Life – as seen from “Music Theory for Beginners

Last September I drove to Nebraska to visit my parents.

As old people will do –and that includes all three of us now- we were reminiscing about the old days, including those days when I was a very poor piano student of a good lady named Mrs. O’Dell. Both my younger sister and I studied with her, which involved both a private lesson in actual playing, and a group theory lesson every week.

My mother recalled Mrs. O’Dell saying how unusual it was to have two children from the same family who both preferred theory to playing. We were always odd folk.

One of the things I remember is the idea that music is among other things, the management of tension and resolution. Yes, other arts work with this as well, good story-telling for example, but I never learned to do that. Stay with me.

There are a lot of ways to build and resolve tension in music.

  • You can start a pitch at “home” and raise it up (like stretching a rubber band between two points, and then pulling it up), then lower it back to home. “Amazing Grace” is like this, feeling very peaceful, and, well, resolved, when it gets back to its home note.
  • You can do it with rhythm. Think of three quick beats in a row, and repeat that cluster three times: “applepie – applepie – apple pie” Now release that tension (perhaps in your belt, caused by all that pie) by taking a nap: “applepie – applepie – applepie – Sleeeeep” (get a good LONG nap!) See how resolved and peaceful that is?
  • Or you can do tension and resolution by harmony.
    Think of the traditional ending in some church hymns, where everyone sings “A – MEN” on 2 chords.

Most music will combine all these techniques and more, all through the piece.

The management of tension and release is very close to the heart of music.

Life is like that, too. Seasons of tension and release, stress and resolution.

But here’s the thing… NOBODY goes to hear concerts of resolution. Or tension either.

They go to hear and wonder at the MUSIC. Life is filled with music, music is filled with life, with tension and release.

May your life be beautiful, filled with music.

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