This month, we’re going to take a slightly different route to extending these ideas. It’s one that bypasses a huge amount of theory and might seem, for that reason, to be overlooking a ton of rules and stylistic conventions about how and why chords work in the way they do. But as this is a beginner column, I really want to inspire you with the permission to experiment before you’ve gathered all the technical know-how. Let’s unpack that idea a little more.
There are two main kinds of research— theoretical and experiential. Theoretical research involves reading books, discovering what other people have done or said within a particular field, compiling a body of evidence about whatever it is we’re trying to discover, and then—and only then—applying that research to practice. In many areas of human endeavor, this is vital. If you’re practicing medicine or building an aeroplane, ‘trying things out to see what works’ can have some pretty catastrophic effects if you get it wrong.
Music education and learning often focuses on this theoretical end of things. We study music theory, we transcribe the greats, we read books and watch videos about how particular genres evolved. These days we may even apply the same kind of research process to music production. This, plus the internet, plus an epically short attention span, has led to the ‘life hack’ approach to learning. We’re trying to find the bullet-point version of that research so we can discover a shortcut to knowledge.
However, in more informal settings, a massive amount of music learning goes on that we don’t even categorize as learning. Whenever we jam with other musicians, play along with records without feeling the need to exactly recreate the lines on there, experiment with pedals or new techniques, or even just ‘hit record’ and see what happens before posting it to Instagram, experiential learning is everywhere. So what I want to offer today is a little bit of guidance towards a new area of experimentation.
To understand the theoretical principle at work here, let’s revisit the idea of arranging the notes in a key into a circle—see Figure 1 above. These are all the notes in the key of C Major. The star shape in the middle connects them all up in thirds—that is, every pair of alternate notes forms the interval of a third. If we play two of these in a row, we get a triad. For example, C, E and G are the first, third, and fifth notes around the circle and form a C Major triad.
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