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Home > Advice > Right & Wrong

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 wrong".

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 is right".

Saying 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.

You 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, just conventions 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.

"Wrong" Music

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 a whole bowl of "wrong"...

There were no moments of what we might call "pleasant harmony", least of all diatonic harmony. In purely theoretical terms, consonance was absent in that piece and dissonance was the formality.

It takes a surprising amount of skill to intentionally avoid harmony. Even if 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 of the coin? The dark side of the moon?

Now take a listen to the vomit-inducing sounds of Agoraphobic Nosebleed...

Does dissonance, cacophony and seemingly random notes crashing into one another make it any less of a legitimate musical statement than the rich, sweet and impeccably structured harmonies that dominate western musical tradition?

Isn't the only legitimate question: how does it make you feel? And those 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 experience nonetheless, 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 and harmony in favour of complete musical anarchy just for the sake of rebellion. Again it goes back to what you're consciously trying to communicate as a musician, and dissonance can play an important role in that.

Dissonance doesn't have to be overwhelming. It can be subtle and fleeting, like this very short, chromatic section of one of Wes Montgomery's performances (starts at 28:34, follow it for 4 seconds)...

Or this dissonant (wrong)-verse, harmonic (right)-chorus, schizophrenic rock number by Degrees K. What I personally get is this feeling of release, like my head 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 good, right and musical to at least the number of pairs of ears involved in their making, and many more.

The concept of dissonance and avoid notes is itself highly subjective. A classically 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.

Wherever we 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.

When 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.

While 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 twist them.

No 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 musical idea, play it, listen to it, feel it and trust your own judgement.

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