3 Music Theory Exercises That Actually Help You Play Better

The worst thing that you can have when it comes to music theory is that you have your music theory knowledge over here and then you have the music that you play over here, and the two are not really connected.

Music theory is there to describe what you hear, and what you play:

It is NOT:

  1. A set of rules for what notes are allowed in your solo
  2. A formula for melodies or chord progressions
  3. Something you think about when you are playing

But as you will see in this video, then it is incredibly powerful to have some very basic theory that you know really well and that fits with the music and the songs that you play. With that approach, then learning music theory is easier and it is much more useful, even though you don’t think about it when you solo.

The Most Important Theory Knowledge

Maybe the biggest question about this is not the knowledge itself, but how you want to think about it or visualize it. You’ll see what I mean along the way.

When you are improvising then you are playing over chords that are in a scale, so you want to have a solid overview of that information and see how the notes of the chord connect with the scale.

For that to be easy, then you want to be used to thinking about scales and diatonic chords knowing what goes where and contains which notes.

As an exercise, It can actually make a lot of sense to also work on this away from the instrument and treat it a bit more as a puzzle, but, of course, you eventually also want to have it down on the instrument if it is going to be useful for you.

It really pays off to just try to go over how to construct chords in a scale and be aware of what types of chords are wherein the scale that you use.

Here I am writing it out as letters, but it works equally well using music notation, which is how I probably learned in theory classes.

While I know how to play these things and how they sound, then I am not sure I really think this on the guitar as tabs or diagrams, but that may be different for you, and I am a bit curious about that so let me know in the comments.

In Music, there are no wrong notes, but some are closer to home than others, and often it is more useful to understand things by knowing how they work in the context.

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For soloing, you can think of it as layers of notes almost like a pyramid:

, and here it also makes sense to see it as highlights on a diagram of the neck:

And working on this is about getting that overview that will open up how you understand things you transcribe or even what you are playing.

Spending time writing out the scale, constructing the chords, and learning the diatonic harmony is very useful. Start with major scales but move on to harmonic and melodic minor as well, since you will need these scales when you are playing Jazz. But if you want to connect more information than just knowing the chords and the scale, let’s take a look at that.

Triads That Go Together And More

When you solo over a chord then you have the arpeggio of the chord and you have the scale that sort of sits around that arpeggio, but there are actually more ways you should be looking at notes that work over the chord and explore other melodies that you can use than just the scale and the arpeggio.

If you start with a very simple observation then you have the four notes of the chord, if we take Cmaj7: C E G B, but you can also view that chord as two triads: C E G and E G B. So for a Cmaj7 chord then the C major triad works and so does the Em triad.

If you take that a bit further then you can look at a Cmaj7(9)

Again this is probably easier to work with writing it out in some form, and you want to keep track of what the notes are against the root of the chord which in the end is actually a description of how it sounds when you use it.

The goal of exploring this is to get used to taking a group of notes and be able to see what they are against a chord, so that you have more options for your solos, and you want to also explore how to use this in solos.

When you improvise and make melodies then you don’t think in single notes, you group them together and hear melodies that are described in different ways, similar to how you hear the theme of “in the mood” as a 1st inversion triad.

So as you develop your vocabulary then you add more options in terms of triads, arpeggios, and other groups of notes that fit over a chord.

And the better you get at this the deeper you can dig into it and add quartal arpeggios and superimposed pentatonics to your lines and get them to work in your solos.

Connect It To The Music

Until now the way that you work on using music theory was based on you practicing exercises like diatonic triads and arpeggios and then figuring out how to use those, but you also want to explore the music you are trying to learn from, both solos and the songs themselves.

Let’s start with the songs:

A simple exercise is to look at what notes are in the melody relative to the chord. This is useful for developing your chord melody skills because it makes it easier to put chords under the melody.

And if you start analyzing Jazz standards you will see that they often have the same notes in the melody over specific chords, for example, #IV diminished chords or reharmonizations of them will have the 7th of the scale in the melody.

As you can see in “I Remember You”, “Someday My Prince Will Come”, “All The Things You Are”. Which also makes it easier to hear and recognize changes by ear.

Solos and Vocabulary

Of course, analyzing solos that you have transcribed is also incredibly useful, that is where you start to take apart vocabulary and improve your own lines. The place where you start to unlock how the melodies work and turn that into a flexible part of your playing.

This is an incredibly powerful tool. Let’s take this simple Pat Martino Lick use that to easily create 3 more licks on other chords.

The Pat Martino line from Lazy bird sounds like this:

Essentially this is a melody using a Cmaj7 arpeggio and a chromatic run.

Now that you know what is being played then you can see that it also fits over a Cmaj7 chord for example the beginning of Yardbird Suite:

But you can go a lot further, because If this works on Cmaj7 and is using a Cmaj7 arpeggio, then you can also try and move the arpeggio up to the 3rd of the chord and use the same construction:

C D E F G A B C D → C D E F G A B C D

You just need to apply a little Barry Harris magic to the chromatic part of the lick, and then you get this:

Another way to get more out of the lick is to move it to another chord. The original is using the arpeggio from the 3rd of Am7, so you can do the same with a G7 where the arpeggio from the 3rd is a Bø and that gives you this:

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