Music Theory — why??

A friend of mine recently asked me, “what are some practical applications of music theory?” This is a very good question. I mean… why learn something if you never going to use it.

Here are some of my thoughts:


As part of learning theory I think you also end up learning how to read music. You learn what the lines and what some of the funny symbols are all about. Personally, I can’t read very fast. But I can read something if I have to. So it provides a way of communicating with other musicians in written form.

Theory is also useful for verbal communication. I find it simpler to talk in numbers rather than letters. Let’s say the song is in G. I prefer saying, “Let’s try playing a 6 5 4 5 progression for the bridge” rather than “Em D C D”. I guess they’re both just as quick…

But let’s say the song has a key change. It’s easier to say, “Let’s try the same progression 1 step up” rather than “Instead of G play A, instead of Em play F#m, instead of C play D, instead of D play E”, etc., etc.


I do a lot of my learning in the car (driving by myself). It seems to be where I can have a block of time to just listen and I can blast it without others complaining. For most songs that I have to learn which are mostly pop and rock I’m able to pick out chord structures and notes while I’m listening. So by the time I get to a guitar, I already have a good idea of what I’m doing playing… maybe evn how. This is called “relative pitch”: being able to identify a I chord vs a IV chord vs a II minor, etc. I wish I also had “perfect pitch” and was able to also tell what the key is. Maybe in the next life.

Understanding theory provides a framework that allows you to quickly figure out what a song is doing (how chords are changing). This coupled with ear training allows you to identify chords and notes quickly and without a lot of guessing.

One time I was sitting with a friend of mine who’s a very talented piano player. We were watching a performance at a conference and she said, “Wow, I really like this song.” She took out some pen and paper and just started writing out the melody she was hearing in numbers. Music theory gives you the language to be able to translate what you hear to something that can be read.


Aside from the obvious advantage of being able to write your composition in music notation so someone else can play your song, music theory comes in handy during writing because it gives you an idea what chords and notes would sound “good” together. And conversely, it would also tell you what chords and notes might sound “strange” and “unexpected” (if that’s what you’re going for). Again, it takes some of the guess work out. Or maybe answer the question, “is this basically the same song as ___?” (the answer is usually yes and it’s okay… we all borrow from somebody)

As you analyze more and more songs, you’ll notice certain patterns are used over and over again. And you’ll notice that these patterns seem to almost always give you a certain “feel”. This might also be useful while writing. Maybe there’s a certain “feel” you’re going after. Music theory might help give you a starting point to vary from.

understanding theory will also help you understand and come up with harmony quicker. This can be used 2 ways: what chords to use and/or what background vocals to sing to harmonize with a given melody.

Moving it up and down

To tie it all to guitar…

One of the things I love about guitar is that you can visually see how the theory “plays out”. For instance, transposing a song from one key to another might be (usually is) as simple as moving a few shapes up or down the neck. This is not true, say, for the piano. Your fingers have to do something slightly different when playing in C vs Eb. No one every feels sorry for the guitarist if the singer decides to change the key (and it’s almost always the singer 😉

In a previous post, we looked at how all chords of the same type (ie major, minor, 7, etc.) are held the same way regardless of the root note. Example: you’d hold G7 and A7 the same way except a few frets apart.

Final Thoughts

I think theory can often be “misused”. You can easily box yourself in both as a player and composer. Nevertheless, it’s a useful tool to have in your toolbox for creative expression.

Wow, I can’t believe I just typed all this on a keyboard hooked up to an ipod!

Peace Day 2010

My friends, before I can tell you all about my wonderful gig this past evening, I must digress and apologize for the tone of this post.  You see, of late, my wife has been relentlessly renting what Netflix calls “British Drama With Strong Female Leads”.  I’m afraid these movies have had a lasting impression on my mind and, thusly, have affected my speech. 

But my excitement will not allow me to delay any further.  Oh, what a wonderful celebration it was indeed.  We, my wife and I, as Simple Souls, were lucky enough to enlist the help of the great Lisa (Dr. Do-Little) Santoso (of the party band Wylder) and her friend and neighbor, Greg Ennis.  These musicians of great talent helped propel our sound to another level!  And I cannot begin to describe what wonderful and supportive people they are!  We had so many laughs together!

The said engagement was held at The Judge’s Inn.  What a terrific venue it is!  The staff and food are top notch.  What a perfect place to celebrate Peace Day with songs!

It was a splendid time and I only wish you could have been there to share it with us (thank you to those who were there)!

This would not be a proper ckyoung music blog post without mention of gear.  I used my trusted Larrivee.  Although I had been practicing and intending to make use of my newly purchased Martin, unfortunately, I found out late that I was without my LR Baggs Acoustic DI pedal which I was planning on using to help shape the sound of the Martin since the Martin does not have an on-board active preamp.  It was most fortunate that I had remembered to bring the Larrivee as a backup.  I plugged it in directly into the board and made good use of it’s pre-amp controls!  I don’t know what I would have done without it!

But I do hope someday soon I’ll find the opportunity to use the Martin in a live situation and hear it roar proudly.  In fact, of late, I start to wonder of what use do I have of the Takamine.  It seems so thin and pale in comparison.  It should consider itself lucky that it remains to be the easiest acoustic guitar to play in my arsenal.Oh, I hope I do find that DI pedal soon!  It is so useful.  I’m not sure if I can survive long without it!  Time will see…

Once again, I must sign off.  Thank you for keeping with me.  I do so enjoy our visits.

And please do not be weary.  I promise I will post a guitar lesson in due time.

Peace to you all!

Benefit Gig, 2nd Year

I’m pretty psyched about playing the benefit gig again for a local volunteer firehouse.  We have about a month to put the set together (just like last year).  Some of the songs from last year are going to make it into this year’s list.  Some we’re replacing.  So we have about 6 new tunes to learn.  Not bad….

Again, J&H sounds great.  I don’t have my Mesa Boogie MkIIb anymore.  I’ll be playing through a little Fender Pro Jr.  I’ve been using this for jams.  And I also used this at the recital.

I’ve been getting some positive comments on it which helps.  Over the years, I’ve been so used to having a “big” amp (60W, 100W, etc.).  Now I don’t have one and am depending on this little guy and just keeping my fingers crossed that it sounds okay.

Actually, I love this little guy.  In fact, it makes me wonder what I’ve been lugging a heavy amp around for all those years!  Well… this little guy only has a 10′ cone so it doesn’t get very deep.  But it does alright and I love the responsiveness.  I’m not sure if the Mesa Boogie preamp tubes have anything to do with it.

In any case, it’s going to be a great time!  I’m going to use the wireless this time and I’ll be able to move around the stage more.  Instead of using the piezo out of the Brian Moore, I’m going to try using a A/B switch going into a Boss Acoustic Simulator.  It sounds okay.  Totally worth it for the freedom!

It’s June… must be time for recitals!

Okay… I meant to post about this a few weeks ago but I’ve been too busy.  Now that I have a moment to breathe, I don’t want to forget about this one…

A new friend on mine asked me to help out with a recital for her (piano) students.  At first I think I signed up for 3 songs.  I think I wound up playing 17 (18?) at the end.  It was really way too much fun… I kept asking for more songs.  🙂

This was the first time I’ve ever done anything like this.  The songs are mostly pop/rock stuff.  They weren’t very hard to play… maybe except for the Queen tunes which I made sure I learned note for note (and I’m so glad to have had a reason to learn these… was always too lazy to actually sit down to go over these Brian May solos… anyway…. )

Most of the students are very young.  5th and 6th graders.  Some were even younger.  I was so impressed with them!  They all work so hard.  One group of kids have their own band (Emeralds of July, — very talented!  I wish I had that much skill and confidence at their age!
The recital was last weekend and I thought it went fairly smoothly.  Usually I would list the songs but truthfully, I can’t remember!  It was like a blur.  First time I had to depend on charts.  Hats off to my friend Lisa (the teacher) for coordinating everything!

I was saying… it was my first time performing in this type of setting and I’m really glad to have had the experience.  I’ve always played in bands and whether I was a “member” or a “hired gun”, I was always part of the “front-line”.  I never played guitar in a “staged show” as a musician backing up dancers, etc.

Tomorrow, I’ll be attending my niece’s recital.  (No, I’m not playing)  She’ll be performing in one of the world’s most famous concert halls!  Wow, what a thrill!
All this is reminding me that I should continue the lessons I was posting… so… maybe I’ll get back to that in the near future…

Bands Will Come & Bands Will Go

My latest adventure… I got invited back to work on a project with some folks that I played with about 10 years ago.  From talking with other musicians in the area who’s been playing for a while I think this is a pretty common thing.

In any case… after a few weeks, it looks like I won’t be in the project anymore (lead singer leaving town).  Oh well.  But good luck, Mirinda!  (

My wife and I have been working on a project we call Simple Souls.  For the past year and a half, we’ve been trying to expand the band and get more musicians in but without much luck.  But we’re going to try again.  I’m posting ads at different sites.  We’ll see how it goes this time…

I’ll always remember this lesson: a band is like a marriage except with more people.  It really is.  There’s a lot of excitement in the beginning and everyone’s really enthusiastic.  But at some point the honeymoon’s over and you have to work at it to keep it going.  Otherwise it can fall apart pretty quickly.  There’ll be disappointments, miscommunication and misunderestanding then people’s feelings get hurt.

It’s really quite the miracle when you find others who want the same things you want, who you have chemistry with, and you sound good playing together.

Is this it??

I was never a big MJ fan.  But I think that might have changed after seeing this movie.

The amount of creativity, energy, professionalism, and emotion that he puts into creating a concert experience is mind-boggling!

The movie itself was very good.  It’s basically a bunch of clips of the rehearsals.  I also really enjoyed the extras.  There were 2 interviews that stood out for me…

One was with his keyboardist who talked about how Michael had a towel with him each day (wiping off sweat from all the dancing, I’m sure) and needed a place to put it.  MJ would ask him very nicely if it would be okay to put it on top of one of his keyboard (or stand? … something like that).  As far as the keyboardist is concerned, this was “Michael’s house” and he can do whatever he wanted.  And he indicated that to Michael.  Then the next day, again Michael would kindly ask if it was okay to put his towel with his equipment.  He was a really courteous, respectful, considerate guy.  I guess not the self-centered diva that some might think he would be.

In another interview, his music director described a conversation he had with MJ.  They were talking about being talented and gifted.  At first, his music director was playing around saying “yeah, you’re right… we are blessed…” but then MJ got serious and said to him (something like) “No… we’re blessed with these gifts and now it’s up to us to use our gifts to help other find theirs… ”  I just found this so touching!

It made me think “is this it??”  I mean… is this all there is?  Maybe everyone would be much happier and the world would be a more peaceful place if everyone knew what their gifts were and were happy doing whatever work they were meant to do.

I think I’ll have rent this one again or even buy it.  Very inspiring.

Martin D-1R … Welcome to the Family

I love finding a gem at the store and taking it home!

I found a very-good condition (used) Martin D-1R at Parkway Music.  I wasn’t 100% sure at first but after taking it home and playing it side by side with the other guitars, it’s perfect!  (Not my actual guitar in picture)

It fits just right sonically between the Takamine N10 and the Larrivee L-05E.  The Tak has a very quick attack and very good mids response but is a bit lacking in the bass area.  The Larrivee on the other hand has very good bass and upper-end but is kind of mellow and smooth.  The Martin has the attack like the Tak and the bass response I’ve been looking for.  And it’s incredibly loud for its size!

About 2 years ago, a friend of mine went back to India after having stayed in the US for a few years and had picked up the guitar while he was here.  A year later, he contacted me and asked me to try to find him a “nice” guitar (in his price range).  I visited Parkway and found him a really nice Martin for a great price.  I was almost sad to see go… I wanted it for myself!  Ever since then, I would think about how great his Martin was and wished I could find one.

After Christmas, I went searching for something to compliment the acoustics I already had.  In the back of my mind I was thinking wouldn’t it be great to find one just like that Martin from a year ago. 

So I was at Parkway and I didn’t see anything on the floor that’s what I’m looking for and within my price range.  I was talking with Matt and I asked him if he had anything else.  I almost couldn’t believe it when he said, “Hey, remember that Martin you bought but and you said you couldn’t keep it for some reason… Someone traded in one just like it yesterday.  It’s still in the back waiting to be setup but do you want to check it out?”

One week, a setup job, 2 guitars and a bunch of pedals I wasn’t using later… I took home the perfect addition to my acoustic collection!  

I only kept it for one night.  Right now I’m waiting for them to put in a pickup (LR Baggs Active Element).  I can’t wait to bring it home and welcome it to the family!

Best of The 2000s

This post is inspired by a friend’s Facebook status: “has been reading reviews for the best songs of the decade. What are your picks?”.  I couldn’t really think of any one song that was clearly my favorite so I came up with a few categories.  I listen to the radio a lot because I usually listen to music in the car so this list consists of mostly rock/pop songs.

Best Boy Band Song
This I Promise You – ‘N Sync (2001)

At the end of the 90s, we saw the rise of Boy Bands: ‘N Sync, Back Street Boys, 98 Degrees.  They even tried to put one together using a reality show (O-Town aka OMG These Guys Are Terrible – Town).  As we journeyed into the 2000s, individuals from these bands pursued their own careers.

This I Promise You, IMHO, was the best song put out by a Boy Band.  It was also composed by Richard Marx who had quite the run in the 80s.  Which leads me to my next catagory…

Best 80s Remake
Land of Confusion – Disturbed (2006)
Notable Mention: Time After Time – Eva Cassidy (2000)

There are remakes and then there are remakes.  A lot of times, remakes are not as good as the originals.  But sometimes, an artist puts their own spin on an already great song and the result is even better than the original.

This title was held by by Alien Ant Farm for a few years with their remake of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal which is still one of my favorite.

Eva Cassidy’s version of Time After Time was recorded in 1996 but released in 2000 four years after her death.  The first time I heard it was on the Smallville soundtrack.

Best Single by a Latin Artist
Hero – Enrique Iglesias (2002)
(Also Best Video with Jennifer Love Hewitt in it)

In the 2000s, we also saw the rise and fall of Latin artists coming ‘cross the border and making waves in American pop.  This is my favorite song from those artists.  (And did you see Jennifer Love Hewitt in that video?!)

Best Break Through Song (“Holy ****, Who Is This!?”)
In the End – Linkin’ Park (2002)
Bring Me to Life – Evanescence featuring Paul McCoy (2003)
Decode – Paramore (2008)

This category is for songs that I heard and immediately tried to find out who the artist was.

The early 2000s were very good for many rock/pop bands.  Many of them didn’t have hits on the radio later in the decade.  But bands like Linkin’ Park and Evanescence have been able to stay current and continue to build their fan-based.  Paramore is a new comer who I think can/should have a great 2010s.

To me, Linkin’ Park and Evanescence, in some way, helped shape rock in the 2000s.

Best One Hit Wonder
For You I Will – Teddy Geiger (Confidence)

Great songwriter.  Great talent.   Great album.  (Seemingly) Great future.  Then… nothing!

Did You Know?  Teddy Geiger was the “talent” on the cable show Love Monkey.

Best Cheesy Song
I Believe in a Thing Called Love – The Darkness (2003)

Haven’t heard it?  Google/YouTube it.  You’ll hate me later.

Best Guilty Pleasure
You Below With Me – Taylor Shift (2009)

It doesn’t get more cheesy teen-pop than this but I just love singing to this song.

Best Pop Country Crossover
Who Says You Can’t Go Home – Bon Jovi (featuring Jennifer Nettles) (2006)

In this decade, we also saw  country become more and more mainstream.  In fact, turn on a country station and you might not even be able to tell.  So many country songs could easily be pop songs.  And so many new country artists sound like rock.

Who Says You Can’t Go Home is my favorite crossover.  Hey, who says you can’t be a 20+ year old band and build new fan-base by venturing into another genre doing a duet with an up-and-coming artist (of that genre).

Most Overplayed/Annoying Song
Vanessa Carlton – A Thousand Miles (2002)

 I’m sorry.  I just can’t stand this song!!!!  Why does she have to be so whiny!!!  ARGH!!!  This song was overplayed the first time it was played.

Best Name Drop In a Song
Tim McGraw – Taylor Swift (2006)

Mmm… let’s say you’re young, hot, (some what) talented and trying to break into the industry.  What’s a good way to get your song noticed?  I know!  Drop a name of someone famous who’s already in the industry.

I mean, sure, there’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere (Alan Jackson drops Jimmy Buffet) and names are dropped left and right in rap songs.  But how many chicks says “hey, when you think of some macho dude, think of me”?

Best Collaboration
Santana w/ Everybody

This category really should be “Best Song Santana Wasn’t On”.   Seriously, though, as a guitarist, I love the concept of the rotating lead singer! 😀

Best Song You Wouldn’t Sing In Front of Your Kids
Simple Plan – Addicted (2003)
Pink – U + Ur Hand (2008)

‘Nuff said.

Best Radio Hit with Interesting Musical Changes
Spin – Lifehouse (2002)
Outkast – Hey Ya! (2003)
Ocean Avenue – Yellowcard (2003)
That’s What You Get – Paramore (2008)

If you’ve seen some of my other posts, you’ve probably noticed that I really enjoy the theoretical/thinking side of music.  I love pop radio which usually tends to lack “musical depth”.  So I love it when I hear a song with some interesting twists.

Spin – Most songs on the radio follow a very predictable pattern of 4.  That is, phrases tend to repeat after 4 measures/chords and/or they repeat in multiples of 4.  In the verses, the pattern repeats every 3 instead of 4.

Hey Ya! – This is another great example of changing how the count.  This pattern repeats every 5 1/2 measures and it does this through the whole song.

Ocean Avenue – There isn’t a lot of playing with numbers and count on this one.  I just love the rhythm the guitar is playing on this song on the verses.  It’s almost like a prog rock song.

That’s What You Get – Another example of changing count.  On this one, the song starts out as 6/8 then switches to 8/8 for the chorus.  Check out the counter patterns between the drums and bass on the verses.

Best Emo Songs
Fall Out Boy – Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down (2005)
Dashboard Confessional – Stolen (2007)

I think Emo was started way before these songs hit the radio.  Perhaps like many sub-genres of rock, it started kind of underground.  Then someone (ie record executive) realized it’s marketable and got these bands on the radio.  Dashboard Confessional actual had hits before Stolen but this is my favorite of theirs.  Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down was kind of a game changer for me.  At that point, I realized Emo was here to stay.

Best Stripped Down Song
Plain White T’s – Hey There Delilah (2007)

Simple.  Acoustic.  Crowd Pleaser

Best Songs I Like To Play
For You – Staind (2001)
Rooftops – Lostprophets (2006)

These are just some of the songs that I seem to gravitate to when I’m just messing around on the acoustic.

Best Song by a Comedy Act (Stand Up Only) Shown on a HBO Special
Think About It – Flight of the Conchords (released on album 2008)

What’s wrong with the world today?!?

Best Songs from a Movie
Falling Slowly – Once (2007)
Decode – Paramore (2008)

Some people might recognized Falling Slowly from Amierican Idol (covered by Kris Alan).  If you haven’t seen it, you got to check out the movie Once.  Awesome soundtrack.

The first time I heard Decode was at FYE waiting at the check out line.  They were actually showing a video of it and (as I mentioned above) I went “Holy ***!”  These guys are awesome!  I love the drumming on this song (listen for the snares).

Best American Idol Contestant Song
So Small – Carrie Underwood (2007)

My wife and I are big American Idol fans.  And we pretty much like everything American Idol.  But if I had to choose one, I would go with So Small.

This leads me to my next set of categories.  I figured I’d rate artists too…

Best American Idol Artist

First American Idol rocker to do well on radio.

Best New Artist
Anna Nalick

In 2005, a brand new artist came on the scene with a song called Breathe (2AM) (a song way that should be too long for radio, BTW).  A year or so later, on Oct 6th, she performed at NorthernLights. After a great performance at the meet-and-greet/CD-signing, she wrote and sang happy birthday to me because it was 2 days after my birthday.  🙂

Paramore has already won in a few categories. It should not be a surprise that I think they’re one of the hottest new acts.

Best Come-Back Artist
Kylie Minogue

Remember Locomotion in the 80s?

Best Band with a Number
Five for Fighting

Quite a few bands with numbers in their names came out in the 2000s. But I think Five for Fighting is my favorite. I still love to play Superman and Easy Tonight

Best Why Does This Person Have A Career?!
Ashley Tisdale

Need I say more?!

Planet Waves vs George L

I have been using a home-made pedal board for a long time.  When I first started, I was using short (3″-6″) right-angled cables by different manufacturers.  They did okay but they were always too thick to allow the pedals to sit closer to each other.

I switched to George L’s a few years ago.  For a time, they worked great.  The cables are thin.  They conduct well.  And the plugs are very small especially the right angled ones.  But after a while, the cable started failing (on stage sometimes!).  I think there’s a flaw in the design of the angled ones.   The way they work is the you push the cable in then bend it 90 degrees.   Then a screw is used to keep the cable in.  The screw would push against the cable.  In some of the ones that failed, the screw had rubbed away some of the rubber.

I recently switched some of the George L’s with Planet Waves Solderless ones.  They seem to be working well but time will tell if they’ll have problems too.  But at least the plugs are designed a bit smarter.  The cable is pushed in but not bent.  The 90 degree angle is built into the plug (I guess there could be a cable that’s bending there but at least it’s not exposed or rubbed against with a piece of metal… I hope).  Once the cable is pushed into the plug, a set screw is used from the side to hold the cable in place.  This should be less ware and tare on the the cable.

The draw back, though, is that the planet waves cables and plugs are a bit bigger so now I’m not able to fit as many pedals on the board again.  But they’re still a bit better than other cables.

Guitar Lesson – Music Theory Part 8 – Scales and Modes

In one of the previous post, we looked at how you can use the major scale to create other scales by starting on a different note.  These other scales are also known as modes.  In that post, we started the pattern from the 6-note and created the minor scale:
          6  7  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8
C major:        C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C
A minor:  A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A             
Now let’s take a look at what happens if we tried starting the pattern from the other notes.  Each scale or mode also has (Greek) name.  Remember, the root of each of the scales below is the 1st note.
C Ionian (major) :   C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C
D Dorian         :      D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D 
E Phrygian       :         E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E
F Lydian         :            F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F
G Mixolydian     :               G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G
A Aeolian (minor):                  A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A 
B Locrian        :                     B  C  D  E  F  A  B 
This gives us the basic idea of how to figure out the patterns of the other scales.  Let’s look at the different patterns side by side: (W= whole step, H = half step)

Ionian (major) :      W  W  H  W  W  W  H

Dorian         :      W  H  W  W  W  H  W
Phrygian       :      H  W  W  W  H  W
Lydian         :      W  W  W  H  H
Mixolydian     :      W  W  H  W
Aeolian (minor):      W  H  W
Locrian        :     

Now if we apply these patterns to the same root we can see the differences between the modes (which is really the important thing to remember):

                     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8
C Ionian (major) :   C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

C Dorian         :   C  D  Eb F  G  A  Bb C
C Phrygian       :   Db Eb F  G  Ab Bb C
C Lydian         :   C  D  F# G  A  C
C Mixolydian     :   C  D  F  G  A  Bb C
C Aeolian (minor):   C  D  Eb F  G  Ab Bb C
C Locrian        :   Db Eb Gb Ab Bb C

In some upcoming posts, we’ll start looking at what scale patterns might look like on the fretboard of the guitar.