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Thread: Learning mandolin and music theory?

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    Default Learning mandolin and music theory?

    Hello all, I have decided to pick up an instrument and chose the mandolin to be specific. I'm interested in learning folk punk, indie, alternative, and classic rock covers. I took piano lessons for two years as a kid but that has been ages ago and I've forgotten most of what I learned. I was wondering, how exactly do I learn to play mandolin if I don't know much about music theory?

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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    Mandolin for Dummies, by Cafe member Don Julin.

    Once upon a time, that phrase was the punchline to a bunch of jokes, then the actual book was published and ... it all became clear! There will be lots of other suggestions, but this one is hard to beat regardless of the reader's experience level.
    - Ed

    "Then one day we weren't as young as before
    Our mistakes weren't quite so easy to undo
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    I'm a better man for just the knowin' of you."
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    Registered User lowtone2's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    I haven't seen Don Julin's book, but I'm sure it's great.

    This one is too, if you can find a copy. https://www.amazon.com/Theory-Modern.../dp/B0006ED1HY

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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    You donít need to know any music theory to learn to play mandolin. There are lots of lessons that assume no prior knowledge. Start with mandolessons.com, itís free. All the music there is written in tablature, so you donít have to read music either.

    However thatís not to say learning some music theory wonít help - it comes in handy for sure the more you know. But you donít need it to get started.

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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    Rather than knowing the theory first and then learning the instrument, it's quite common to learn the theory as you go along, using actual tunes or songs you're learning as vehicles to solidify what you're learning about theory in real time.

    It can also be helpful to get one on one lessons with an experienced mandolin instructor (meaning not the guy at the local music shop who teaches guitar and as such thinks that they're capable of teaching any stringed instrument) since there are specifics regarding playing mechanics that you'll want to embed correctly from the get go - poor technique can impede speed and fluency in playing as well as result in injuries. There are all kinds of great instructors we have access to nowadays through Zoom lessons so location doesn't have to be an obstacle anymore.
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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    This one is too, if you can find a copy. https://www.amazon.com/Theory-Modern.../dp/B0006ED1HY
    This one weighs two pounds and costs and arm and a leg in freight charges.
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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    For any young people wanting to play the music they usually listen to, it’s going to be a little more problematic because of copyright.
    Difficult to find notation to a lot of songs and finding TAB (for those who prefer) is going to be even more difficult.

    But as with everything there are ways around it.
    -Get an instructor if you have money.
    -Do maybe 10 tunes with Mandolessons.com even if you prefer other genres of music since technique, pick direction etc. is extremely important for mandolin and you’ll learn a lot of good practices.
    -use ear training apps more often than maybe other student mandolinists. It’ll help you to pick up tunes quickly, harmonise little riffs etc.
    -learn G, C or D major scale (first) and do a lot of improv. over slowed down YouTube music vids. (Neil Young plays a lot in G major)
    -there are plenty of guitar/ song sites where they show you the key of the song (IMPORTANT if you can, change the key to G major to begin with. There are some odd keys out there, and a familiar key will give you more information to work on, modes etc))
    -go to sessions, talk to people and stay way back and try to figure out what’s happening.

    Good luck!

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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    I started with the Ohmson book but honestly, it was deep for a newb. I had much better progress when I started using it as an encyclopedia along with tunes I was learning. I have made more progress with Peghead Nation than any book on its own. It gives me some focus and introduced theory in bits and pieces. I learned several tunes on my own but the focus and explanations from someone else are invaluable for me. So my advice is to get a good mandolin and start with Peghead Nation or Artist Works. I travel for work a lot and sometimes travel and work do not allow an instrument or I have it but no time, so online I can move at my own pace. Sometimes multiple times a day sometimes it is a long stretch but it is important to stay as consistent as possible it really is a path best served with daily practice, multiple times for me in small portions.
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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    Last music theory course I took was a semester in middle school. Over decades of just playing, I've accidentally picked up a fair amount, but it was as a fringe benefit of learning songs and tunes "by ear" and figuring out how best to play them. Probably made many more mistakes and false starts than if I'd had a stronger theoretical base, but, ya know, that's no fun...

    You will need to learn something about chord structures, the different common scales, and how certain chords "fit together" in most Euro-American music. Most of this you kinda know intuitively; I sometimes talk to people I teach instruments to, about things like "tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords," or "1, 4, 5" if you will, but they can almost always hear the relationships already, through lifelong exposure to American music.

    Problem with music theory, is it scares a lot of people away. What's taught in college-level theory classes seems 'way beyond what vernacular musicians need to know, to play folk and popular music, in whatever genre they prefer. Still, I remember the "light bulb moment" when Sherrie, the clarinetist from Wholesale Klezmer Band explained the freygish scale to me, writing out the note values in the key of D on a legal pad. So that's why all my harmony improvisations sounded wrong!

    Some Appalachian banjo player reportedly replied, when asked if he could "read notes," "Well, not enough to hurt my playin'!" Same with music theory: doesn't hurt to learn it, can be useful in understanding what you're already doing, can help you solve problems as you develop, shouldn't intimidate you if you don't know very much when you start out.
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    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post

    Some Appalachian banjo player reportedly replied, when asked if he could "read notes," "Well, not enough to hurt my playin'!" Same with music theory: doesn't hurt to learn it, can be useful in understanding what you're already doing, can help you solve problems as you develop, shouldn't intimidate you if you don't know very much when you start out.
    I was interviewing an elderly Ottawa Valley fiddler many years ago, and asked, "Can you read music?" He replied, "No, I can't read a word of it." I thought that sounded like an honest answer.

    By the way, I'm with Jill and Allen, above, unless you're a person who really loves theory.
    Last edited by Ranald; Jul-21-2021 at 11:52am.
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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    Registered User Randi Gormley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    I will put in a word for Mel Bay. Mel Bay has a bunch of "teach yourself" titles including mandolin. It's designed for all ages so it's simply written, has lots of illustrations, gives basic technique, has easy-to-play tunes to help you cement "note" and "finger" and is generally easy to find. Also, theory is fine, but you don't need it to learn where to put your fingers, how to hum a tune and find the notes on the fretboard and do some beginning music playing. it will give you the reasons WHY it works, but like using anything, the "why" behind something isn't necessary for a basic "do."
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    Still Picking and Sawing Jack Roberts's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    One thing about "music theory" you should know when you start is that what we call "music theory" is mostly nomenclature for the the actual performance of music. For example, in music theory we talk about a "scale" which are just the notes we play for a particular song, a "key" is the name of the scale (C major, A minor, etc.), a "root" we mean the note that is the first note of a scale in the key of the music we are playing, "minor third" for mandolin that means "a note three frets up from the root."

    In application, if you sing the first two notes of "Greensleeves" ("A-LASS") after plucking the A string on your mandolin to get the first note, you are singing the root and the minor third of the Key of A-minor. But few people think that way while they play.

    So as you learn to play, as you go along you will learn the essential theory at the same time. I bought a book by Arnold Schoenberg about music theory just to try to understand how composers think, but I found that it is completely unnecessary for playing the mandolin.

    Having said that, Mandolin is a great way to start learning music theory because of the even spacing of the strings in "fifths." After a few weeks of study you can play scales in all keys, transpose keys, and shift from major keys to minor keys, all of which are things taught in college music theory classes.

    But more important than theory is having fun. Pick a beginners book in any genre you like and go at it!
    Ha, ha! keep time: how sour sweet music is,
    When time is broke and no proportion kept!
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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    Whether you work through a book, an online course or lessons with a teacher, the right way is the one that's enjoyable. The only way to learn an instrument is practice & you won't practice if it's not enjoyable. If music wasn't supposed to be fun, we wouldn't call it playing
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    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    I should have said that Pete Martin's book, Easy Music Theory for Fiddle and Mandolin, as a good book that lives up to its title.
    https://www.petemartin.info/books.html
    Pete is a Mandolin Cafe member, who often contributes to the Forum.
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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    Registered User lowtone2's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    Another yay for mandolessons.com Great stuff!

    But I don't understand why musicians are so resistant to learning theory. Of course you can play without it, but it just seems natural to me to want to learn as much as possible about something I love. Knowledge is always good, the more the better!

    And you can play great without it, as has been proven many times.

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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    Duke Sharp… Garage Band Theory
    Great book and a fun read.

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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    Quote Originally Posted by IndieGonzo View Post
    I'm interested in learning folk punk, indie, alternative, and classic rock covers..... how exactly do I learn to play mandolin if I don't know much about music theory?
    To answer the specific question you asked, if I understand correctly - you can get the basics of where to put your fingers and how to use the pick from many online sources.

    Get that down and practice emulating what you hear. Truth is that you don't need any music theory to cover tunes you like.

    The learning is not the hard part, the practicing is.

    I did not get from your post that you don't want to learn music theory, or that you were trying to avoid it - just that you have very specific goals as to what you want to be able to do. Your goal is very achievable, and quite honestly, practicing with a specific goal is much more productive than just practicing because someone says your supposed to - so I really think you have every chance of success.

    You may unexpectedly learn some theory along the way - who knows.

    Best of luck, and practice your heart out.
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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    JeffD has a great point. I’m learning the mandolin by playing songs I like (country, folk, rock) every day. I just screen shot a chord sheet after googling the name of the song and “chords”, and refer to it for a week or two until I have the words and chord changes memorized.
    Along the way I’ve taken an interest in learning or relearning a little theory, but mostly I just have fun by learning songs I want to sing, and doing it every day. I’ve got miles to go to get where I want to be but I’m way ahead of where I expected to be when I started last August.

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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD View Post

    Get that down and practice emulating what you hear. Truth is that you don't need any music theory to cover tunes you like.

    The learning is not the hard part, the practicing is.
    These two statements are truths!

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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    Quote Originally Posted by IndieGonzo View Post
    Hello all, I have decided to pick up an instrument and chose the mandolin to be specific. I'm interested in learning folk punk, indie, alternative, and classic rock covers. I took piano lessons for two years as a kid but that has been ages ago and I've forgotten most of what I learned. I was wondering, how exactly do I learn to play mandolin if I don't know much about music theory?
    If youíre a beginner at music or at an instrument, donít build a barricade with music theory. The genres you name donít demand knowledge of music theory in order to play them. Indeed, no genre requires music theory, per se. Music is about sound and about conveying feelings, emotions, et al. to your listeners and musicians can do that very effectively without formal study of theory. Sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star which you learned as a kid; you sang it or played it just fine without knowing anything about key signature or scale or interval. And ďSing it higherĒ is easily accommodated. Itís not a ďkey changeĒ itís just singing higher. If you eventually build a repertoire you may want to delve into music theory in order to better understand what you are playing and to develop more sophisticated work. But youíre not obliged to go there.

    Play the music and enjoy it!

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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    You mentioned taking piano lessons as a kid. Don't be afraid to revisit some of that because the mandolin noting is all done in treble clef. Learning fiddle tunes in standard notation isn't all that hard if you know the notes, time signatures, key designation, etc. I realize you didn't mention that as an area of interest but even fooling around with it you might be surprised how much of that theory comes back to you. It did for me after many years away from piano. I've learned quite a few tunes (I also play the fiddle) right out of the book having never heard it first. Although I think listening and playing by ear is equally important, I'm always finding what I think I'm hearing and what the sheet music tells me can be different. Maybe a different arrangement that opens my ears! I relearned Lost Indian that way. Turns out I had learned it by ear and missed a few things.
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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    You can drive a car without knowing how it works. But knowing how it works enhances the experience and appreciation for what it does.
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  36. #23
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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    Quote Originally Posted by hogansislander View Post
    You don’t need to know any music theory to learn to play mandolin. There are lots of lessons that assume no prior knowledge. Start with mandolessons.com, it’s free. All the music there is written in tablature, so you don’t have to read music either.

    However that’s not to say learning some music theory won’t help - it comes in handy for sure the more you know. But you don’t need it to get started.

    Learning an instrument means learning to make music on that particular instrument. How do you accompish that without learning music?

    I'm reminded of a discussion on memorization, with people suggesting such approaches as learning two bars at a time, etc. My contribution, seemingly made no impression:

    "The key to memorization, as always, is understanding: how the tune is constructed, what makes it work, how it builds and progresses, how and where it reaches some kind of conclusion, what makes it stand out
    (as even worth remembering). There are theoretical concepts that facilitate this kind of understanding, and you should start by getting the big picture before going into details.

    Small example, Fire on the Mountain. Before you even try to find he individual notes you will note its structure: One part in A (possibly repeated), followed by a par in D, and a two bar tag re-establishing the original key.

    I’t’s important to realize that learning an instrument (at least a first instrument) involves quite a bit of theory."

    My first instrument was the guitar. I had already picked up the rudiments of theory in music classes, such as keys and corresponding scales, the elements of functional harmony and even standard notation, e.g., the significance of the key signature (often misunderstood), so I started by learning simple tunes from a book, key by key, in first position, with strict chromatic fingering. Realizing that the F and C scales use only three fingers I then moved to higher positions by transposing these scale forms. Since chords upset all rigid fingering rules I was later led to a freer approach to the fretboard.

    When I started on the mandolin after ten years of guitar I knew enough theory to just start playing, in all (or several) keys at once, first in first position, then in higher positions, starting with those determined by the position markers. I then of course realized the advantage, or necessity, of knowing more harmony than I could produce on the mandolin. The guitar was of great help, piano would have been even better.

    Without prior theoretical knowledge the natural approach, I believe, is much like learning a foreign language. A textbook typically gives texts (and accompanying exercises) of gradually increasing complexity, each new chapter introducing new words and some grammatical item, i.e., theory.

    I believe there are music books and courses that do something similar. When to introduce notation, if at all, is a delicate question. My reading ability gave me access to lots of material, but also made me much too dependent on written sources. Not being able to afford a teacher I never had any formal ear training, today there are apps. Only after a couple of years I was into genres for which there were not printed collections, so I had to pick out things from records. That, regettably, is the only kind of ear training I ever had. What's missing, above all, is context-free ear training, which prepares you for genuinely new situations.

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    Registered User DougC's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    Hey kid, IndiGonzo. All you have to do is hang out here. Everyone loves to give advice.
    Decipit exemplar vitiis imitabile

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    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning mandolin and music theory?

    I haven't noticed that anyone is arguing against music theory -- any musician will learn plenty of theory by osmosis, even if they don't use the word theory. People here are addressing the OP's original query while discussing how much theory should be studied by a beginner with only limited musical background.

    OP: "Hello all, I have decided to pick up an instrument and chose the mandolin to be specific. I'm interested in learning folk punk, indie, alternative, and classic rock covers. I took piano lessons for two years as a kid but that has been ages ago and I've forgotten most of what I learned. I was wondering, how exactly do I learn to play mandolin if I don't know much about music theory?"
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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