Notes From the Desk of a Jazz Guitarist By Greg Chako

In a pro-career spanning 40 years and 5 countries, Cincinnati-born jazz guitarist Greg Chako has released ten albums and played countless shows around the world. His bi-weekly column, "Notes From The Desk Of A Jazz Guitarist” shares his expert tips on becoming a better player and person.

What’s the Point of Music Theory? 

I belong to numerous Facebook Groups formed to discuss things that I like, such as Jazz, Guitar, and Music Theory & Education. I am dismayed at times by some of the posts I see which, in my opinion, display a lack of enthusiasm for theory and/or some degree of ignorance as to what theory actually is and does. 

Here’s my theory about music theory: 

Theory is to Music like History is to Politics, or like Science is to Nature. 

Theory is at-once a history of good musical practices, and a science that tries to correlate those musical practices with the resultant success of a musical piece. In short, theory explains why certain musical pieces sound better than others. It defines the “tendencies” of composition (what will tend to sound good) and it looks for patterns in what could otherwise be described solely as a purely organic creative process (of playing or writing music). 

If we look to history to explain the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, we can research the reasons it rose and ultimately fell. Armed with that data, we can learn about our own current society with the intent of repeating the good things and avoiding the bad things. When we marvel at the beautiful balance and perfection of Nature, we wonder how and why things occur as they do. Science helps us to understand what we would otherwise be unable to comprehend; and of course, it offers us ways to improve our lives with nature, such as Hydroponics, something that never existed in nature but for our scientific research to create it. Similarly, our science enables us to better understand how to protect and preserve the nature we rely on to live on Earth, in ways such as pollution control and environmental conservation. 

I believe that just as we can imagine history and science as necessary things know about in order to improve and protect the quality of our lives, we can rely on music theory to better understand and create the music we love. When you understand enough theory to know what is likely to sound good, and what has worked well for composers and improvisers in the past, we can use that information to inform our own improvisations and compositions. 

The other day one of my students shared some of their own homework study with me. I looked at it and noticed a B7 chord ‘resolving’ to an Ab minor chord, and also there was an Ab major7 chord over a measure of melody which included a Db quarter note in the first half of the measure. Now, are these two instances impossible? Of course not, but theory teaches us that these choices are not likely going to sound good. Why? 

Because theory teaches us that a typical ‘good sounding’ resolution to an Ab minor chord is either resolution by a Perfect 5th (Eb7b9 to Ab minor), or by a half-step (A7#11 to Ab minor). Resolution of a Dominant 7th chord to its target by a minor-third interval is less common and trickier to pull off convincingly. In the 2nd example, the Db melody note is an “avoid” note in an Ab major7 chord. Though it is in the chord scale, it is not likely to be emphasized by a quarter-note on a down (strong) beat. For that first measure where the Db melody note appears, I recommended the chord symbol for the first two beats of that measure to be changed to a Db minor over an Ab bass note, moving to the existing Ab major7 chord on beat three where the Db note is no longer present (having resolved melodically in the 2nd half of the measure to C as we would expect). 

The solutions to these minor musical problems were an easy and immediate fix for me, because I possess a knowledge of musical theory to fall back on. For me, great music must simultaneously meet both a purely aural test and an intellectual one too; that is, it must SOUND good, but it should also (in most cases) be defensible and logically explained through the application of sound music theory. 

With every form of creative and artistic expression that I know of, there are no hard and fast rules; however, there are tendencies and proven best practices, and music theory is what tends to highlight them for us. 

Greg Chako

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