Musical Discovery

As my discipline for Lent, I have been playing scales — mostly on my guitar, but also on my ukulele. I have never been a terribly skilled instrumentalist (I have, over the last 20 years, learned how to sing well), and it has been something of a challenge, teaching my fingers to work the fretboard(s) as fingers. But I’ve been learning a fair amount, I think.

Mostly what I have been playing, over and over again, are scales/available notes in the first position (first through fourth fret) for C major, F major, G major and D major (just learning that one). I futzed with C major yesterday on the uke, thanks to an amazingly nifty iPhone app I originally bought that has all this stuff on it — it’s a tuner, metronome, scale guide and chord handbook. (The guitar bit of the app has about a zillion different alternate tunings…)

Music is a bit like math or foreign languages for me. I have a good ear, can master sounds (I pick up accents easily, and when I travel abroad, if I hear the local language, I cannot help but pick it up and start to use it), easily remember what I hear, but I always get clobbered on the bits and pieces of a foreign language that matter — vocabulary. (Grammar is actually fairly easy for me.) Math is similar. Past basic algebra, math is a conceptual blur for me. Higher mathematics are simply too abstract for me. I cannot look at a formula and make much sense of what, exactly, it is trying to communicate. I can cypher well, know my multiplication tables, can do long division, even fairly easily do percentages (and I often prefer to do these things by hand), but the rest just leaves me confused. My one experience of calculus — an econometrics class at Georgetown — was not much fun (my B- was an act of grace on Julia Devlin’s part), as I could never make sense of what a bivariate regression was trying to prove or what the answer meant. In any event, I could rarely get the same answer out of the same regression twice. My father is an immensely gifted mathematician. I am not.

(As an aside, I was also never really good at reading music either. I can know the value of a particular dot when place on a particular line of written music — “That’s an F# played for two beats!” — but I never really had a feel for the abstract language of music and how to read it. Once I heard something, then I could play it, and I can always follow along to notes when someone else it playing, but I cannot sight read. I can pick out a melody, though, which I couldn’t do at 15. And I simply cannot attach the F# on the page to an actual tone of F#. Which makes singing from a score impossible for me.)

Music theory, to the extent I have ever studied it, has always done the same thing to me. Abstractly, it has made absolutely no sense to me. I have a fairly good ear, but I don’t really know what I’m doing when I write songs or melodies, save that things sound good and right to me. It’s all kind-of cook bookery, what World Controller Mustafa Mond says of science in Brave New World.

Another example: I cannot tell you the physics of building bicycle wheels. I cannot even tell you much about the engineering of bicycle wheels. But I know how to build bicycle wheels, and I can do it pretty well.

But this year, something has changed. I’ve actually spent a fair amount of quality time with my guitar, learning to play other people’s music. The first breakthrough of sorts came in November, when I was compiling Christmas songs to play and transposing them. I’ve long known that songs in the keys of C, G and D were fairly easy to play, because sharps were easier to play than flats. That limited what I could play. But a fair amount of Christmas music was in F (one flat) Bb and Eb, and as I was going through the ELCA’s simplified keyboard accompaniment book, I realized how to adjust the capo to easily play songs with flats in them. Now I don’t have to transpose chords on the music sheet to play in F (or Bb, or Eb), I just put the capo on the third fret (in F), and know that the F chord is fingered as a D in that position. I’ve gotten good enough at this that I don’t need much mental preparation for it.

Stupid, huh? But I noticed something this morning as I was playing my scales: that the notes you play in a scale will also match the notes of the chords you can finger in scale’s key. I know, I’ve discovered nothing somebody couldn’t have already told me, but I’ve also really learned it the only way I can truly learn anything. I went through the C major scale and wrote down all the chords I knew I could finger from the notes in the scale. It was actually a really good exercise.

I have always wanted to take a basic music theory course, and I think once I get there I might even have some idea of what I’m doing. As I learn to finger the guitar — and not just strum the damn thing (my finger picking is getting better, and I can even sing and pick, though picking suffers when I do) — I may actually get a better tactile feel of the instrument, and thus be able to take what are for almost imponderable abstractions into the “real” world and make them concrete. That would be awesome. I would like, at some point, to have some idea of what I am doing when I make music.