Sunday, June 19, 2011

Music Theory For Rock Musicians

During the times that I played in various rock bands one thing that always amazed me was how proud rock musicians were about the fact that they 'knew nothing' about music. It was like knowing something about the theory of music was a bad thing. There was the feeling that real rock musicians didn't know anything about music theory and that was good. There are many reasons why some musicians feel that learning theory is a bad thing that I talked about in a past post. One of the reasons why rock musicians feel that theory isn't useful to them is because they think that it just doesn't apply to what they're playing. There is in fact lots to learn about rock music that is easily explained and easy to learn.

Rock Theory

Whenever I teach, I always ask the student what kind of music they listen to. If they're into rock I will take a different approach than if they were into jazz. The problem with music theory is that it's a huge subject. It's too big to tackle for most people. There are so many facets to theory that it's hard to even apply it to your music. That's why I find out what style of music they're into and apply the theory to that. There are things that are done over and over in rock music that can easiily be taught and explained. There are other things in music theory that happen in other genres that are interesting but don't apply to rock music.


Most of us start off with learning some scales. Usually you'll try to learn a couple, see how fast you can play them, and it'll end at that. Learning scales is just the first step. You must learn how they apply. You must learn how they apply to rock. Although it doesn't sound like it, rock uses the same basic scales that all other popular music does.  First of all, the melody that the singer is singing is a scale. Rock doesn't go too far with this. It's either major, minor or pentatonic. It doesn't sound like a scale to us because we're used to hearing scales played up and down literally. Most (not all) rock melodies are quite simple and don't jump aroung much. Most of the time a single note is repeated before going on to another. There is also tons of inflections, slides and bends that we naturally do when we sing. Scales really come into play when we study guitar solos. Most of the time the guitar player will use one scale to solo over the entire song.


Chords follow the same general direction as scales. Rock music usually try to keep things simple. They will change chords on a regular basis throughout the song. Once they establish a rhythm pattern, they will usually stick quite close to it. Most rock music will rarely go beyond the major and minor chords. Rock likes to use added 2nds, 4ths and 6ths along with a few dominant 7th chords. Most of the time they love to use power chords (which is just a 5th i.e. no third). You'll also find that different styles will use the same chord progressions over and over. Rock loves using blues progressions and progressions based on the minor scale. Some metal goes into modes and other territory but rock and pop will usually stick to diatonic chord progressions. The ubiquitous IV-V-I is still as popular as ever.

So What

At this point you may be asking yourself so what? Well getting to know some of these tools will help in the creative process and make learning songs a lot easier. The fact is that most rock musicians know theory. They just don't have the technical terms for what they're doing. They learn things by trail and error (not always a bad thing) and then go about applying to their music. All of their theory comes in slowly from learning songs, solos, and some basic theory (usually passed on from another musician or band member).

The List

Here is a starter list of things your should be practicing and going over on a regular basis along with new tunes and songs from your band.

  1. Major, minor and pentatonic scales in all keys. Rock musicians will use the pentatonic to improvise and create solos and licks. The same goes from the major and minor scales. You must learn which scale to use and when. Classic rock uses pentatonics, punk will usually stick to the major. Most of the time it's a matter of figuring out which one applies to the song you're working on and using that.
  2. All major and minor chords in various positions and inversions. Just knowing one or two may be enough for rock but learning these will take your playing to a whole new level. If there are more than one guitar players or a guitar and keyboard in your band you will end using these trying to make your parts work together better. If one guitar player is playing the chords in one position, the other should be playing them somewhere else on the neck.
  3. Chord extensions and substitutions. This is an extension of the previous but takes it one step further. Sometimes just playing a C chord is perfect for the song. Sometimes adding an extension (a 2nd, 4th, 6th or 7th) may make it infinitely more interesting. There are also chord substitutions to consider; is a C the right chord here or is a Am or Em better? Substitutions come in handy when developing ideas within a song.
  4. The scales harmonized in 6ths and 3rds. Rock uses 6ths and 3rds to embellish a melody and create an interesting background for songs. All scales can be harmonized this way; including the pentatonic. These are also used in creating background harmonies for the lead vocal. There are other intervals but these are the first you should learn.
  5. Chord progressions in various keys. Often rock and pop will stick to chord progressions within a certain key. It's important to learn all of the chords within each key. You'll notice that once you've done this, you've covered thousands of progessions and songs. These are used over and over. The key of C is given as an example:
    C:    I     ii    iii    IV   V    vi   (bVII)
          C   Dm  Em   F   G    Am    (Bb)

Counterpoint, Voice Leading etc.

Most rock musicians will attest not knowing what counterpoint and voice leading is let alone the fact that they may be incorporating it into their songs. Voice leading is simply moving the different voices in a chord in the smoothest manner possible. Most of the time rock music flies right in the face of this and will move all over the place. Counterpoint is just having two separate lines moving independent from one another. Rock music uses these in various ways. Voice leading is used a lot in playing arpeggios and creating interesting progressions under the lead vocal. It's also used a lot in leads were the guitarists will play ascending and descending lines and arpeggios connecting them seamlessly together (the solo to 'Hotel California is a great example of this). Other times rock musicians will play a melody or line with the vocal instead of strumming chords. Other techniques rock uses are: modulation, pedal tones, vamps, polyrhythms, polychords and modal harmony (to name a few).

It's All There

If you're reading this and wondering what half of this stuff is, if you're wondering if you actually do any of this, then you know you have some homework to do. Without getting a degree in music theory it's a good idea to knnow what some of these tools are how and you can use them in your music. You may be using most of them already and not know it. Giving a name and explaination of these techniques allow you to isolate the various tools and use them in new and interesting ways. Most of all, your other band mates may be wondering where you've come up with all of these great new ideas. Don't tell them you learned some theory though, you may end up being 'the theory guy' in the band.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Fast Forward: Conversations with Machines

Fast Forward: Conversations with machines

From camera obscura to cybernetics: filmmaker Joost Rekveld outlines experimental cinema from its hidden past to a distant future.

By Joost Rekveld


Quote from essay
"In this essay I want to develop my thoughts about possible futures for what is now referred to as experimental cinema, inspired by some of the ideas behind expanded cinema. Experimental cinema is a marginal cinema, not in the sense that its purpose is to remain obscure forever, but in the sense that those filmmakers are called experimental who challenge the categories of mainstream cinema. These same artists often cross over from or into other disciplines, so in order not to lose ourselves in speculations concerning the future of everything, we will have to rewind until we find a starting point from which we can can try and extrapolate. "

View online at:

Joost Rekveld website:

Wednesday, June 8, 2011



June 9 - July 20, 2011

OSA Archivum and the authors of GENERATION Z exhibition cordially invite you to the opening which will take place on 9th of June at 6:00 p.m. The exhibition will run at OSA Archivum, Budapest from June 9 till July 20, 2011. 

exhibition details at

Variophone, theremin terpsitone, rhythmicon, emiriton, ekvodin, graphical sound – just to mention a few of the amazing innovations of the beginning of the 20th century in Soviet Russia, a country and time turbulent with revolutions, wars and totalitarian dictatorship.
While the history of Russian post-revolutionary avant-garde art and music is fairly well documented, the inventions and discoveries, names and fates of researchers of sound, creators of musical machines and noise orchestras, founders of new musical technologies have been largely forgotten except, perhaps, Leon Theremin, inventor of the first electronic musical instrument, the theremin.

This community of creators, however, was inherently incompatible with the totalitarian state. By the late 1930s it became effectively written out of histories, wiped out from text books.

Many of their ideas and inventions, considered as utopian at that time, were decades later rein vented abroad. We still use them today not knowing their origin.

This exhibition is an attempt at reconstructing and understanding the Russian artistic utopia.

The exhibition runs from June 9 till July 20.

June 24, 2011, on the Night of Museums, 10:00 p.m.:

Multimedia theremin concert: Najmányi László, visual artist, performer, theremin specialist.

Thanks to CVM for original post:

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Oskar Fischinger Painting Exhibition - Santa Fe, New Mexico

Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967) Major Painting Exhibition at the Peyton Wright Gallery - Santa Fe, New Mexico
Opening July 2011

Oskar Fischinger - Layers of Sound
Oskar Fischinger's paintings are being exhibited at the art dealers gallery - Peyton Wright Gallery.  These paintings are a real treat to view.  Peyton Wright Gallery have put many of Oskar Fischinger's paintings online, many of these have probably not been seen before, as they have not been put online before.

Some of these paintings have strong musical themes.  There are several that I really like and a beautiful one for me is, Layers of Sound.  However, there are many others and Fischinger's very distinct artistic and aesthetic style is really apparent.  A great treat to be able to view these paintings online via the Peyton Wright Gallery, and if you are lucky enough to be near Sante Fe, a treat to see in reality.

View Paintings online at: 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Harmonic Elaboration

So you've written a memorable hook, or a nice little melody. You put together some chords to go with your creation and that's it. What a lot of musicians don't seem to realize is that with any given set of notes, there are a ton of different ways to harmonize it. If you've ever heard some of the mash-ups of well known songs put on top of other tracks, you can see how there are many things you can do with the background.

The Basics

Whenever you've written a melody, there are a set of chords or harmonies that we may 'automatically' hear. For example if it's a simple melody that doesn't move around much or have any weird leaps and accidentals, we will probably hear a basic I IV V I. Since we hear these progressions so often, we may automatically hear them in our head. That doesn't mean that we have to use them, or even that they're 'right'. For example if you have a simple melody you may want to use other chords because you want a different 'feel' for the song. Or, you want to invoke some surprise, or you want to change it into a different genre, or you just may want to make the song 'more interesting'.


I had an interesting thing happen when teaching recently. A student came in with a well known song and a sheet of the chord changes. The chord changes in fact turned out to be wrong but they also fit. When correcting the changes, the song was infinitely better but both sets of chords could have been used. The 'wrong' chords were your basic I IV V whereas the correct ones used substitutes instead. Substitutes are chords that are familiar to the chord they're replacing but not exactly the same. These chords function in the same way as the original chord. A substitution that is used a lot is the vi chord replacing the I. For example an Am would go where you would expect a C chord to go. If you want to hear how this sounds, write a simple melody over a F G C progression. Play the progression a couple of times but the last time, put the Am in place of the C. Make sure you don't change the melody, See how this chord fits but 'changes' the melody even though we're using the same notes. The iii chord is also another substitution for a I chord.

The Wrong Right Chord

One thing substitutions do is create an element of surprise because you're expecting one thing but get another. The way to do this is to replace the expected chord with non-diatonic chord. If you were writing the song in the example given above, and were looking for a substitute for a C chord, you could replace the chord with another that has the melody note in it. For example if the melody note was an E, you could replace the C chord with an A, E, or C#m. You could even go up to the 7th and try an FMaj7 or F#7. All of these chords have an E in them.  If the note was a G, you would have different options. You could replace the C major with a Cm because that critical 3rd, isn't in the melody. But, you could also use Eb, Gm, A7, or AbMaj7. Remember these are ideas just using the melody note as an anchor. The possibilities and endless...


Since we're talking about substitutions, we have to talk about changing the harmonic background completely. Moby did well with his Play album by taking old blues songs and placing them on electronic beats and different chord progressions. Just becuase the original had a chord change every bar, doesn't mean you need to. Dance music does this all the time. Instead of having the regular changes, remixers will simply place the melody over their 'static' harmony*. Jazz and blues musicians also do this regularly. They will take the basic form of a blues and embellish the chords and changes. Sometimes this is done to extremes as in the case of John Coltrane who created his own version of 'blues changes'. Their are many more artists that have done this. Sometimes, in the case of many pop songs, entire changes can be replaced with a single chord or vamp.

*I use the word static here because most dance music relies on a constant underlying groove and harmony. It doesn't have to be this way but remixers will usually replace any harmony with their own.


Of course if the harmony can be simplified, it can also be made much more elaborate. This is pretty much the standard for jazz standards. Jazz musicians will usually take the given chord changes and replace them with their own. The best musicians pride themselves on having the coolest changes. They often do this without changing the melody*. This isn't just a jazz thing though. Musicians love taking songs and changing the chords and voicings. A folk musician might add some 2nds and 4ths. A pop musician might add the same as well as some dominant and minor 7th chords. Instrumentalists might go even further to add some interest to their instrumental versions.

*Jazz musicians will often change the rhythm and paraphrase the melody but will usually try to keep it close to the original. Of course a Dixieland band will play the melody completely different than a Bebop combo.
 Written In Stone

As you can see, the chords you choose for your compositions is a personal one. There is never just one solution to which changes will go to any given melody. It really is up to the writer. Once you get to know this, you will spend more time thinking about this different changes that you have in your composition toolbox and hopefully make your music infinitely more exciting.