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Why Learn Theory?

Blues Harp players know music from a very practical point of view. Since the harp is in your mouth, you can’t see what you are playing. Everything a harp player does is done by feel and ear. If you are thinking about which hole you are playing or worse, if you are thinking about playing an A# then, you are not playing very well. Too much of your mind is involved with mathematical calculations and not enough is used expressing the color and feel of the moment in the song. Some people are wired this way and have minds that can feel and play and calculate all at once (not me), but even then it’s a hard thing to learn.

There is a good argument then, that harp players don’t need theory, they don’t need to read music, and they don’t need to know the names of the notes that they are playing. After all, I am certain that Big Walter knew nothing about music theory, Sonny Boy II knew nothing about reading music and Little Walter couldn’t tell you the name of the notes in the Juke opening riff. These guys played better harp than we ever will.

This is a strange argument. Should we avoid theory because the great ones didn’t need it? Or, should we embrace theory because we’ll never be as good as the great ones and need addition help?

If you are a music teacher with a Ph.D. and lots of background, you mind is already geared to use the symbolic notation of music theory. If you learned to play piano or another instrument and are translating that information to harp, then by all means use whatever tools you’ve got.

If you are like me and took up the harp because you like blues and thought that the harp would be easier than guitar (boy, was I wrong!) then you use what you’ve got. In my case I could sing along with every Muddy Song and hum through the Little Walter solos. I had the music, sort of, inside my head and I wanted it to come out through the reeds of the harmonica.

In spite of a few years of piano lessons as a young child and a little trumpet in the band during high school, I knew no real theory. My teachers concentrated on having me convert printed dots on a page to sounds. There was no discussion of mood or expression. The formula was Dots = Music. This is not satisfying and it is definitely not Blues. I didn’t like it then and I am not looking to repeat the experience now.

In real life I am a very technical computer programmer at a research lab. I work all day on dense, difficult intellectual activities. Harp playing is the antithesis of my day job. I want it to be pure emotional expression. Intellect is only useful for providing the overall plan of what I do, the implementation of the music is an autonomic expression of things inside of me. When I think about what I am doing, I don’t do so well. If I relax and let the good things come, they come indeed! Music should be as natural as breathing.

Studies have shown that musical ability is innate. It is a basic part of being human. Very few people are truly tone deaf. All of us share an ability to appreciate music. The most unsophisticated listeners to the Spice Girls are equal in the ability to appreciate and enjoy music as the Ph.D. at a Mozart concert. The Ph.D. has greater understanding and depth, perhaps, but the Spice Girls fan gets just as much enjoyment from the music.

So why do I need theory? The reason is that I am trying to learn new things. I have to direct myself and improve my playing. They say practice makes perfect only if you practice perfectly. I have to train that lower brain - my "Snake Brain" - to play holes and breathing patterns, so when I feel the need for a sound, the automatic response is the learned riff. A harp player can’t think, “Now is the time for my super xyz riff.” and then play it. It has to come as the natural consequence of the emotional and musical feel of the music.

So at some point, I have to figure out a sound, either cop it from another harp player, or find it by trial and error. This learning activity has a heavy intellectual side. I do a lot of figuring-out and decision-making. I recognize patterns. I fit what I find into things I already know. In other words, I use theory. It may be my own strange theory, but it’s theory.

If I make my own theories about what sounds good and how to fit things together and make new sounds, then I should be able to fit in some classical theory out of books. I should take advantage of what other great minds have already discovered. As much as I hate it, I might even try reading dots on a page sometimes. Luckily, Blues is not complicated and the Harp is a simple instrument. Ten holes are very manageable and three chords are enough for me.

There's a Harmonica Joke.

Q. How many harmonica players does it take to change a light bulb?

A. Don't worry about the changes, man. Just blow!

Well, a harp player has to worry about the changes and changes - that's theory. What to play and when, what sounds good and what doesn't - that's theory. Why bend and when to bend - that's theory. Straight vs. Cross vs. Side - that's theory. There are little technical reasons for the way music works and you don't need to speak Italian and you don't need to be able to count flats and sharps or read a staff or play the piano. But you do have to understand a few simple things.

A blues harp player needs simple, practical theory. I took some lessons with Gary Primich. He explained that he can't teach me theory, but he can teach me Street Theory. I stole the term and made this web page incorporating what Gary taught me and what I've learned from other teachers, Harp-L and various interesting places.

A very good place to learn real theory is from Ed Roseman’s book: Edly’s Music Theory for Practical People. His motto is: Music theory should be enjoyed... not endured! Read about this book at http://www.imaja.com/edly/edlymusictheory.html



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