Monday, January 4, 2010

Man, That's ...

Long time readers of this blog might remember me mentioning Steve Kimock. Specifically, back about two years ago, I wrote about a then two-year-old article in Guitar Player about intonation. I wrote about it then and I think about it on occasion because I thought and think it was very insightful. Not going to do Steve the injustice of restating his theme in my words. Kinda did that 2 years ago anyway.

Anyway, Steve wrote this about three months ago, then abandoned his personal blog. That's a well-written piece by an engaging author, about his inability to reconcile his ears with music theory.
Although it was perfectly clear to me that if the answer to the question, “What is a D Major chord?” was “D F# A”, and if the answer to the question “What is D F# A?” was “D Major”, that I hadn’t learned anything at all about that D Major triad.

I thought the ‘music theory” bit was going to explain to me why I felt the way I did when I played and listened to music,
but instead it just churned out a bunch of circular logic bullshit, perfectly protected by the really not so diabolically clever Catch 22: DON’T ASK WHY!!
I must disagree. I really think he's asking music theory to do something it was never meant to do. Music theory to my mind is about establishing an instruction set, a shorthand to allow the composer to tell the musician what to play. It establishes a vocabulary, a way of talking about what we expect to play, so we can say "D major" or "D" instead of "Put your index finger on the third string second fret, your middle dinger on the first string second fret, and your ring finger on the second finger third fret". Science is to be involved in explaining that, and

I confess, my ear is not nearly as developed as his is, and with the ringing I hear when I sit in a quiet room, I'm quite sure that it will never be nearly that good. (Curse you, Ramones.) Considering that guitarists, as a class, think of intonation as something you do with a screwdriver whenever you change strings, I believe it's well worth considering these issues, learning more. I don't think that the language of music theory is able to contain the question, much less the answer, but he starts this as a young learning guitar player, and that's a bit much to expect someone to understand. But recognizing a chord by the notes is as circular a logic as recognizing poison ivy by the number of points on the leaf. Far better to recognize than to have to count.

1 comment:

patrick said...

Some people are more sensitive to tuning than others. Most people can, when it is pointed out, recognize the difference between Equal Temperament and Just Intonation. For some, ET is painful. For most, it's not really noticeable. When he says "That's not D7," he really means "Those tones aren't exactly aligned with the whole-number ratios of the harmonic series." A deeper understanding of music theory (which, sadly, he speaks against) would have made that point clearer.
Most people stop learning music theory after scales and chords, and never move on to intonation, temperament, and the delicate mathematical intricacies of why you can't tune a guitar to a piano. It gets mathematically complex when you start dissecting the physics of music, but there's a strange beauty of paradox in it. Some are lead to madness in search of a better way. (I'm looking at you, Dante Rosati.) Some, on seeing how deep the hole goes, give up and resign themselves to forever compromising. Some shrug, say "It's good enough" and go back to playing how they've always played.
Personally, I think that in the music of Heaven there is no Pythagorean comma, but in all our efforts here on earth we'll be forever limited by our math and our physics. There is no such thing as a perfect tuning system. Every tuning system compromises something.