Why and How to Learn Theory, with Matthew Scott Phillips and Jeremy Burns

Today on the Musicality Podcast, we have two guests joining us on the show: Matthew Scott Phillips and Jeremy Burns, who together host the Music Student 101 podcast, a terrific show that dives deep into music theory in a way that makes it easy to understand, as well as covering other topics like music careers, different instruments, and tips for bands.

Matthew and Jeremy are based in Birmingham, Alabama, and although they studied some of the same courses at university together, their musical lives have taken them in quite different directions. Matthew is the award-winning composer of over 70 instrumental and vocal works in a wide range of musical styles, and is now a professor of music at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Jeremy runs Area 47 Sound, where he has recorded sound for commercials, documentary, film, national news, and prime time television. He’s also a bassist, performing live with three bands.

We’re regular listeners of the Music Student 101 podcast and often recommend it to people who ask us how they can brush up on their music theory – so we were really delighted when they agreed to come on our podcast and share their own experiences and insights.

In this episode we talk about:

  • How music theory and ear training have played a part in two quite different music careers – one into academia and composing, the other into performance and live sound recording
  • The big mindset shift you need to make learning music theory fun and successful
  • The core skill that underlies having a good ear, and bridges the gap between musical ear training and audio ear training

And we ask them the very blunt question: “Is there a point to doing a music degree?”

If you’ve ever questioned the usefulness of music theory or a music degree – or wondered if they’re things you’re missing out on, this conversation with Matthew and Jeremy is going to provide you with some real wisdom and insight.

Listen to the episode:

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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Jeremy and Matthew. Thank you for joining us today.

Jeremy: Well, thank you for having us.

Matthew: Thank you.

Christopher: I’d love to start with a little bit about your beginnings in music and maybe Matthew, you can go first.

Matthew: Okay.

Christopher: Can you tell me what was it like for you learning music, early on?

Matthew: Well, let’s see. I grew up with an extended family of musicians. My grandfather played guitar, both of my grandmothers played piano. I had an uncle that played several instruments and from about ten or eleven on through adolescence I spent a lot of time just playing with these family members and it was largely playing by ear. My grandmother did teach me to read a little bit and music just sort of became my identity by the time I was fifteen or sixteen, and so when I was a little older and all my friends were looking around, “What am I going to go to college to do?” – you know, I was looking through potential majors for universities and I saw that there was such a thing as a music major. As soon as I saw that, it’s like, well, “That’s what I’m doing.”

So, yeah, I got to college, I learned a lot in college. I could read a little bit but I learned to read much better, you know, I learned much more about theory in my first few years of college and I’ve never really looked back. A musician is just what I am and it’s just always been that way, really.

Christopher: That’s really interesting that you started out with the playing by ear style of learning and it was moving to college where you filled in the more academic side of things – because at this point, you are a very academic-oriented musician.

Matthew: Yeah. I even call myself an academic, a music academic at this point. Yeah, and I definitely know music academics that did it the other way. They sort of were interested in the academic side of music and through that learned. But, yeah. I started off just sort of playing by ear, playing gospel hymns, a lot of it, and bluegrass tunes and things like that and did that for years, played in bands all through college, and so, you know, I feel like I sort of have a foot on two sides of the fence.

Christopher: And how about you, Jeremy? How does compare with your own music start?

Jeremy: It’s not too far different. When I was about, I guess, ten years old, is when I first started taking an interest – even before when I lived in Montgomery, my Dad had a guitar and I would pluck it and make noises and they’d go, like, “Oh, that sounds great!” Looking back, it probably sounded like crap, but they were very encouraging. My parents never told me not to do that, you know, so I took an interest in the guitar. Then I saw this video, “The Final Countdown”, by Europe, and I said —

Matthew: (Sings) The Final Countdown…doo, doo.

Jeremy: … deedle-dee!

Christopher: I love that.

Jeremy: — and I was like, “Man, I want to make those noises.”

Christopher: (Laughs)

Jeremy: So I got this guitar from Service Merchandise and I said, “Dammit, I can’t get my guitar to make that noise,” and he said, “I think that’s a keyboard you’re hearing.”

Matthew: (Laughs)

Jeremy: So I got a keyboard, because at the time, the Katz USK-1 sampling keyboard was all the rave, and so I ended up making cool little sounds with that. And then eventually taking an interest in getting these little Mel Bay books and learning little, melodies and stuff like that.

Matthew: Yeah.

Jeremy: Fast forwarding to high school is when I started to pick up. I was getting into Faith No More and the Cure, some of the keyboard, bass bands or with keyboards in them. And so, it was kind of keyboard that I was into and then the necessity for a bass player came up in the band that I was in.

Christopher: Yeah.

Jeremy: And so, I put down the keyboard and picked up the bass and I’ve been hooked as a bass player ever since.

Matthew: Yeah, that actually happened to me in high school. I was playing in a garage band with my high school buddies and there was — there were no bass players, so I made my Dad promise that if I got all A’s on my report card that he would buy me a bass, and sure enough, that was the one time I got all A’s.

Jeremy: I think Paul McCartney was a bassist, by default.

Matthew: Yeah, that may have been true, yeah.

Christopher: I wonder what proportion it is that are bassists out of necessity? I was the same. I was a guitar player as a teenager until I needed to join a band and they needed a bassist rather than a guitarist, and I was like, “Well, it’s fewer strings. It’s probably fine.”

Matthew: Yeah.

Jeremy: I think it’s probably a surprising percentage of bass players who were just like that – because, you don’t think about the bass until someone makes you play the bass, right?

Christopher: Mm-hm.

Jeremy: But then —

Christopher: I think we all come to know and love it, though, right?

Jeremy: I do, yeah. I think that when you’re a bass player, once that bass is in your hands it feels, you know, it feels right, and then you come to consider yourself a bass player, not a guitarist who can play bass, and, you know, there are people out there like that, but I am a bass player, that is my instrument. If people ask me what do I play, that’s the first one I say.

Matthew: It took a bit, but I can officially say I’m a bassist, as well.

Jeremy: Yeah, but that was my high school experience, and then I continued playing bass into college. I wasn’t really thinking about getting a music degree because I figured, I kind of had the same misconception or maybe just preconceived notion that a music degree might not get you a very good –

Matthew: What are you gonna do with that?

Jeremy: Exactly. Yeah, so. But it wasn’t until I took this music basics – I guess it was an intro to music kind of class with Ronald Clemens over at UAB, and he was just so fantastic, and he really started to make everything that I was hearing and knowing what I thought I knew about music starting to piece it together, give it names, give it pictures, give it things that I can actually make sense of the whole thing, and that’s when music theory really started to take off for me, and that’s where I really got just completely in love with it. I just had to, you know, check it out and learn more about it, and I felt like it was increasing my communication with the band I was playing in. We were all in the same music theory class at the time, so it really amplified our growth together.

Christopher: That’s really cool, and I think it might be surprising for people to hear that, you know, the two hosts of a podcast that covers music theory in quite a lot of detail actually both started out not so in touch with the theory side of things. You weren’t really book learning, note-by-note musicians, by the sound of it. It was only when you got to college that that aspect of music opened up to you.

Jeremy: That’s very true.

Matthew: Garage punks, even.

Jeremy: Garage punks, I would say, garage punks. Yeah, in my formative years theory seemed like this vast, quasi-magical sort of almost…

Matthew: Inaccessible.

Jeremy: …inaccessible tome of things, you know. I mean, someone would kind of half-way teach me what the major scale was and I would halfway get it, but not enough for me to use it in any way – even though I would try desperately and I would buy books that said, “Well, this is how to make a C chord on the guitar,” or a D chord or something. But I always felt like there was stuff out there that I wasn’t getting and when I went to college, one of the – I think what attracted me to it was all of a sudden was that here are these people who say, “Well, here’s the stuff you’ve not been getting,” and I ate it up. It was very eye-opening and it allows me to do what I do now, musically, really.

Christopher: Terrific. And I’d love to ask you more about that, that it allows you to do what you do. And I think,  Matthew, you are a professional composer as well as an academic and I think it’s relatively easy for the audience to imagine why theory is important to a composer. And Jeremy, maybe it’s less easy for people to imagine – you are a gigging music as well as a professional sound recording engineer…

Jeremy: Correct.

Christopher: …and production engineer, I believe. How does music theory play a part in your life, these days, or how has it changed the way you are interacting with music?

Jeremy: Well, I think once I got to a certain level where I could easily communicate with any other musician I was playing with — most of the people I play in bands with aren’t music majors, you know? So it took a very base knowledge for me to be able to use it in the practical world, but then at some point, I just decided that I wanted to know it better. I wanted to get my ears to where I – it was really mainly for ear training, for me. And I started looking around for these podcasts that featured any kind of knowledge or musical examples. There was no musical examples out there. How could you do ear training without musical examples?

Matthew: U.S. copyright laws are the problem.

Jeremy: Yeah.

Matthew: Believe us, I mean, we get into that a lot.

Jeremy: But me and Matt – even long after college we would go and hang out at J. Clyde and have a few beers and start talking about the music world and there were times when he would be bringing up things and he was just really passionate and almost frustrated sometimes about some things and I was like, “I want to know what he’s talkin’ about.”

Matthew: (Laughs)

Jeremy: You know what I mean? “I want to be able to continue this conversation.” So that was one of the things. Okay, so not a lot of really good podcasts out there that have, you know, musical examples and actually are entertaining. God, there’s a lot of audio books out there that are just dry, really dry, boring things to listen to.

Christopher: Hm.

Jeremy: Technical? Man, you can’t throw that at people and expect them to really get into it. So that was the necessity. I don’t know, I’m not sure if I’m answering your question.

Christopher: (Laughs)

Jeremy: But that need for the theory knowledge brought me back into it and now that I’m back into doing this podcast I’m kind of re-learning my college education, here with Doctor Matt and it’s just been really cool and now I can speak the language a little bit better and hear things way better.

Matthew: True.

Jeremy: And it’s made a big difference. And you’re in your service, as well, just sitting down doing the exercises. I’m 40 years old. I’ve been doing this since I was about 15 and I still learn something new every day and that’s one of the more gratifying, cool things about it.

Matthew: And being solid in music theory, and yes, you’re right, it’s easy to see as a composer how I use theory. Playing in bands – this is something I’ve discovered, too – you and your band misunderstand music the less any of you are stabbing in dark for what you want to do, whether that is songwriting, whether that is doing your take on a cover that you all like, whether that is learning to play covers that you all like, the more each of you both internally understand how this music is working and externally can communicate it to each other, the more you can do that, the less stabbing in the dark you are, the less time it’s going to take to learn that cover, the less you’re going to struggle with sounding different from other bands, the less you’re going to struggle with finding your own voice. It’s subtle. It’s not a question of, “Well, I’m not going to be able to play unless I know what F sharp Lydian mode is.”

Christopher: Mm-hm.

Matthew: But if you know what F sharp Lydian mode is and you understand how that works then you can write songs that are in F sharp Lydian, you know, and stabbing in the dark is a great analogy to what we’re doing when we’re trying to figure out how to learn songs with limited ear training knowledge.

Jeremy: Oh, yeah, and ear training, definitely. I mean, there’s a world of difference between, “That was not the right note. That was not the right note, that was not the right note,” and going, “Oh, well he’s arpeggiating a minor chord, there.”

Christopher: I think that’s a lovely description of how music theory can empower you as a musician and it can help open up opportunities in your music-making that may be otherwise closed off. At the same time, I think a minute ago, Matthew, you described music theory before college as a kind of magical and overwhelming thing.

Matthew: Yes.

Christopher: And so, for our listeners who are in that position, maybe they’re pre-college or maybe they’re adults and they’ve never really studied the theory, for you guys at college and maybe how you think about teaching theory now, is there a trick to making it less intimidating and overwhelming? Is there a way of teaching theory that means it’s not, like, a big textbook that you need to plow through before you understand how to do anything?

Matthew: I think step one to accomplishing that goal is, don’t think of it, yourself, as a big textbook to plow through. I feel like a lot of people, even a lot of people who teach theory still treat it that way, still think of it in mind, “Well, these are the rules.”

Jeremy: Mm-hm. Yeah.

Matthew: And there’s a lot of rules and they’re complicated. Just the word, “music theory,” just the word, “theory” is enough to — yeah, it’s an —

Jeremy: It’s intimidating.

Matthew: Yeah. It can intimidate some people.

Jeremy: It sounds scientific.

Matthew: Yeah. So I think step one, for me, anyway, is to understand what I think music theory is and what I think music theory is, is the process of studying how music works so that we can understand why it does what it does. The word, “rule” is really not in my lexicon where music theory is concerned, not in a general sense.

Now, there’s — okay, if you’re specifically wanting to write a four-part choral harmony or something, you know, there are some rules you got to follow, because that’s what you’re wanting to do, but in a general term, you know, theory is not a set of rules, it’s basically looking at, “Well, here’s all this music that has come before us, you know, and this is what is going on in this music, and it makes this feel this way. We like it for these reasons. Why is that? ” You know, “How does it do that?” It’s more of a process of discovery and I think that if you understand that, it’s easier to communicate that to other people, you know. You know, I try very hard not to slam down a set of rules and say, “This is how you write music,” you know. What I try to do is say, “This is kind of the way music has worked up until now.” There are exceptions to everything…

Jeremy: Of course.

Matthew: … but, you know, this song makes you feel really sad, or this song, it feels like it is moving forward to a conclusion in a way that songs I write or whatever may not be doing that. Well, there is a music principle reason for that, you know, and I find that’s easier for people to deal with. It’s less intimidating to think, “Well, this is sort of like a secret thing I can discover,” than thinking, “Well, this is a whole lot of stuff that I have to learn before I can consider myself an educated musician.”

Christopher: Mm-hm. I think that definitely comes through on the Music Student 101 podcast. You guys talk about it in terms of understanding how music works and you often start from the idea in music and then work back to the rules rather than saying, “Here are the 17 things you need to know about figured bass and the Renaissance,” you know?

Matthew: Yeah, because does anybody want to hear that?

Jeremy: No.

Matthew: I mean, I don’t want to know the rules of figured bass and the Renaissance. I mean, I do, but, I don’t want to know. Yeah, ’cause that’s a great example of the exact kind of pedagogy that I think can intimidate, you know, not only people who are, you know, older and didn’t get a music degree but they’re passionate musicians, but also people who are trying to get a music degree now, you know, and are trying to learn that, saying, you know, “These are the rules of counterpoint,” or, you know, “Know parallel fifths,” and all this other stuff, and, you know, it can be intimidating for them. I think one of our original visions of this podcast was for anybody who is intimidated by this stuff to have, sort of, a, another tool, another resource that could sort of help them understand implying, in a sense, that we can help them be less intimidated.

I don’t know if we ever mentioned that as a specific goal, but. I hope it helps that I’m willing to, kind of, put myself out there as not really being all that brilliant from time to time. I’m willing to get things wrong and then we talk about why I got it wrong. It’s maybe a little more approachable. I’m hoping that helps out a little bit.

Christopher: It certainly does. It makes the — I think you play the part of the listener in a lot of situations and…

Matthew: I try. Thank you.

Christopher: …you ask the question that’s on everyone’s mind and that makes it so much easier, I think, for people to follow and understand and feel like they’re getting it.

Matthew: That’s what I go for, actually.

Jeremy: Yeah, and he’s far too modest, by the way. He’s much more knowledgeable than he necessarily lets on.

Matthew: Oh, go on. Seriously, go on.

Christopher: (Laughs) So…

Matthew: Nah, go ahead.

Christopher: …one other topic you covered on the show is music degrees and music careers and I know that part of your target audience is kind of that aspiring professional musician who is considering or partly going through a music degree at the moment, and I’d love to hear your perspective for a moment because we live in an incredible day and age for self-learning and internet resources and, in fact, your own podcast’s a perfect example of the amazing stuff that’s at our fingertips to learn things ourselves in the world of music. So, I’m just going to ask the blunt question. Is there a point to doing a music degree?

Matthew: Would you like to take that one?

Jeremy: Yeah, maybe I’ll take a stab. Um, heh, heh, are you going to edit the time it takes me to think about this? (Laughter) (Crosstalk) I just feel like if I didn’t get, if I didn’t end up in a school of music I certainly would not have been opened up to all these other things that I’m learning about in music, but I think that these things are now pretty accessible, but, again, thanks to podcasts like yours and this one. Um, where does it come in handy to have a degree? It almost seems like there’s a certain amount of — what do you call it — valid, valid —

Matthew: Vindication, or validation, or something.

Jeremy: — or, just, yeah, I mean, if you have a different — if you want to actually go into teaching music, or especially on the college level, then I think that’s absolutely necessary, you know?

Matthew: Oh, yeah. You’re not going to teach college without, but what are other places that you use your degree, if not teaching…

Jeremy: Um, you know…

Matthew: …other than just being a musician, a better, well-rounded, musician who can communicate better to other musicians and…

Jeremy: Yeah. For one thing, that — I think that’s extremely valuable. Being the musician who has a college degree versus being the one who bought an instrument and took some lessons, having the college degree means you went through the process of perfecting your aural training and your aural understanding to this level. It means you went through the process of, you know, reaching this level of music theory, reaching this level of instrument proficiency.

Matthew: Discipline.

Jeremy: Yeah. And…

Matthew: Discipline, for sure.

Jeremy: …discipline, and things, and that degree represents that, you know, and this is what, you know, I talk a lot about, you know, what separates people who want a degree from, you know, just lessons, is, there is a level of ability there and when you have that degree, you have that thing saying, “This person can do this.” It’s not necessarily that any of those things can not be accomplished without going to getting a degree. That’s — I don’t think that’s true. You can accomplish these things.

Matthew: Yeah.

Jeremy: Going to get that degree is something you want to do if you want to be a professional musician and you want to say to the world, “I have reached this level of proficiency and you should treat me as such,” when you’re, you know, booking gigs, when you’re hunting for jobs, you know, or looking to hire musicians, you know…

Matthew: Studio musicians…

Jeremy: Yes, absolutely.

Matthew: …need to be able to speak the language, I would imagine.

Jeremy: Yeah. Yeah, because some of those studio people, you know, they want you in, they want you recorded, and they want you out. Time is money, you know?

Matthew: Mm-hm.

Jeremy: But it’s not as laid back as, you know, some things are, you know, like —

Matthew: Not to say there aren’t plenty of studio musicians who don’t know a lick of theory, you know?

Jeremy: That is true, yeah.

Matthew: Just do it by feel.

Jeremy: Yeah, but they can sight read.

Christopher: So, I think you’ve touched on something important, there, which is, you know, even in a case like being a studio musician or sitting in on a gig, even if no one is going to ask to see your certificate and they don’t think they care about the qualification, it is representative that you’ve put in the time, you’ve studied all of the core areas and you’ve reached a certain level.

Jeremy: Yeah.

Christopher: It’s kind of a shorthand for the level you’ve reached as a musician.

Jeremy: Yeah. They care about how good you are, right? And for a lot of people getting a degree is the fastest way to get good enough to be recognized by those people.

Christopher: Okay. So it sounds like if I put an imaginary 18-yea-old in front of you guys and they were passionate about music and they said, “I really want to do this for my life. I don’t know quite what job I want in music, but I want to be a professional musician. Should I go to college for music?” It sounds like both of you would say, “Yes. It’s a good idea.”

Matthew: My answer would be, “Yes.”

Jeremy: Yes.

Matthew: My answer would be, “Okay. Which college is best for you?”

Jeremy: Yeah.

Matthew: It would be a given that they need to go.

Jeremy: It was a great experience. It really was life-changing for me.

Matthew: Mm-hm.

Christopher: Okay. So let me give you a different imaginary person. If we take someone who’s maybe forty years old, they’ve always played guitar. They love playing. It’s their hobby. It’s their passion, but they’ve always felt really sheepish that they didn’t study theory, they didn’t go to college for music. They worry that they’re being held back because they don’t necessarily have the music history or music theory or composition skills. What can they do apart from turn back the clock and go to music college?

Jeremy: Hm. Well, there’s a great podcast. (Laughs) And, in all seriousness, we think about these people whom we’re podcasting. First of all, you know, my grandfather, who taught me to play guitar when I was small was not an educated musician, neither was either one of my grandmothers, you know, no one in my family. For a long time, my friends were not, you know, quote-end-quote, educated college musicians. I know more now, obviously, who are college musicians, but I’ll tell you this. If what you want is to have your life enriched by music, by playing music and listening to music, if what you want is to just enjoy this part of your life and get some good out of it for yourself, personally, and even for some other people around you, there is no reason to feel sheepish or inferior about that, in my opinion, okay, and that’s what I think about your podcast, because you seem to emphasize that, that it’s never too late to start learning music, you know? It’s never too late to get a better understanding.

And, actually, when we first started our podcast, we actually — I feel like we kind of really targeted more of the college level musician and then we decided we really need to branch out and make it more accessible to more people.

Matthew: Yeah.

Jeremy: So, we’re kind of hoping. And part of that effort was to make it more approachable, more kind of like you’re just talking to a couple of dudes.

Matthew: Yeah. We’ve really branched out. When we started we really were trying to say, “Well, this is how you’ll survive college theory,” but…

Jeremy: You’re right.

Matthew: …as we’ve gone in our audience has sort of given us a lot of good feedback. We’ve gotten to know our audience more and things. Yeah, we’ve really kind of moved over into that, into the exact kind of demographic you’re talking about, there, where people, you know, say, “Well, you know, I love playing music, you know, I don’t, you know, I don’t know as much as I’d like to about theory or anything,” and, yeah, we try to help them with that. Other than, you know, turning back the clock, you know, yeah. It’s never too late to start learning music.

Jeremy: Mm-hm.

Matthew: It’s, it really, really isn’t.

Christopher: Do you think it’s realistic that someone, you know, if they were considering doing night classes or maybe an online course with Berklee versus using free or paid resources online and kind of self-teaching, how realistic do you think it is to go it alone rather than following the college syllabus?

Matthew: That will all depend upon that person’s discipline.

Jeremy: Hm. Yeah.

Matthew: The hardest thing I find, and, you know, we’re kind of, I, this question is, sort of touches on, sort of, how I feel about online courses in general, you know, and online learning in general. What I find is that it is difficult, for me, at least, to stay disciplined about learning things to that level of coming back without at least a human contact person saying, you know, “Did you study today? Did you do your homework this week?”

Jeremy: Accountability.

Matthew: Accountability. Yeah. That’s a good word. Yeah. That accountability can be valuable. I definitely know people who don’t need, who are perfectly capable of holding themselves accountable.

Jeremy: Oh, I wish I was one of those.

Matthew: I wish I was one of those people, too. So, but, yeah, you know, even if you do some online courses, just like we’re saying, that accountability, that, you know, “Well, this is where you should be at week one, week two, week three,” can be very, very helpful in structuring what you, you know. But, it’s all what you want, you know. If you just want to learn this because it’s something that is, you feel enriched by knowing and it helps, this understanding is something that is fun for you to have and there is not really a time limit on that, then, you know, there’s, you know, the internet is a great place. Go out there and find what you can find and learn what you can learn.

Jeremy: And by sitting down and doing it, I promise you that you’ll have enough passion about this that you can carry yourself. You don’t have to tell, you don’t, I don’t have to have someone say, “Get on Musical U and learn your pitches.”

Matthew: Yeah. Right.

Jeremy: I’m going to situation down and do that because that’s what I’m in the mood for, you know?

Matthew: Yeah. Absolutely. If I knew I would get an F by not doing that one week, I would probably be way further along.

Christopher: Yeah. It’s a tricky one. I — obviously, I have quite a personal connection with this world of online music courses and I’ve given a lot of thought to why they work or don’t work and I think I absolutely agree with you that often it’s not the quality of the material that matters all that much. There’s a lot of good quality free stuff out there, but pulling it together in a cohesive way and putting yourself on a step-by-step course for yourself, even if it’s, you know, very informal a course that you know is moving towards your goal and having some kind of support and guidance so that when you go off track or you missed a week someone is there to get you back on track.

Jeremy: Yeah.

Christopher: I think it’s a huge deal.

Matthew: And guidance can be important, because everybody learns differently. Yeah. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, it can be almost impossible to put together an online course or a college course or any kind of course that just by way of its brilliant construction is going to be pedagogically perfect for everybody. So having that person that you can go up to or email or anything to say, “I have a question about this. I have a — you know, I’m so confused about this,” and getting that sort of personal feedback can be really, really invaluable.

Jeremy: I think that’s what your community kind of provides, you know? I think before the term, “snowflake,” became — a beautiful thing like snowflake — became such a derogatory term and it actually really kind of encompassed what I think about musicians. They’re all, everyone is so different and there’s not one course that can tailor to everybody’s needs, but you guys have a course where people can kind of talk back and forth and they can talk to you and you talk to them and, kind of, all figure out this thing, together, you know? I think that really makes a big difference.

Matthew: That’s a wonderful resource. It really is.

Christopher: Thank you. Well, that’s the hope, really, is that the community and the team being in there. I mean, it’s not the end of the world if you get stuck or you get confused or you get overwhelmed. You have that support system in place, but at the same time, it’s a work in progress, and I think we’re all still figuring out the right balance for online learning in terms of accountability and support and structure versus a bit more free-form, and, you know, particularly for the adult hobbyist, they don’t necessarily want someone badgering them every day making sure they’ve done their practice. At the same time, some of us need a bit of accountability to make progress.

Jeremy: My students don’t want people badgering them.

Matthew: What was that last part? I’m sorry.

Christopher: So, I was just saying, some of us need that accountability to really make progress, so, yeah, it’s a balance we need to find, I think. So, you guys started out with a slightly similar musical background. You both went to college and studied music, but you’ve taken your careers in quite different trajectories and I think that’s part of what makes the show so perfect, is one of you is coming from a more academic angle and the other from a more practical performance angle and I’d love to hear about how music theory and ear skills and ear training have factored into those quite different trajectories, and maybe Jeremy you could go first.

Jeremy: Sure. Um, well, the obvious things that you think about in music in the ear training is just being able to recognize chords and melodies and scales and stuff like that and being able to replicate things faster or repeat them or do them faster and come up with your own things, where it’s, kind of, bleeds over into my other line of work, which is location sound recording. Okay, so for those of you who don’t know what this is, it’s kind of, like, you see a T.V. show being shot. There’s the guy with the microphone, there’s the guy with the mixer, there’s a sound person and every person talking has a wireless microphone hidden in their clothes. I’m the guy that mixes it all, and when we’re, kind of, conducting interviews I can use my knowledge of frequencies.

For example, the human voice. There’s a frequency range that the human occupies. So, if you’ve got, like, a really low rumbly air conditioner over here, I don’t have to stop the whole shoot and be like, “Okay, guys, we’ve got to do something about this air conditioner.” I know that the editor can roll off a certain number of low frequencies. I can use my own judgment based on what I’m hearing to be more effective and show people that I can do a really good job, you know, and also, I think, just, the whole, you know, identifying frequencies for mixing live sound, hearing a feedback, hearing some, like, a note ring on feedback, you can kind of be, like, “Oh. I know what that is. Hey, take your, you know — let’s EQ this frequency out,” you know?
That’s where it’s become kind of a little more practical to me as far as ear training in my line of work. Does that make sense?

Christopher: Hm. It does, and was that something that came up during your college time, or something you learned after?

Jeremy: Yeah. My degree was actually music tech, so that would have put me in a recording studio, you know, cracking bands and musicians and stuff, and somehow I ended up taking that out into the field. Long story of how I arrived at that, but that, definitely, my music tech degree, lent itself to that.

Christopher: Hm, and how much do you feel you have been able to bridge those two worlds of, kind of, the audio ear training and ear skills with the more musical ear skills?

Jeremy: I think it just happens naturally. It just seems to, they just seem to work together. I’m not sure how to describe exactly how that —

Christopher: I ask partly because I think in our own material, we’ve always put quite a hard divide there and so we talk to the musicians about, you know, know certain chords and scales and so on, and then we talk to the audio engineer guys about frequencies and mixing and production and I’m always conscious that there is at least some overlap, obviously, between pitch and frequency. There’s comparisons that you can make, but also just in the sense of critical listening and active listening and being able to kind of dissect a sound by ear and a way that the lay person is not really family with.

Jeremy: Oh. That’s a big part of it, actually. Um, another thing, when it comes to editorial — and I’m listening as an editor, I’m always — everything I’m listening to — again, I don’t really know how that goes with, coincides with music, other than being a critical listener. When you’re recording music, you’re really putting it under a microscope and you’re listening for background noises and things that could kind of sully the overall sound. I mean, that’s kind of come in handy.

Christopher: Hm.

Jeremy: Yeah. As far as in music.

Matthew: There is an entire art form called, “electronic music composition” in which, you know, people create musical pieces that generally don’t use musical notes, at all. They use sampled sounds and digital audio recordings, you know, and it’s probably something that we should get into, at some point.

Jeremy: Oh, 20th century.

Matthew: Yeah, man. It’s coming.

Jeremy: Yeah. 21st century.

Matthew: But, yeah, so, it — I’ve feel like Jeremy’s right. I feel like it’s the same skill, you know, listening to a pitch or listening to a frequency, you know, it’s really just a difference of semantics.

Jeremy: A lot of people hear, very few are listening when it comes to just background sounds and sounds and, really, the way people talk and everything you hear, really.

Matthew: Yeah. And that same sentence could be said about listening to pieces of music. Many people hear, very few people listen.

Jeremy: Mm-hm. It’s not a bad thing. Just is what it is.

Christopher: So, Matthew, how would you say ear training and music theory have shaped the composer you’ve become, or, how have you drawn on those over the years to develop your skills as a composer?

Matthew: This probably won’t come as a surprise to you, but I approach composition fairly intellectually compared to some composers, not so much compared to others, but my theory is, it is how I have, sort of, shaped my overall voice over the years, so I will, you know, I will have musical ideas that I think I can make a piece out of, and from one piece of music to the next those piece, those ideas will be completely different and can come from any number of places, but when you look at the style I compose in as a whole, or the, sort of, my personal voice as a whole, this is defined very much not only by music theory in general, but by the specific music theories that I happen to be interested in at this point of my life or at the next point of my life and things like that.

I kind of, I tend to really understand music through theory. I really, really do. And when I go to create music that doesn’t exist, whether I’m consciously doing this or not, the first thing I think is, what kind of theory, what is the theory behind this, you know, whether this is a, you know, a piece of tonal harmony or, you know, a piece that is polytonal or pandiatonic or, you know, I could solicit a lot of words here, but, I’m approaching theory from the very beginning, and then ear training is how I know whether I like what I’m doing or not.

Jeremy: Ahh.

Matthew: Without that ear training, you know, I feel like I probably would go, “Okay, well, those are notes, I guess. There’s are a lot of notes. I guess this is a composition,” but it is my ear training that allows me to say, “Well” —

Jeremy: “Why do I appreciate that?”

Matthew: — yeah. “Why do I appreciate that? These are, these are the notes that are doing the thing that I want,” you know, or, “These are not the notes that are doing the thing that I want and I need different ones,” so. So yeah, it, really, my compositions are formed by my theory in ways that just, they’re just so many and so integral that it’s really almost hard to separate the two.

Christopher: Hm. I think you described that beautifully. So you guys are the cohosts of a very popular podcast, “Music Student, 101” that we’ve mentioned a couple of times. It’s been running for about a year and a half, I believe, and you have a very lovely, relaxed style presenting the show, and, you know, it’s a pleasure to listen to. You feel like you’re just hanging out with a couple of guys, talking about music theory, but —

Jeremy: We really are. That’s really what we’re doing.

Christopher: Well, at the same time, I know firsthand how much effort goes in to making a podcast episode, so I’d love to ask you guys, you know, what motivated you to go to such lengths to create such a wonderful resource for people?

Matthew: It was all Jeremy’s idea. He got me about four beers…

Jeremy: (Laughs)

Matthew: …in, and then, you know, said, “Why don’t you come to a podcast?”

Jeremy: He said yes, and that was it. I was like, “Hey, you said yes after those four beers.”

Matthew: Yeah.

Jeremy: Um, no, it does, it does take a lot, man. It really does, and I think, just, for me, it was almost a personal thing for me, because there was just nothing out there, so I was just going to create it. There was nothing out there that did what I required, that had, that, there was no music podcast out there that gave what I required, you know, and I was like, “Well, I guess I’m gonna have to do it myself,” you know, so now I’m kind of sitting here learning more about theory and in the meantime, you know, sharing that with other people from my perspective. And like you said, I try to ask questions that I think most normal people would try and ask, you know? So.

Matthew: I feel like I really believe in what it is that we have been trying to do, you know, to give a resource to people who can’t walk into a college music classroom and learn this stuff, you know. I am big on education. I believe in education as a right, you know, I feel like people who wan to know things ought to be able to learn those things and so, to me, I had a lot of, I really believed in, sort of, the mission of the thing as Jeremy described it to me, you know, after I had had about beer three, but I really believed in it and I thought this was something that was really good to do, and it’s been fun, you know? I get to, I tell people my job basically consists of me running my mouth about things that I know about and, you know, it’s the greatest job in the world in a lot of ways and this is just another extension of it, to me.

Christopher: Very cool. So, I’m sure everyone listening is super curious at this point to go and listen to your show and we’ll have a direct link in the show notes where you can go to musicstudent101.com. If someone is diving in, you’ve got — I didn’t count, but at least 40 episodes, so far, maybe more.

Matthew: We’re on 33 now, actually.

Jeremy: 33.

Christopher: 33. Okay. And so, if someone is wanting to dive in, would you recommend starting with the most recent, starting in the beginning? What kinds of things can they find in that archive of the episodes and where should they begin?

Matthew: I would say, definitely start at the beginning…

Jeremy: Yeah.

Matthew: …and if some of the early ones are things where you can think, “Okay. Well, I already know this stuff,” you know, go ahead and skip forward. I think — and we’re just now really kind of getting to this point where we are, we’re talking about things now that are going to be hard to understand unless you had a good grip on what we were talking about a few episodes ago.

Jeremy: It’s definitely a sequence.

Matthew: Yeah. Yeah. And so, I would say, start at the beginning. If the beginning, beginning, beginning is too simple for you then go ahead and skip ahead a little bit until you get to that place where you feel like it’s challenging enough.

Jeremy: Yeah. The sequence we’re using is kind of loosely based on the sequence that we were put through in school and the one that Matt is teaching, currently. He’s teaching theory at the university and so, that’s kind of the sequence we use. At the same time, we try and pepper in some little special topics things to kind of, you know, give the people’s minds a break from all the crazy theory and also just to kind of keep things interesting and cover other topics that are music-related. Ultimately, we want to cover as many music topics as necessary, but I feel like giving a base knowledge of theory from the get-go will make people understand more so what we’re talking about when it comes to history, when it comes to theory, even ear training and…

Matthew: To being a musician.

Jeremy: …being a musician.

Matthew: Yeah.

Jeremy: Musicality. Yeah. It’s, it is really been gratifying to me, personally to get the feedback on the theory aspect of our podcast. I was genuinely afraid that this would just bore people to death…

Matthew: Mm-hm.

Jeremy: …you know, and, but it is actually, kind of, the most popular aspect of what we do and that’s been extremely gratifying.

Matthew: Mm-hm.

Jeremy: But, and it will definitely help you understand everything else, you know. We want to talk about the history of music a little bit in the future, more, you know. We’re just now dipping our toe into that.

Matthew: Yeah. It’s gonna be, it’s gonna be fun.

Christopher: Fantastic. Well, as you guys know, we don’t straight-up teach theory at Musical U. We kind of teach a few core concepts you need to get the ear skills and the inner skills, but it means I’m always in need of great theory resources to recommend to people, and I am now constantly recommending your show to anyone who feels like they need to brush up on music theory and it is also one of my favorite podcasts, genuinely. I love listening, whether it’s a recap of something I feel I know or something actually quite new to me. I a regular listener, and for anyone listening to this interview, please head on over to musicstudent101.com and give a listen. I guarantee you will enjoy the show and you’re going to learn a huge amount.

Thank you very much again, Matthew and Jeremy, for coming on the show today.

Jeremy: Thank you, Chris.

Matthew: Thank you so much for having us.

Jeremy: The pleasure was all ours.

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The post Why and How to Learn Theory, with Matthew Scott Phillips and Jeremy Burns appeared first on Musical U.