What’s Music Theory to Bluegrass Musicians (Berry)

Does Music Theory Matter to Bluegrass Musicians?

For different genres, beginning musicians are taught to play instruments and taught about music in different ways. In many genres, beginners focus on learning to read music and the theory of music as they learn to play their instruments. Bluegrass, however, is a little different. Bluegrass is a very social genre, and the way that many players learn is in a social setting, not in a classroom while learning the rules of music theory. There have been many successful bluegrass musicians who have never taken a music theory class or studied theory on their own, which raises the question: does music theory even matter to bluegrass musicians?

Many times, beginner bluegrassers are taught a few chords and maybe a few simple fiddle tunes before they begin to participate in jams, where they will learn different and increasingly complex techniques by watching their peers. This is very different from a classical music classroom, where a student will learn simple rules of music theory as they learn simple techniques on their instruments, and they will learn increasingly more difficult techniques as they progress. So, which learning technique is better? Or are both equally effective?

Having learned to play the trumpet in a classical setting and learning other instruments, like the guitar, in the bluegrass setting, I believe that each learning type has its benefits as well as its flaws. In an interview I conducted with Dr. Nate Olson, I found out his opinions on how learning music theory is helpful to bluegrass musicians. He said that music theory is important to all musicians, including bluegrassers, although they may not realize that the theoretical ideas are in their heads. He gave the example that a student in his theory class who hasn’t studied theory before is usually able to describe a piece of music in a theoretical way, although they may not be using the correct terms. He also said that there are some aspects of music theory that are very important to bluegrass musicians, including scales, chords, and harmonies.

So, why does this matter to students of bluegrass music? There have been musicians who have extensively studied music theory (Tony Rice) as well as musicians who haven’t studied theory at all (Jerry Douglas). Both of these musicians have become very successful in their careers. What’s the difference in these two artists? My answer comes from my interview with Dr. Olson. He said that he believes that both of these artists progressed in their music in their own way as quickly as they possibly could have. However, he said he has observed that among his fiddle students, the ones who use theory in their learning progress quicker as they are learning to come up with their own music.

This question of whether or not music theory matters to bluegrass musicians relates to a few topics discussed in Survey of Contemporary Bluegrass, and three will be discussed here.

  1. Richard Peterson’s book Creating Country Music explores the ideas of hard core and soft shell music. Peterson does not specifically talk about the study of music being hard core or soft shell, but he does mention that a singer with a trained voice is soft shell, while a singer with a rugged voice is hard core. This could lead one to believe that musical training and the study of music theory would be considered soft shell by Peterson.
  2. Robert Cantwell’s idea of the “Bluegrass House” is also very relevant to this idea. The obvious connection would be to the “parlor” of the bluegrass house, which is where music is learned from instructional books and other forms of written music. Attic music also relates to the learning of music theory, as it is a type of music that can be described as “academic.” Live performance, which is described as being on the front porch, also relates to music theory because many musicians use their knowledge of theory as they are playing their breaks as well as when they are playing the chords to back up other members of their band.
  3. The idea of authenticity can be thought of in different ways when considering music theory. Learning a piece of music from a transcription is not an authentic way to play. However, someone who is learned in music theory will be better able to come up with his or her own music, which will up the factor of authenticity.

In conclusion, music theory does matter to bluegrass musicians, but the study of music theory isn’t crucial to success. Although there are musicians who have become successful without studying music theory, many will progress more quickly and more efficiently with the help of music theory. To quote Dr. Olson, “Playing scales, all that kind of stuff, helps them progress more quickly for sure. But I don’t think that’s required. I don’t think you have to know music theory to be exceptional.”

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