Suzy Cramer explains how music theory has helped to broaden her musical horizons and points out that by applying a little bit of theoretical knowledge, we can all become better musicians.
Like a lot of people I attempted to play various instruments at school, I made a little progress and then gave up each in turn as it started to become hard work. I could read music to a very basic level; we are talking treble clef notes, it all got a bit scary once they developed the little lines above and below the stave!
A big old cliché later and well into my thirties I bought myself a guitar, I could remember a little and I sailed through RGT Acoustic Performance Grades 1-3.
I then started to lose heart and felt that old childhood discomfort again. It was getting difficult but I realised that without reading music, you could; thanks to the huge range of books, online resources, sure-fire tab and pre-chorded songs, play guitar to quite a reasonable level. However, effectively you are just learning shapes and I should stress that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! However, I felt like I was missing out on becoming a musician, though I was pleased to have picked up the guitar again.
So, I ordered the first couple of RGT’s Popular Music Theory books and started to read them on my train commute, setting myself small tasks to carry out with my guitar when I got home. I would try finding a couple of notes on the fretboard or try to form notated chords, rather than just using standard chord boxes. This is definitely the hardest transitional discipline l went through, it forced me to go backwards and rethink what I had learnt in a different way. I then expanded this activity as I slowly went through the grades and suddenly realised that I already knew the location of most of the notes on the fretboard. I understood what I was actually playing in terms of scales rather than just seeing them as numbers across the fretboard. Five years, a banjo, a ukulele and a Grade 8 exam later, I can read music “fluently” in treble and bass clef. I see scales and modes as ways of making my music more interesting, not just as things you have to learn to pass an exam. I write and compose my own music, I also teach and play with other musicians. There are a whole host of other amazing things I could write a book about, let alone an article.
I thought I would share my experience and if I could give a quick answer to the question in the title of this article, it would probably be:
“Because it turns a one-dimensional guitarist into a three dimensional musician.”
Finally, here are some tips that I found useful along the way, in no particular order:
- Focus on musicians you like and are genuinely interested in when preparing for the essay questions. If you are a massive music nerd like me, limit yourself to researching the question topic only and prepare practice bullet points with a fact per point.
- Download all the past papers and go through one a week in the last 8-12 weeks leading up to the exam. Write down anything you are hazy on and seek help from a tutor, even if it’s on a casual, one-off basis. Limit yourself to the allocated exam time in the last few weeks of preparation.
- Play through as many of your answers as possible on your instrument. This can also improve your playing, an added bonus!
- Tackle every level in small chunks, whilst doing something else on the playing side. Maybe learn a new song, your brain will relate the two, it really helps you to remember stuff.
- Give yourself a reasonable deadline as it keeps you focussed. I found that working through one graded exam a year was manageable, alongside a full-time job and other commitments
Many employers view music qualifications on a CV as a positive thing. Especially in the case of a mature candidate, it indicates an ability and willingness to learn new disciplines, even if a music career is absolutely the last thing on your mind.