake, how many whole cakes can we make?, for example), but fractions being multiplied against each other seems slightly less realistic. It’s, however, close to impossible to engage with calculus without being good with this skill. I learned this the hard way in Grade 11 and was reminded of one very bad evening in Grade 7 where my father and mother berated me for not knowing how to multiply fractions the day before my Math exam (after studying it for the whole year), and then taught the skill to me painfully well.

There are several other examples which prove this. For me, given the purpose with which I was starting (restarting) the piano studies, it felt difficult to ignore the theory aspects. I couldn’t put myself through lessons and I really wanted a challenge, so in December, I decided to self-study for the Music Theory Grade 5 examination. This was quite a stretch, given that I had only ever looked at the material for Grade 1 and 2 before. However, given that I was older, and that I had the time, and the fact that Grade 5, at least with the ABRSM is a precondition to attempting the higher Grades of any practical examinations, I was really motivated to give this a good shot.

If anyone’s attempting this, please visit this reddit link which is a question I asked about self-studying through to Grade 5 and some community answers which helped me prioritize my studying. Here’s the reddit link.

Over the past 2 months, I’ve been studying for a solid two hours each day, apart from lean patches and weekends I’ve taken off, and it’s been the most fulfilling journey imaginable. Last evening though, I got really scared. The exam was this morning and my usual fear of failing an examination came through in all its force. Of course, I turned to my dad. My dad reminded me I had done all of this for hobby purposes. He also wisely informed me there was no consequence to failing this exam. Truly, nothing. The exam and achieving the Grade would be a great affirmation of the studying I had done, but nothing prohibited a retake, and nothing took away from the kind of knowledge I gained – which was why I started this entire journey in the first place. I wanted to understand my classical music better, I wanted to know what went behind what composers think through and why some things sound better than others. That took the load off.

This morning, I basically told myself I just wanted to enjoy the exam. I walked out two hours later having had the happiest two hours I’ve had in a while, because I could figure out the questions. I understood the language they were written in, and the phrases they used – which meant that my studying had served its purpose. I read through some music and read through some more and imagined what it sounded like, which checked another box in my head. Of course, I answered 7 music theory questions, which was incredibly satisfying and fulfilling in its own right.

I don’t know if I’ll pass or not. I haven’t thought about it. There is a chance I will fail. I’m not worried. For the first time in my life, I’m actually not mortified at the thought of failing this exam. I’ll be disappointed if I fail, yes, but I’m not looking at this in terms of life and death, which is often how I’ve viewed exams.

This evening, after finishing up my work for the day, I started figuring out how to study for Grade 6, Grade 7 and Grade 8. I’ll work my way up through the material, and one day, give that Grade 8 exam. I’m looking forward to learning new things in music theory that felt intuitive but I couldn’t place my finger on (apparently that’s what the higher Grades are like).

I’m also considering working through the material from other boards – just to get a better-rounded view of this music theory business. It excites me. I’m very pleased that I took the decision to study all of this in December. It’s brought me closer to an art I knew I lost when I stopped my lessons – and it’s made me feel an incredible sense of attachment to a subject I felt (and feel) a large sense of imposter syndrome about.

Someone I knew once told me I was a passionfruit because I got incredibly passionate about the projects I took up. This feels like an adequate representation of that.

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