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Thomas Kovacs

Why Music Theory is like Boating

By:Thomas Kovacs | Published:3/24/2011

I have to get my boating license next summer.

I bought a book to study for the boating license test. Inside the book is one of the most perfectly worded paragraphs I have ever read that makes a compelling case for the study of music theory!

“Many of the terms used in boating are not common in everyday speech. These specialized words can save time. They can tell in one or two words ideas that might take many words to express. For example, boaters would not refer to another boat as being ‘straight out from the middle of the left side of our boat, and at right angles to our centre line’. They would describe the other boat as being ‘abeam to port’.”

Like boaters, musicians have their own set of “specialized words” that can “tell in one or two words ideas that might take many words to express”. Imagine how awkward it would be if during a jam session you had to tell another musician, “Play an A note, a C note, and an E note all at the same time”! Hopefully, just saying, “Play an A minor” should be enough.

In the early 90s, I studied jazz vocals at Humber College where I obtained a good working knowledge of music theory. Since then, I have been a student of many songwriting workshops and brought my songs to many songwriting evaluations. My knowledge of music theory proved extremely valuable in helping me better understand the workshop instructors and song evaluators whenever they used a “specialized word” from music theory; words like “tonic”, “resolve”, “fifth”, “sub-dominant” and “tension”.

In a classroom setting, an instructor will most likely explain some aspects of basic music theory for those students who need it. Understandably, such explanations are usually done fairly quickly since most of the class time has to be spent on the course material. And of course, outside a classroom, people in the music business simply do not have time to hold an aspiring musician/songwriter’s hand.

Not only has my knowledge of music theory helped me in songwriting workshops but it is also proving very beneficial when working alongside other musicians. I do a lot of solo gigs where I’m free to present a song to my audiences in whatever way I wish. But when I’m playing with other musicians, we all have to agree on how a song will be presented. Doing so requires rehearsal and a lot of communication between band members. I’m currently in weekly rehearsals with a band as the lead singer and acoustic rhythm guitarist. When we work on how to present a song, the other musicians use a lot of musical theory terms with each other. I can far more readily understand and communicate with them because of my background in music theory. In the end, our common language of musical terms makes working on a song a lot easier.

So if another musician suddenly asks me to play the first inversion of the tonic, I’ll know exactly what to do. Just like if next summer another boater asks me to bring my boat “abeam to port” … I’ll know exactly what to do!

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Thomas Kovacs will be presenting a Music Theory for Beginners course at Ryerson University on Saturday, April 16.  Click Here for more information

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