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January 16, 2008 10:00 PM   Subscribe

Where can I learn about music history and music theory for free?

bonus question first (like dessert for breakfast!): contemporary popular music typically seems to resolve the melody at the end of each verse. I was listening to the cold mountain soundtrack, though, and a lot of that folk music sorta... leaves the melody hanging at the end of each verse. Is there a word for that? What's it called, and what's the historical evolution of... I dunno, melodic form?

Obviously I know just enough to know I'm ignorant. So the question above inspired me to ask -- where can I learn about that kind of stuff? I don't whether to call it music theory or music etymology or what, but it's fascinating.

ooh, second bonus question -- why does modern music sound so much more resolved at the end of each verse? does it go back to the tonic of whatever scale the melody is in? (see I really am ignorant! help!)
posted by Chris4d to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Online? Here's a good place to start in general terms. This might provide a sketch for what you're hearing with in Appalachian music -- I so don't want to get into the folk/bluegrass/country definition war. And your local library will have a music section: you're looking for stuff on harmony and chord progressions.
posted by holgate at 10:22 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

If your local library doesn't have a lot of theory and music history books, your local university library will. If you have the will, all you need to do is read a lot. I got the highest mark in my whole country in the national final year music exam when I was 16. Basically for the previous 3 or 4 years I had been mining my music teacher's and my local public library's collection of books on harmony and counterpoint. I learned bugger-all in class (about music theory; it was a good class with a great teacher) because my reading had far out-paced school. If you're really interested, I don't see why you can't do this too.

It'll be a lot easier though if you can play an instrument that sounds more than one note at once, so that you can play examples yourself.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:00 PM on January 16, 2008

Best answer: I just finished watching Howard Goodall's 'How Music Works'. It pretty much covers everything.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
posted by TwoWordReview at 11:21 PM on January 16, 2008 [16 favorites]

See if Schickele Mix is playing on a local station (or stream it from a non-local station.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 2:51 AM on January 17, 2008

Best answer: There are books, of course. I managed to finagle my way into a music theory class in college, and our textbook was Tonal Harmony. However, while I was googling for that, I came across this textbook from Berklee school of music which looks promising. Neither is free, but I think it would be worthwhile to look them up in a University library.

To understand the answer to your specific question, here are some things to look up (online?) -

What are sharp and flat notes? Maybe you already know this. This will help you understand:

What is a musical "key"? This will help you understand:

What is a "cadence"? This is what makes things sound, as a musician might say, resolved or unresolved. You can decide whether to go so far as to learn what different cadences there are.

You'll probably enjoy learning what musical "dissonance" is (a popular metaphor for non-musical situations).

And about musical "modes" (particularly pentatonic mode).

It will be much, much easier to understand these things if you can obtain the help of a piano-knowledgeable friend, or teacher, who's good at explaining things, and sit with this person at a piano (preferably) or electronic keyboard.
posted by amtho at 3:11 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The old-time music you are talking about is not particularly based on theory, at least the way that most people talk about theory. Classical music theory is usually about going from one place to another (modulating) and then returning. Fiddle music for the most part is a modal music. It stays in one chord or scale and explores the different intervals in the scale. Sometimes it changes notes in the scale, but not in a functional way (it changes them more for flavor then direction).

You might be interested in reading some ethnomusicology, but what, I don't know. You might like to read fiddler magazine, which is a pretty nice little thing. It will often talk about the history of a tune. But fiddlers don't talk about theory much at all, there isn't a whole lot of theory involved. I'm sure there are some academics talking about theory as it relates to fiddle tunes, but it's sort of unnecessary.

You might want to check out the book that was recently written about Kind of Blue by Miles Davis...that talks a lot about modal music. And yeah, a basic understanding of how classical cadences work would help you understand how a lot of fiddle music doesn't work.

I'd recomend "Songs From the Mountain - Music Inspired by the Book Cold Mountain" as a nice recording to explore.
posted by sully75 at 3:43 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

BTW I'm checking out those theory videos...very interesting. IAAMx20 years but it's still pretty interesting.
posted by sully75 at 4:35 AM on January 17, 2008

2nding looking into Ethnomusicology. Right up your alley. It's basically Anthropology + Music History.

In terms of theory, I'd be doing you a disservice if I didn't link, as I always do, to...

Ricci Adams' Musictheory.net!
posted by SpiffyRob at 7:22 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

The old-time music you are talking about is not particularly based on theory, at least the way that most people talk about theory.

Music isn't based on theory, theory is based on music.

I was also going to recommend musictheory.net.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:03 AM on January 17, 2008

Music isn't based on theory, theory is based on music.

Cute, but wrong. The entire album Kind of Blue (as one example of hundreds) was based on a theoretical concept of improvisation. Actually all music is based on theory or a concept of music to one degree or another.
posted by sully75 at 9:41 AM on January 17, 2008

It's not wrong. The point is that music theory, in general, is not prescriptive, it's descriptive. That doesn't mean that someone can't come up with a concept and then make music based on it (Schoenberg's 12-tone technique being a good example), but that the common meaning of music theory isn't about learning rules and following them, it's about creating a language for describing distinctive musical practices.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:47 AM on January 17, 2008

And Kind of Blue only supports what I'm saying. It wasn't music "not based on theory." It was music that required a new kind of theory in order to describe it.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:50 AM on January 17, 2008

I started watching the the first Goodall piece and...melody is the beginning? One might argue (if one were so inclined) that rhythm is the foundational element of all music. Melody would not exist without rhythm; try taking any melody you know and change the rhythms of each of the notes and see if it doesn't change your perception of that melody dramatically. Then take the same rhythmic structure of that melody and apply different pitches to it. I bet you'll find that you can still recognize the melody. This shows how dependent upon rhythm melody is.

More importantly, this sort of generalized approach to music is not really that useful in the end. I think it produces a set of misconceptions about how "music is universal" but the fact is that music is not at all universal, quite frankly. In every musical system there is embedded a set of cultural assumptions and shared societal experiences that produce a particular reaction in a person. While I don't argue with the point that there are many shared building blocks, it is naive and insulting in my mind to not recognize how culturally dependent music can be. Yes, we may all use the same pentatonic scale (if that is actually true), but in what context? How is the piece normally performed? How are different notes emphasized, and what is the theoretical structure implicit? Most importantly, if there IS such a powerful underlying system to all the world's music, let's analyze that meaningfully...not just blather on about how it's "in our DNA" or some such claptrap.

I guess I should watch the rest of 'em, but I'm worried it'll be more of the same. You don't have to treat people like idiots to teach them!

And to weigh in on this stupid debate: Music isn't based on theory, theory is based on music.

It's both, of course. Plenty of musicians get excited by a concept or theory and base their music on it, and plenty of theorists spend their careers trying to understand musical structure in various ways. And plenty of people play and listen to music all the time without thinking of any of it.

Here's an interesting, if a bit out of date book that might be useful if you want to get a generalized theoretical perspective on, uh...music of the whole earth: Music of the Whole Earth by the musician and teacher David Reck.
posted by dubitable at 9:58 AM on January 17, 2008

If you think it's a stupid debate, dubitable, maybe you shouldn't have weighed in.

To clarify again: I think that saying "The music you are talking about is not particularly based on theory" seems to imply that such music cannot be understood through the lens of theory, that it somehow exists outside the purview of music theory.

What I think sully75 should've said is that the music is not based on common practice -- that is, it's not based on the conventions of western Classical music. But that doesn't mean it can't be described and classified and understood with the tools of music theory.

It's a small distinction, really, but I think it's an important one for the beginning student of harmony to understand, because it's easy to let those kinds of misconceptions affect one's progress.

I apologize if my initial attempt at a correction didn't help to clarify things.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:17 AM on January 17, 2008

Well I'll weigh in too and say that what ludwig_van is saying is absolutely correct. Of course it is possible to find examples of music based on theoretical concepts, especially in the twentieth century and by-and-large most classically/jazz trained composers (and I include improvisers in this list) are to some extent theorists, but the truth that the vast amount of music theory is after the fact.
posted by ob at 10:31 AM on January 17, 2008

If you think it's a stupid debate, dubitable, maybe you shouldn't have weighed in.

I weighed in because this thread is ostensibly about helping Chris4d get some perspectives on how to approach music history and music theory, and a digressive argument about what can and can't have theory applied to it really seems besides the point. Blanket statements like "Music isn't based on theory, theory is based on music" with the clever and rather insulting rebuttal of "Cute, but wrong" does not a debate make; it's a spitting contest.

But you're right, I shouldn't have gotten in the way. Carry on. Good luck Chris4d.
posted by dubitable at 11:01 AM on January 17, 2008

Well, I think it's directly related to his question, or I wouldn't have brought it up. Music theory is a language for understanding music, not a particular set of rules to be followed or disregarded. Folk music, jazz, whatever, it can all be analyzed theoretically. That was my point.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:06 AM on January 17, 2008

Dear OP:
I'm precisely one thread north of you, and I've got to say thanks for your awesome sense of timing. These are questions I have, too, and I am going to STEAL ALL OF YOUR ANSWERS!
I'm learning for free, and I didn't even have to type first!
posted by Acari at 12:31 PM on January 17, 2008

Response by poster: thanks everyone! And I don't mind the derails. I know that my interest wasn't theory per se; I dabble in guitar and have tried learning a little theory, but it never really coalesced in my head (I'm really a drummer and rhythm is more my thing). Perhaps ethnomusicology is the ticket. I also want to be able to speak more knowledgeably about musical phrasing and so on -- cadence is a new word to me, so looking up stuff like that helps too.

I'll have to do some reading/watching before I can mark a best answer, so if anyone has anything to add (including concise answers to my bonus questions) please say so!
posted by Chris4d at 1:27 PM on January 17, 2008

Best answer: Perhaps ethnomusicology is the ticket.

More than perhaps, if you're looking, say, to pick out the different strands that go into the cloth of Appalachian music. That takes an ear and a bit of background knowledge. And it's useful, say, for working out why Gillian Welch doesn't sound like LeAnn Rimes.
posted by holgate at 1:47 PM on January 17, 2008

ludwig_van, as a fiddle player myself and a conservatory graduate I feel pretty ok in saying that the theoretical underpinnings of fiddle music from the irish/anglo tradition are relatively minimal. Tunes are generally modal based mostly on major or dorian scales, and often include variations between the major and minor third.

I say they are generally untheoretical because the people who play them don't generally think in theoretical terms. Or use the terms of theory to describe the tunes they play. Definitely not in the way that classical or jazz musicians (who play music that has strong theoretical underpinnings, whatever you have to say about it) describe their music.

Regarding Kind Of Blue, it's relatively well documented that Miles Davis was inspired to write the music based on conversations he had with George Russell (once a teacher of mine) regarding his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. It was not a means to describe what Miles was playing after the fact. It was a new way of thinking about music and a new framework to play over.

I'm not saying that theory is never based on music but you indicated that I was wrong in saying that Appalachian music is generally untheoretical. I stand by that. The theory behind it is minimal. You could certainly spend a lot of time using theory to describe what's happening, but no one who participates in it really does.
posted by sully75 at 4:58 PM on January 17, 2008

I'm not saying that theory is never based on music but you indicated that I was wrong in saying that Appalachian music is generally untheoretical. I stand by that. The theory behind it is minimal. You could certainly spend a lot of time using theory to describe what's happening, but no one who participates in it really does.

Nobody you know, I guess. My band has a fiddle player, he's into that sort of thing, and he knows the theory behind it. Music simply can't be "untheoretical." You don't have to know theory to play any kind of music -- playing music is basically a physical skill. Theory is a toolset for describing and communicating about music. Even if the people playing the music don't speak the language well enough to describe it, that doesn't make the music indescribable.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:51 PM on January 17, 2008

At this point I think we're talking in circles. In my experience, no one of the 300 or so fiddle players that I've met playing any sort of Irish/English variants of fiddle playing has ever described any aspect of their playing in any more theoretical terms than "this is major" or "this is minor". I'm sure someone, somewhere is spending a lot of time figuring out the theory behind their composition. In my experience no one who plays those styles of music does. I suppose you and your fiddle players experience is different. You don't mention what style of music you play, but I'm guessing (since you haven't mentioned it) that you aren't playing old-time fiddle music. Which would make your fiddle players comments pretty irrelevant.

Anyway, I'm done with this. All the best.
posted by sully75 at 4:06 AM on January 18, 2008

Best answer: If you're interested in ethnomusicology, then you might be interested in the book "Worlds of Music" which has (oh delight) a companion CD. I stumbled across it at the local music library about 10 years ago; I think new editions have come out since then.

Also: I think that a lot of Appalachian mountain music owes something to celtic folk music, so you might enjoy reading about that.
posted by amtho at 11:00 AM on January 18, 2008

If you are interested in celtic music, as amtho suggested, you could check out the book Last Night's Fun by Ciaran Carson. He's a poet, and the writing is all over the place style wise (lists, poems, stories written in verse, quotes, all kinds of stuff). He's really good at describing the playing of music from the musician's perspective. It's a weird good book.

And yeah, mountain music or old-time music or whatever you want to call it, it has roots in traditional Anglo/Irish music. I hear a lot of it in English folk, particularly with Eliza Carthy and Martin Carthy. Another good album to check out is Waterson/Carthy...it's frigin good and you will probably hear a connection to the American stuff. In general people say that american music comes from Irish and Scotts-Irish roots but I hear that English stuff all through it.

You might also check out anything by Brad Leftwich and Bruce Molsky. I bet you'd like them.
posted by sully75 at 11:24 AM on January 18, 2008

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