"I like it when they play that sad note."
April 23, 2010 4:36 AM   Subscribe

How do I learn to think and speak intelligently and systematically about music?

I guess this is a request for either a book or online Music Theory 101. Right now, if you ask me why I like a particular song, the answer would be roughly on the level of "I like the part where it goes up then down/I like the twiddly bits in the guitar solo." How do I learn what it is I'm hearing? I don't want to be able to write a fugue; I want to be able to both understand and express what's going in in a song.
posted by PMdixon to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I found Idiots Guide to Music Theory quite good, per a recommendation of Mefi.
posted by kaizen at 5:02 AM on April 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

There is a fantastic course of lectures titled How to Listen to and Understand Great Music by Robert Greenberg, from The Teaching Company. Greenberg is interesting and enthusiastic and he's able to translate his passion into accessible material for the layperson.
posted by surenoproblem at 5:14 AM on April 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

And there's no need to steal the course from torrent sites: most public libraries have a copy of this course.
posted by surenoproblem at 5:17 AM on April 23, 2010

I have found that reading books / autobiographies by / biographies of composers has helped my musical knowledge tremendously. Start with a basic music theory book as suggested by kaizen above, and read as much as you can about the kinds of music you like. Obviously there are far more educational books about classical music than more mainstream styles. Second, I'd also suggest grabbing a few used copies of The Norton Scores (available on Amazon). They're study guides, with a variety of music, with the main melodic lines highlighted, so you can follow along. They really help with complex music.
posted by lonemantis at 5:33 AM on April 23, 2010

Also here to recommend the Teaching Company "Great Courses". I really enjoyed the Robert Greenberg lectures on cd, and was able to get them for free from the public library too.
posted by belau at 5:34 AM on April 23, 2010

You might want to check out this MetaTalk thread for some good pointers
posted by Kattullus at 6:53 AM on April 23, 2010

I use a good website for my Music Theory class at the High School I teach. It teaches great basic music theory, and has some other trainers, and games. It is very useful when learning basic music theory. I think learning all you can about theory will help you express your ideas about music much easier.

posted by snoelle at 7:19 AM on April 23, 2010

Linky messed up...the website is: www.musictheory.net

Hope that helps!
posted by snoelle at 7:19 AM on April 23, 2010

One thing to note is that there are lots of different, equally valid and tremendously interesting ways to talk about music. Learning Western music theory will let you get specific about what happens in Western art music and some popular music, but this is really only worth so much, and isn't very flexible. It's also a lot of work; a great deal of pop music is rather harmonically advanced, and gets into jazz territory which a lot of basic music theory textbooks won't adequately cover.

If you are not a composer, understanding the history of the music is probably more valuable. If you can say, ah! I recognize that this snippet of a melody comes from this tradition of gospel singing, or is a reference to this Tin Pan Alley songwriter or this movie musical about war or whatever, then you can start talking about how music and culture rub up against each other. There's the meat, right?

See if you can get a hold of an issue or two of the Journal of Popular Music Studies.
posted by avianism at 7:25 AM on April 23, 2010

The book you need is Aaron Copland's seminal "What to listen for in music." It's industry standard.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:45 AM on April 23, 2010

All the responses you're getting seem to be far more academic than what you're looking for, which I would assume is how to talk intelligently about popular music. The easiest way to do the latter is to just read a whole lot of excellent music criticism. An awesome (free) place to start is the Best Music Scribing Awards that Jason Gross has been doing every year - here's a link to the 2009 awards, but they go back to 2002 and are easy enough to find if you google around.

Other great writers who focus on a less academic approach are Greil Marcus (who also edits a different Best Music Writing series in print), Robert Christgau, and Jim DeRogatis. There's also the immortal Lester Bangs, although his writing is probably a touch too drug-fueled to actually help you in conversation.
posted by UncleBoomee at 12:50 PM on April 23, 2010

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