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the differences between 'classical' theory and well theory?


(@megalomaniac)
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Joined: 14 years ago
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so i was randomly came into conversation with a friend of mine today
and we happened to get into the topic of theory and things for music!
anywho he was telling me and trying to explain how theory for classical music is a bit different
in more then one ways then just plain ol' theory for guitar or anything else!
i was trying to wrap my head around it but i couldnt comprehend all that he was trying to get across,
could someone try explaining what he might have meant by how classical theory is different and things?
it's kind of a random shot out there, but thanks!


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(@noteboat)
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Well, "classical" theory isn't really different. There are some differences, but they're not substantial.

All music theory attempts to place labels on sounds, so they can be compared and analyzed. All the core elements are the same between "classical" theory, "popular music" theory, and "guitar theory" - each labels the notes with the same musical alphabet, each recognizes the same intervals, the same chord structures, etc.

Having said that, there are some minor differences.

Popular music theory names some chords that classical music doesn't recognize as chords. In classical music there's usually a lot going on - you've got a hundred or so instruments sawing/blowing/banging away at the same time in an orchestra, so things are generally studied in "reduction" - you want to find the skeleton of what's going on so you can understand it; you really don't care too much if the contrabassoon is playing note x instead of note y at any given moment. So in classical music theory, chords are big events - they're the harmonic skeleton of the whole thing. Peel away the extra stuff, and you see the chords.

In popular music, chords tend to BE the whole thing. So there's a minor divide between "classical" and "popular" music theory on just what a chord is, and how some of them are named. Play the notes C-F-G at the same time, and the popular music theorist says "that's a Csus chord". The classical music theorist considers this something that's happening in between chords... and they'll actually give that set of notes more than one label, depending on what happens next (it could be a suspension, it could be a retardation... but it's never a chord by itself). So the differences between classical and popular theory are really differences in scope, or perhaps magnification. Popular theory tends to take a slightly coarser view of some aspects than classical theory does.

There's also a lot more classical theory than there is popular theory. Popular music is, well, popular - it's common. Some classical music is rather uncommon, but there are still ways to analyze things. So you can get into all sorts of serial matrix analyses and whatnot in classical theory that have absolutely no application to popular music.

When you get into "guitar theory" you're opening a can of worms. "Guitar theory" can diverge substantially from classical theory, but it really does so out of ignorance.

One way is in chord names. Guitarists tend to confuse "chord" (the harmonic skeleton of a piece) with "fingering". You get all kinds of weird chord names from guitar "theorists", because they're missing two concepts: first, non-harmonic tones. Classical theory recognizes that what that contrabassoon is doing might have nothing to do with the actual framework - so the note it's playing might not actuallly be in the chord. Guitarists tend to think if it's played, it's important, so they stick it in the chord name.

The second is in not recognizing chords are a skeleton, not the final appearance. Many guitarists also think it's important if something is NOT played... if you're playing the root, third, and flat seventh, they'll note C7 (no fifth). Classical theory recognizes that fifth isn't that important in the overall scheme of things. Guitarists should too - that open C7 you learned (x32310) has no fifth, but we still call it "C7".

We also tend to mis-name some other things. There's no "power chord" in classical theory. It's called a perfect fifth interval. But they sound exactly the same, and they're actually analyzed the same way, so that's no big deal.

Another area where "guitar theory" diverges from classical theory is in modes. Much of what's written about modes is ill-informed, incoherent, or useless from a practical standpoint - often all three at the same time. That doesn't seem to deter people from putting it out there. Modes are a part of both classical and popular theory, but 90% of what's written on "guitar theory" gets it wrong.

That doesn't make "guitar theory" different from classical theory... it just means that a lot of "guitar theory" really isn't music theory at all.

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(@greybeard)
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One other difference is that standard notation for guitar is notated one octave higher than it is played. In classical notation, middle C is found on the 1st ledger line below the treble staff (and one above the bass staff). For guitar, middle C is notated as being on the second space from the top of the treble staff (the one above the middle line - B).
A classical musician would play guitar music an octave higher than intended.

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(@spides)
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Joined: 14 years ago
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One other difference is that standard notation for guitar is notated one octave higher than it is played. In classical notation, middle C is found on the 1st ledger line below the treble staff (and one above the bass staff). For guitar, middle C is notated as being on the second space from the top of the treble staff (the one above the middle line - B).
A classical musician would play guitar music an octave higher than intended.

wow I didn't know that, i just kinda assumed middle C was middle C. I just checked against my keyboard tho and you're right.
Man that's messed me up. totally thrown my idea of where i am in relation to theory. I actually usually transpose the heads for standards up an octave coz i think it sounds nicer. Now I know why.

Man I can't believe i've been lied to all these years. damn.

Don't sweat it dude, just play!


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(@noteboat)
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Greybeard is right about the transposition - but not about what a classical musician would do. They'd play the written "middle C" however they normally would on their instrument. What would come out might be middle C, but the odds are at least fair it wouldn't be.

Many instruments transpose. Some (double bass, bass clarinet) do it exactly like the guitar does. Others (piccolo, xylophone) go an octave in the other direction. Some transpose by other intervals... in fact, the number of "classical" instruments that don't transpose are in the minority.

Within the orchestra, it's basically the flute, oboe, bassoon, trombones, piano, most of the strings, and some of the percussion that's playing "as written". Everybody else isn't... and that's a lot of instruments (clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, French horns, English horns, double bass, some percussion...)

But that doesn't change music theory at all - only the way a particular instrument is noted.

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(@spides)
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not the theory, but where I'm playing in relation to it. and to think i used to bag out trumpeters for not "really" playing C.

Don't sweat it dude, just play!


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(@kingpatzer)
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Joined: 17 years ago
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not the theory, but where I'm playing in relation to it. and to think i used to bag out trumpeters for not "really" playing C.

But they ARE really playing C.

As has been noted (sorry :) ), notation isn't theory, it's just notation. Concert middle C is a note, not a particular method of notation. So it is the same note regardless of if you are playing on the grand staff, the treble clef, the bass clef, alto clef, tenor clef, the french clef, baratone clef, soprano clef, mezo-soprano clef, or transposed octaves on any of the previous clefs, or any other clef out there (and there are more). Regardless of which clef is being used, concert middle c is the same note. It is treated exactly the same by theory.

"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." -- HST


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(@spides)
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ah but a trumpet thinks they are playing a C, but really they are playing a Bflat. This is what i would tease them about. At least the ones who weren't concert pitch savvy.

Don't sweat it dude, just play!


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(@alangreen)
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not the theory, but where I'm playing in relation to it. and to think i used to bag out trumpeters for not "really" playing C.

But they ARE really playing C.

Ah, no they're not. Not always. If you pick up a descant or tenor recorder (becausethe recorder's the easiest instrument to understand), cover all the holes and blow, you get C. If you do that on an alto or bass recorder you get an F. To get a C on the alto or bass instrument you use a different fingering. Turning it round, to get an alto or bass recorder playing at concert pitch you have to transcribe the score down a 4th.

A :-)

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(@kingpatzer)
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not the theory, but where I'm playing in relation to it. and to think i used to bag out trumpeters for not "really" playing C.

But they ARE really playing C.

Ah, no they're not. Not always. If you pick up a descant or tenor recorder (becausethe recorder's the easiest instrument to understand), cover all the holes and blow, you get C. If you do that on an alto or bass recorder you get an F. To get a C on the alto or bass instrument you use a different fingering. Turning it round, to get an alto or bass recorder playing at concert pitch you have to transcribe the score down a 4th.

A :-)
But we're not talking about fingering, we're talking about concert middle C. That is a defined pitch. However it is notated, concert middle C is concert middle C. I can tune my guitar down a /2 step, and then the 1st fret, 2nd string will no longer be concert middle C, but I wouldn't play that particular fingering for concert middle C anymore, I'd play a different fingering.

It is true that some instruments use transposed notation (including Guitar), but that doesn't mean that when they play whatever their notation indicates is concert middle C that they are doing anything different from a theory perspective than someone else playing the same tone notated in a different way.

Maybe I'm just confused as to what you're saying, which is possible, I am after all, no where near a beer -- which is normally required for me to talk intelligently about music :)

"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." -- HST


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(@spides)
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yeah a throwaway line that somewhere has become confused. If it says its a "concert" middle C on the manuscript, then yeah it's a concert middle c. My point was i used to tease the trumpeters who thought they were playing a C, Which in their mind and on their page they were, but in terms of frequency, were actually playing B flat.

The irony lies in the fact that all along i was teasing them, not realising that my thinking what i was playing was actually sounding an octave lower anyway so i was actually less accurate than them.

not really relevant to the topic, like i said, a throwaway line that got misinterpreted but hey. We're all dumb guitarists at the end of the day. That's why chicks dig us ;)

Don't sweat it dude, just play!


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(@chris-c)
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Hi,

There are a couple of ways in which “Classical Theory” might be said to vary from modern. One is that the terms can be used in different ways, but the other is that if you go back far enough the underpinning structure was different and the theory varied accordingly, and focused on somewhat different aspects.

As Noteboat points out, the differences about the words are generally fairly minor and mostly involve people arguing about what is ‘correct' use of the terminology. “Classical Theorists” can get extremely anal about their pet use of certain terms. For instance, over the centuries, the word “chord” has been used many different ways – from the strings on a harp to various combinations of notes that are ‘in accord' from two on upwards. Once the mighty triad began its rise in importance, for many theorists the word “chord” became used specifically for combinations that began with three notes and moved upwards in complexity from there. So a medieval scholar and a power chord metal rocker would probably be quite happy to join forces and argue the toss with the triad theory fans in the middle.

I guess the triad gang might argue that the two note version is too weak and undefined to be called a chord and prefer to use the word interval there. They also like to dismiss terms like 'power chord' as modern nonsense. However, the 2 note chord guys can counter with accusations that ‘interval' is too vague because it doesn't have enough directional implication – i.e. it can refer to a vertical interval (in a two note chord) or a horizontal interval (in a melody line), and point to even earlier historical usage, and so it goes….

Another good way to waste a good number of hours is to go to a forum where classical theorists hang out and drop a few remarks about the current popular usages of the terms ‘polyphony' and ‘counterpoint' and where the boundaries lie. That can get them going for weeks.

It's all interesting enough, but the main game is actually the noises it all makes, not the bloody words. So if a term gets the message across today, I don't actually think it matters a darn what they thought 300 years ago. Music is often relatively simple underneath, but the terminology can sound off-puttingly complicated. Terms like triad, triplet and tritone all sound pretty weighty but all revolve around groups of three, and how hard is three? A “Trio” can refer to either a piece of music or the people who play it, and if you hear the word “third” in a musical context the speaker might mean an interval or the third note in a scale, etc, etc. But usually the context makes it clear enough.

The other area in which “classical theory” may vary is in the matter of tunings or, perhaps more accurately ‘temperaments'. Western music almost exclusively now uses ‘Equal Temperament' - an equally spaced series of twelve pitches (the Chromatic Scale) but neither the 12 nor the equal spacing were always used. So if you go back two or three centuries or more you can open several whole new cans of theory worms about how to fit all the bits together, and which are the best to use for what purposes. Different systems are still used today, especially in other cultures, so there's a whole new swathe of theory territory to argue over if you look around. Back in earlier times they were also more concerned with religious ideas of what was an appropriately godly sound, or not, and the main focus was more likely to be the human voice (which obviously isn't too hot at singing chords). So medieval ideas of what was harmonious and/or appropriate did differ a bit from how we think today.

It's endless really... but what matters is "Does it Rock or not???"

Chris


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(@spides)
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Nice.

Don't sweat it dude, just play!


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