Theory is for all instruments;
technique is for specific instruments.
Are there many theories? Yes. Are there many techniques? Yes.
For a layman like me, the way I approach music and playing guitar is as plain as how this principle encapsulates the secret to being a growing musician and instrumentalist. Why do I say so?
Theory for All Instruments
When I was in my late teens, I had a period of lifetime when I happened to fill my desire to find out why I play what I am playing on guitar. That is, I decided to study music theory out of my own interest. This self-study led me to realize that once I understood ANY music theory, I can practically APPLY music theory on ANY instrument!
Here is an example:
Chord construction theory (how a chord is formed) works for all instruments. So if I want to form a triad in the root inversion, I can always form it in any instrument by playing the three available notes in the sequence of a root inversion.
Take for instance, a C major triad would be played with the notes in the following sequence:
C E G
Here is another example:
Chord progression theory can be applied in such a way that instrumentalist across all instruments can expect the order of chords are being played in a certain repetitive structure at various sections of a song. So if you hear a pianist saying, “We’re going to play Payphone, by Maroon 5, in the key of G with the progression of 4, 1, 6, 5,” you immediately know that you are to play the chords in the sequence of C, G, Em, and D.
Then perhaps, after one round of playing through the song, the vocalist speaks up, “The key is too high for me. Let’s drop an interval, ” all the instrumentalists immediately would be expected to understand that the key has dropped from G to F, since F is one interval below G in a chromatic scale. The chord progression, then, has become Bb F Dm C.
C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C
C Db D Eb E F Bb G Ab A Bb B C
Technique for Specific Instruments
While understanding theory is useful for musicians to appreciate each other on a common ground, that is, musicians can better manage a basic theoretical level of expectation, it might not be so for every instrument. What do I mean? Again, I will use a few examples to illustrate why understanding theory is not enough to lead a band for music arrangement. Instead, a music leader would be better equipped if he or she can harness the techniques applicable for specific instruments.
Here is the first example:
Supposed there is a running melody in a certain section of the music. Let’s say we have an interlude section after the second time a chorus is being played, while a string instrument such as an electric guitar can apply the technique of a bending from G to A note by pressing the 2nd string on 8th fret (in standard tuning) and bending it upward.
This transition of G to A note can be achieved by other means, such as pressing the same string in 8th fret and then 10th fret. It can also be done with a slide from fret 8 to fret 10. However, one need to know that by applying the different articulation technique, the kind of tone (or sound) we hear differ to the trained ears. This would mean an altered manner a feeling is being conveyed.
So we know that different articulation technique would result in different conveyance of meaning, isn’t it important to apply technique appropriately according to a musician’s interpretation? Yes, of course! Nonetheless, there is a slight challenge, a form of limitation, involved.
A guitar can do bending. An acoustic piano, which is really a percussive instrument in nature, cannot utilize bending technique the way a string instrument can! Let’s say an electric guitarist uses the whammy bar to create the “bending” sound of the entire chord from G to A, all the six strings would be bent at the same time. How can an acoustic piano do that?! What about one flute? The answer is obvious. No. Unless we have several flutes covering the different notes at the same time, we cannot play a chord. And even so, the kind of “bending” would differ. Not to mention, the timbre (kind of sound tone) of different instruments are not the same in the first place.
The second example would be as such:
A piano can only play one note of its kind on at a time, but a guitar may choose to play two same notes of the same sound frequency (unison) at the same time, where available to be pressed and plucked.
Try this. Take a guitar in it standard tuning (E B G D A e), play E on string 4, fret 2. And then, play the note at string 5 fret, 7. Are they the same? They should sound the same if you’ve tuned your guitar properly! These are both E notes. You can do this for string 6, fret 5 and string 5 fret 0. There are more possibilities, as long as your fingered could reach and your guitar structure allows.
By the same token, a piano, or a saxophone, can only play the same E one at a time. If either of them wishes to produce a unision, another same instrument would be required.
Yet another example:
That being said, here is something that is worth a little laugh.Every instrument has its merit of the tone, and its limitations of the available notes to be played. You see, even if a score has all these notes written down, spanning across five octaves, most instruments have limited number of octaves that could be played.
Take for instance, a typical classical guitar (in standard tuning) only allow its player to play the E note in four octaves. From here, we can glean a profound and humbling insight. To gain the most out of a music, every different instrument, while having its individualistic personality, need other instrument to achieve a greater dynamic as a team. So the timeless principle of teamwork stand true here as well: together, everyone achieves more.
What can we learn from all these? Each instrument has its own merit because they provide an array of tone and every instrumentalist has his or her own style, which creates a marvelous orchestra of variety of interpretation in any music piece.
No doubt, two key ingredients to being a master of music is to be a master of BOTH the THEORY and the TECHNIQUE involved, where applicable. They are both important.