Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Conversations on Applied Music Theory between a Physics Major and an English Major

Apologies that this is long-winded, but I think it’s awesome.

I love my friends and I love being able to have conversations like this with at least a handful of people who don’t think I’m crazy. Usually Hubs is also on that list, although we do tend to argue theory and semantics more than we perhaps should, which is why I skipped him this time and asked another friend instead. We have a group out here that is supposed to be about music theory, but we’re starting from scratch so we’re still on reading line and space notes… I won’t be particularly thrilled with the class until we actually get into time signatures at the very least.

For those of you who could care less, I suggest you skim down to the last paragraph or so of his response. Except he also uses algebraic theories to explain music, which made me giggle, a lot, out loud. I was an English major, and he is currently studying Physics; we are both musicians, but I would put is into the category labeled ‘serious’ instead of ‘professional.’ So, without further ado, Advanced Music Theory for Not-So-Dummies. Pardon incoming geek-squeal. PS, I like pretentious sounding strings of words. [emphasis added after the fact]


-----Original Message-----

On Mon, Dec 31, 2012 Karate Jones wrote:


      Heyyyyyyy, so sometimes it’s easier to talk to anyone besides Hubs about music, because, well, you know how he gets. I think you can give me a much simpler answer without dissecting it to bits. Chevelle writes most of their music in drop C. While it sounds amazing on the record, it’s annoying as piss when I try to learn their songs myself. We play “The Red” in standard E tuning. What is your best recommendation for transcribing their stuff to a playable level? And by that I really mean Drop D or Standard E. So and also, I guess, what are the open strings in C-standard versus Drop C?


From: Zaranil


Okay, I'll give you a really long explanation.... but at the end I'll sum it up so you can skip all this if you want.


      Standard tuning is when you have your guitar tuned normally like it always is, EADGBE.  Any standard tuning has this tuning pattern.  A drop tuning takes the "low E" string and detunes it a whole step, which allows you to play "power chords" by barring your finger across one fret.  So in drop tuning, the E changes and everything else stays the same.  I'm sure you knew all that, but just making sure we are on the same page. 

      I'll write this out like algebra for you because that will be fun.  You can have "x" standard tuning, where x is the note your "low E" string is tuned to, and the rest of the guitar follows the tuning pattern of a standard guitar based off whatever the "low E" string is.  For instance if you want to play C standard.  Well C is 2 whole steps lower than E.  So you will need to take a guitar in standard tuning and detune every string 2 whole steps.  In this instance your "low E" string is now a "low C" string, and pretending you could not tell the difference between 2 whole steps of tone, you could play your guitar and you would not notice the difference because all the strings are still relative to each other in a standard tuning.

      Drop tunings follow a similar idea, but you need to think a bit more to calculate how to tune.  So, you can have drop "x" tuning where x is the note your "low E" string is tuned to, but that note is one whole step lower than the rest of the guitar.  This is easy for drop D because the rest of the guitar doesn't change.  For anything below drop D, you need to detune the guitar.  So consider drop C.  We know then that the low E string is now a low C string, but we also know the C is detuned, so now we ask the question of, "detuned from what?"  Well a whole step above C is D.  So if the guitar was in D standard, (that is to say that every string is tuned a full step down from E) and we dropped the low string, then we would be at C.  So a drop C tuning is actually a D standard tuning, except the low string is a C instead of a D. 

      Why do this?  2 reasons.  1.) When you alter a standard tuning it means that the "open chords" for the guitar become different notes and 2.) The guitar can now play lower notes.  You may wonder, why not have "up tunings"?  For chords, this is what a capo does and the second reason is not really applicable because nobody needs a guitar that has a higher note, they already sound horrible as is at the top end.  If you wanted to play your guitar like normal, but you wanted everything to be lower, you would use a standard tuning that is lower, based on your needs.  A drop tuning is a bit different because it provides several advantages.  1.) A drop tuning, in a sense for rock, extends the range of the instrument.  The guitar can go plenty high already, no need to go higher, but a drop tuning can give all the comforts of a standard tuning on higher strings, and at the same time play a whole note lower if needed.  2.) A drop tuning allows for those 1 finger power chords which sound nifty in rock and possibly most importantly for rock, it allows you to play that lowest note (the whole reason you detuned in the first place) as a chord without using any fingers at all.... that is to say, strumming the lowest 3 strings open will make the lowest power chord, which is what rock is all about it seems.  This lets you play one finger power chords on frets 9-14 and then pepper in low open chords without moving your hands, which is how Chevelle plays like half their songs.

  Okay, very long explanation.  So can you play this shit in other tunings?  Sure, you can... but it just won't sound the same. You can totally play "The Red" in E standard instead of C# standard like Chevelle does.  Will it sound as good?  Nope.  When you change the tuning, you lose the whole advantage of detuning in the first place, which is that beefy low note.  Chevelle has several favorite tunings that all range from variations of C + or - a half tone that is dropped or not.  When you watch them play live you will notice their set list is built around tuning changes.  Since you know how the tuning is done, changing the notes back to a different tuning like drop D or E standard is easy, just adjust everything back by whatever the tuning change was.  It just won't sound the same.  For instance, E. always plays heart shaped box in drop D and it just doesn't sound as good as Nirvana playing it in drop Db.


  ***Long story short, tl;dr ***

  There is no easy way to transcribe the songs to drop D or E.  You just need to "undo" the tuning change, whatever it may be, note by note.  But also, you see now that is dumb.  You're basically doing a lot of extra work to make a song sound worse.  I keep my guitars in multiple tunings for this reason.


From: Karate Jones


It's good that music is based in math, because honestly I can't tab by ear worth SHIT.


So, double check my work here:

[on bass, also there are no notes listed above the bottom 3 strings anyways]


Standard E = EADG

Standard D = DGCF

Drop C     = CGCF


So wait, ok, this next one is supposedly Drop B. But that is only a half step below C, and I guess while it's fine and dandy to drop only a half step, that would put the strings at B F Bb D# which at first look makes NO SENSE and contradicts the principle of simplicity inherent in drop tunings. Soooooooo..... WTF.


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