Genre and Different Musical Traditions

In this book, I will explain theoretical musical concepts that will help you understand and reproduce the music you are hearing, whether you are hearing it in your imagination, on a recording, or in person. But I can’t possibly teach you every concept. That would fill many books, and I certainly don’t have the breadth of knowledge to do that. So, I had to choose which concepts to teach you, and which ones to leave out. How did I choose?

I want the concepts I teach you to be as broadly applicable as possible. I want to show you things that will apply to any genre you choose to play. At the very least, I want the knowledge in this book to give you a solid foundation, so you’ll have the tools to build more musical knowledge to suit your style. I’m not going to teach you how to become a rock and roll musician, but I will give you the tools to make becoming a rock and roll musician much easier and more satisfying.

Is there a common language between all of the different genres of the world? Mathematics and physics might have something to say about that. The way notes fit together to create harmony seems to be determined by the mathematical relationships between the frequencies of the notes. And, most rhythms all around the world are based on a steady pulse, along with different mathematical divisions of that pulse.

There are exceptions to these mathematical rules, however. Some cultures have developed genres of music that sound “out of tune” to a western musician, and I’ve heard rhythms that couldn’t be described in terms of simple fractions. In the past, the music of these cultures would live and evolve in relative isolation, creating a unique musical ecosystem. Describing these musical traditions in terms of western scales and rhythms might not make sense. However, music all over the world has been affected by globalization. The music of Michael Jackson is enjoyed all around the world. Many of the older musical traditions are still around (some of them, sadly, are not), but the people who carry these traditions might also be listening to Bob Marley, The Beatles, or Justin Bieber.

You may not believe it, but Bob Marley, The Beatles, and Justin Bieber all use the same basic musical language. These three artists use the same scales, chords, and rhythmic building blocks. You’ll find these same concepts in Rock and Roll, Hip Hop, Folk, Metal, Electronic, Jazz, R&B, Country, Afrobeat, K-Pop, Blues, Ska, Dubstep, Flamenco, and 99 percent of all modern sub-genres (with the possible exception of experimental and avant-garde music). Even though these genres differ in how they put the basic building blocks together, the building blocks are the same. Sometimes a second layer of musical concepts can be developed that are particular to one genre, but the building blocks are never fully discarded. Using the language metaphor, Shakespeare may have used the concept of “iambic pentameter”, but he never discarded the use of nouns and verbs.

In this book, I’m going to focus on the basics - the musical concepts that are common to all modern genres of western music. I’m not going to teach you about counterpoint, because that concept is found mainly in classical music. I’m not going to teach you about tri-tone substitutions, because that concept is mainly found in jazz. I will teach you about major and minor scales because these are used in all modern genres. I will teach you about quarter notes and eighth notes because rhythms around the world use these basic building blocks.