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Theory! We Don't Need No Stinking Theory!

  06/21/10 01:59, by , Categories: BFMN Exclusive, Monday Morning Musical Musings, Paul Bourgeois , Tags: arpeggios, harmonica, keys, meditation, modes, music theory, rhythm, scales, zen
Paul Bourgeois

This is actually Part II of Are Harmonica Players Real Musicians? but the above title is so much cooler.  Every time Eric and I write a new song I am just bowled over by a “We did that!” feeling. The universe is an amazing place. We just came back from a practice putting a song together. Without theory I couldn’t feel like a part of that. The shapes of the sounds, what are their names, what they look like on paper…  Theory.  Just like the Laws of Physics is theory.

Well, not for harmonica players, beause you don’t have to know this stuff if you play the seven tone diatonic harp. Because theory… we don’t need no stinking theory! Right? Well, we do, and we don’t. It’s like a Zen Riddle and playing is like a meditation, opening yourself to the world around you and moving with that world. Music Theory is like the laws of physics. But you don’t have to understand biology to be a butterfly. It just turns out that, in music, the butterflies that understand their own biology end up becoming a bit more beautiful.

It all starts with an Austrian nanny running across the mountain top singing “The Hills are Alive.” That’s one of my earliest memories. It’s why I am deeply attracted to short-haired nurturing women. And, for some reason, women who play saxophone. Somehow the music got stuck in my body that way.

The Tao of Pooh

We, the harmonica players, just have to teach our bodies to bypass our brains when we make music. But I think that’s true of everybody. The music’s in your muscles, Boyo, and you will still have to teach your body to bypass your brain to make it. When it comes time to play it should be the simplest of things. Listen and move with the rhythm and don’t ask “Why?” when you’re caught in the middle of it. As Eeyore says “I didn’t stop to ask, Pooh. Even at the bottom of the river I didn’t stop to say to myself, ‘Is this a Hearty Joke, or is it the Merest Accident?’ ” Life should be like that, I guess, very Zen, in a way, and music as a meditation is a metaphor for life.

But in the midst of this meditation don’t forget your body. Just like my body knows its heartbeat it’s good to teach my body the intervals, scales, modes, riffs, arpeggios… and any other patterns that might help me live longer and healthier and happier.

The Sound of Music

Julie Andrews taught the kids to sing “Do-Re-Mi.” That’s the major (or Ionian) scale and it includes the “do” at both ends, which is the beginning of the next octave. If your choirmaster ever made you stand in a policeline and sing “Vi-i-i-i-va-a-a-vi.” that’s the pentatonic scale, five notes from the bottom to the top and back down again.  It’s better than Jamie Aebersold’s Ear Training. “A doe, a deer, a female deer.” And you don’t even have to know what you’re doing. If you play Chromatic then fill your boots with theory because then you’re messing with the black keys – twelve notes, seven white and five black. But I have heard people like Bill Barrett pull off some really cool disharmonics on the Chromatic. Really edgy stuff. But whatever you do, keep the theory in mind. You will have to learn it so you can forget it later.

Look, whether you are a singer, a harp player, saxophonist, guitarist, trumpet player, piano player… get to know someone else’s instrument. I mean that intimately. From doe to tea it is “Step, step, half step, step, step, step, half step.” The piano players are reminded about intervals every time they look down at the black and white keys. And the guitar players have to know it all intuitively and have to work harder at it because their neck hand has to define those intervals and they have to hear those internals intimately each time they tune up. And believe me, they are always tuning.

Major Minor

The thing that gets me when I play guitar or piano is the chords. You can play any chord on a piano and any chord on a guitar. And it either sounds great or horrible, depending on what notes you play. Well, you can play chords on a harmonica, too, just by breathing. And they always sound great, because harps are tuned to be harmonic. Well, that makes a harp player lazy, maybe. It made me lazy, because I started thinking I could do anything on the harp. Because I was just doing the easy stuff. Well, the guitar showed me there were a whole lot of possibilities. Within any one harp there are a whole lot of different keys and modes that you can try out in conjunction with other keys and modes, to complement or contrast with your fellow musician. And if I didn’t know about this stuff how could I work out stuff with Eric?

I hope you guys are happy now because my head is spinning. I really have to thank you all, because I had to Google all this stuff. Well, most. Because I don’t have to know anything to play. So don’t attack me if I explain all this wrong.

This entry was posted by and is filed under BFMN Exclusive, Monday Morning Musical Musings, Paul Bourgeois. Tags: arpeggios, harmonica, keys, meditation, modes, music theory, rhythm, scales, zen


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Comment from:

Good One Paul. Great stuff.
Music theory is one of those things. You don’t need to know how it all works, you just need to know that it does work. More importantly it confirms what we hear in our heads. These notes sound good together, these notes don’t. A little bit of theory goes a long way and can save hours and hours of trial and error.

Understanding that if you are holding a harmonica and the other guy plays a song in the right key, then you can’t hit a “wrong” note. It HAS to sound right. There are no wrong notes in a scale that fits the chord or key it is played over. The flavor comes with timing and choosing which harp to blow and when to blow on the left or on the right.

Take it from me and Paul, invest in a little theory it will serve you well. Too much thinking on the other hand is to be avoided at all cost.

06/25/10 @ 00:01
Comment from:

You know, Dan, the body plays. You just train the riffs and patterns into your muscles with practice and then let go when the sound hits you. Music theory and the physical structure of any instrument is closely ties. Theory lies behind how the instrument is made and to understand how to use it correctly you have to know how and why it works. Theory is the why and how to what a musician does and without it there are fewer options… maybe.

With a harmonica there are the straight keys, the cross keys, middle position straight and cross (which I play). And any harp has many keys and modes you can play in. And each “mode” means a different scale/ harmonic progression and you pick a different mode depending on the style mood of the song. And then there are the relative keys if the band is playing in a minor key. But the idea of “key” and knowing what is “the root note” is often vague and the harp that works in any particular song is often hit and miss. You have to pick it by ear.

And, yes, even if you are in the right key you can hit the wrong note. That’s why you practice. I meant to say “guys like us” can’t hit a wrong note. (grin)

06/25/10 @ 11:45
Harmonica Jones

Hi everybody !

A minimum of theory is essential to a good practice. Know why and how to talk about the same thing with others, then, theory is not a stinking theory, on the contrary, it means that we give ourselves the tooling for communicating the same langage with others. Instead of talking theory, we could talk about - knowledge of the instrument.
And knowledge is the beginning of the wisdom !

Keep on harpin’ and still my harpin’kiss to all !


07/02/10 @ 01:01
Harmonica Jones

Salut tout le monde !

Un minimum de théorie est indispensable à une bonne pratique. Savoir le pourquoi du comment pour parler de la même chose avec les autres n’a rien d’une théorie puante, bien au contraire, c’est un moyen que nous nous donnons des outlis pour communiquer avec les autres. Au lieu de parler de théorie, nous pourrions parler de - connaissance de l’instrument.
Et la connaissance est le début de la sagesse !

Keep on Harpin ‘and still my harpin’kiss to all !


07/02/10 @ 01:24
Comment from: RICK

I am letting my son freestyle learn instruments, I put on Moby Dick, Crossroads movie, any badass video and he takes off to play some instrument. he is 8, he picked up the c harmonica a couple months ago and has played it less than 20 times, watch what he does at 59 seconds, that is learning an instrument. I loved the comment about stinkin theory because I named our videos we don’t need no stinkin lessons

12/31/10 @ 17:28

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