There's No Such Thing as "Right" or "Wrong" in Music
I often get asked the question: "would it be OK to play XYZ?". I also
find many musicians seem to distrust their own ears when making a
judgement about their playing, as if they are afraid to "get music
As a teacher, I have to be careful about being too
dogmatic when it
comes to music theory.
Although it may seem so at times, I don't want to tell you what
to play. I just want to open up your creative options and give you new
ideas so you can explore your instrument more intuitively.
In that sense, it would be wrong for me to say "this is wrong" or "this
that, I do teach based on what I believe are the most widely accepted
standards in music. Standards that still leave huge amounts of room for
experimentation and originality, yet can communicate coherently with a
good number of people.
If music is a language, then the standards we consider "correct" are
simply those which the majority understand.
might call it "popular music". I've always thought popular music is a
lot broader than we give it credit for. Even jazz indulges in the
irresistable charms of keys, cadences and form, albeit jumping between
them more unpredictably than your typical chart hits.
But you have to remember that there are no inherent rules to music,
and systems to guide you through harmony and away from (what most
people hear as) uncomfortable
dissonance. Ultimately, your ears are the judge of what sounds good and
what doesn't. You are your music's first listener.
For all the good my teachings may do your progress, you can't beat good
ol' trial and error and learning from perceived mistakes first
hand. When you can confidently say "that doesn't sound right", at
least it's you saying that from subjective experience as opposed
to reading it from some textbook or website.
But even those uncomfortable dissonances and bum notes can't be said to
be wrong or unmusical. Take a listen to this very
intentionally written piece of atonal music, that's
bowl of "wrong"...
There were no moments of what we might call
harmony", least of all diatonic harmony. In purely theoretical terms,
consonance was absent in that piece and dissonance was the
takes a surprising amount of skill to intentionally avoid harmony. Even
you were playing random strings/frets, you would at some point hit
something sweet purely by chance.
But does the dissonance make it wrong or unmusical? Isn't it
just the other side
coin? The dark side of the moon?
Now take a listen to the vomit-inducing sounds of Agoraphobic
dissonance, cacophony and seemingly random notes crashing into one
another make it
any less of a legitimate musical statement than the rich, sweet and
structured harmonies that dominate western musical tradition?
Isn't the only legitimate question: how does it make you feel?
tense, uncomfortable feelings are surely just as valid as those which
arise from the comfort of harmony. You may not make a habit of
unwinding with a glass of finest Rioja, conversing with your
sweetheart, accompanied by Agoraphobic Nosebleed. But it's a musical
whether your ears say yes or no. And it's as good as a full time job
for some musicians.
I'm not suggesting you should throw out all notions of structure
harmony in favour of complete musical anarchy just for the sake of
rebellion. Again it goes back to what you're consciously trying
communicate as a musician, and dissonance can play an important role in
Dissonance doesn't have to be overwhelming. It can be subtle and
fleeting, like this very short, chromatic section of one
Montgomery's performances (starts at 28:35, follow it for
Or this dissonant (wrong)-verse, harmonic (right)-chorus,
rock number by
Degrees K. What I personally get is this feeling of release, like my
rising above the water, when the suffocating cacophony of the verse
moves into what is a very pretty, open chorus section. Dark to light...
The point I'm getting at here is that all the above examples sounded
and musical to at least the number of pairs of ears involved in their
The concept of dissonance and avoid notes is itself highly subjective.
trained musician of centuries gone may have considered the augmented
4th as a dissonant counter-tone
and rejected it outright (maybe these people still exist today). But to
many, given the contexts in which it's used (e.g. the Lydian mode,
blues), it's relatively sweet and easy on the ears.
choose to draw our lines between harmony and dissonance, the musical
and unmusical, music is ultimately artistic
expression through sound. That's the
tightest definition anyone can justifiably apply to music.
"Right" and "wrong" are ultimately relative and subjective.
you're simply trying to please the crowd, you'll want to consider
your target audience when choosing your notes, especially when your aim
is to play for money (nothing wrong with that - we all need to pay the
bills) adoration (we all wish to be loved) or as a gift to
humanity (we all seek to give).
But in terms of pure, raw expression, there can be no such
thing as incorrect music. The sweet toothed musician is no more
right than the musician who craves bitterness, chaos and dischord.
There is (and even this is subjectifying it) merely harmony and
dissonance. Take your pick, go ahead and blur those lines, but always
let your ears be the final judge.
I will, of course, continue to teach based on the most widely accepted
and enjoyed musical standards, I'll always resist telling you "you must
play this/that" or "you can't play this/that". All I'm giving you are
some ingredients I think you'll
like the taste of. It's up to you what you create from them and how you
matter how much I want to tell you "never hold a major 7th over a
dominant 7th chord (e.g. F# over G7)", how can I objectively justify
that statement? All I can say is, with a modicum of
confidence, that not many ears will "get" it. You'll likely get a lot
of winced faces.
But I don't need to tell you that.
Bottom line: whenever you question the rightness or wrongness of a
play it, listen to it, feel it and trust your