Why is Understanding How Music Works so Important?
(or, why it's been so vital to my career as a working musician)

I've been a working musician for 40 years now. Like many from my generation, I started out playing gigs with almost zero knowledge of music theory, harmony, chord structure, rhythms, etc. And why not? My first band consisted of friends I was still in the process of growing up with.

We'd simply pick songs we liked, mostly rock, and then spend time painstakingly working them out. We'd hunt and peck until we came up with a recognizable incarnation of it. Sure, there were always spots we just couldn't quite figure out, but we'd get close and thought hey, it was "good enough to get by". We got quite a few gigs too as our repertoire grew.

So what's the problem?

Well nothing, if this is as far as you care to go. Most of the guys in my first band were very content operating this way. This is all they wanted to do, and this method, no matter how inefficient and time consuming, produced a result.

However… unlike my friends… I'd get gigs with other types of bands playing other kinds of music. For example, I had a gig with musicians in their twilight years playing something they called "standards". I was clueless, lost, had no charts (no music written out, couldn't read it if it were), no idea how to play walking bass lines, no harmonic sense, and… you get the idea. I'd struggle to find a note here and there that would pass through what they were doing. It was humbling.

What do these guys know that I don't?

The sax player told me I needed to learn "chord spellings" and "work on my ear". I had no idea what either of these things were, nor how to go about finding out about them. So, the struggle continued.

At this point I'm hungry to learn about music, but live in an area where music study on this level was just not available. So I plotted my escape to Los Angeles California, the happening place for musicians in the early 1980s.

I got my first gig on the road within three weeks of my arrival, but still operated via hunt, peck, search and destroy. I'd have to turn gigs down because I lacked enough knowledge about music to be able to pull them off (sad face Emoji).

But wait, a Miracle had happened...

I'm in LA! There's music knowledge EVERYWHERE. Musicians, Glendale Library, Books, Tapes, Gigs, etc… To make a long story not-quite-as-long, I got to work. I studied bass with Bunny Brunel, spent my days studying music theory from material I got at the library (1980's, no internet yet), and listened to different styles of music to find what elements made each style of music sound the way it did. I then applied this knowledge on gigs at night.

A year and a half later, I've improved 1,000 times over! I'm now able to take gigs I was unable to take before. But why? 

Because now I understand the basics of How Music Works. I know all my Scales (which are surprisingly few). I know what notes are in chords (also far easier than expected). I can look at rhythms and figure out how to play them (reading), and I can follow the road map of a Chart (the repeats, multiple endings, DS/DC, and Coda Systems). The craziest thing of all?... knowing my scales and basic harmony made my "ear" more accurate too!

Fast forward 30 years.

Here's an example of what I'm capable of today because of my investment 30 years ago into learning How Music Works. Last Wednesday, I received a call asking if I can do a gig on Saturday in Northern California (I live in Nashville, TN). The entire show is written out in music notation. Oh yeah, and we're playing a festival, so there can be NO REHEARSAL. I will have to go in and play the show cold, sight-reading it on the spot in front of a few thousand people.

I should be terrified, right? 

Well, I'm not. I do this all the time now. Key Signatures tell me what scale to use, rhythms tell me what way to play the notes, and nobody in the audience has any clue I'm hearing this thing for the first time just like they are.

… that's why anyone serious about music owes it to themselves to learn How Music Works. And that's why I've been able to have a career as a Working Musician all these years!

Mark A. Clark

Working Musician