Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Theory and Practice, Man, Practice!

I'm continuing to develop a thread introduced here some time ago regarding the possibility of a theoretically informed moral imagination. I've written in earlier entries about Newtonian imagination, Darwinian imagination, and even hinted at thermodynamic imagination. I could add ecological imagination, climatological imagination, sociotechnical imagination, and any number of others.

The question is: How and to what extent can scientific theory shape ordinary lived experience? It's an interesting question for phenomenology, and I'm working on a paper along those lines, now. My interest is not just theoretical, however, but practical. What I want to know is how and to what extent scientific theory can influence what we attend to, what we value, what we expect, what we hope for, what we foresee, and ultimately what we do.

As it happens, I've stumbled upon a parallel track in my life outside academia: music.  I've decided that, in order to become a better and more versatile fiddler, I should learn some music theory and put that theory into practice. I know a little theory, but my early experience with music involved reading melodies written on a page and playing them on an instrument conveniently tuned in C; I didn't really need to understand harmony, transposition, or any of that sort of thing, and I was never called on to improvise. So I'm setting out to learn just enough theory, as the fiddler Laura Light put it when I told her of my plans, "to be dangerous."

An odd thing is happening: Even as I begin to dabble in music theory, before launching into a more formal study, it has started to change the way I play and hear music. I know what a V7 chord is and what it does; I can start to pick it out when it happens. I've just now figured out that in a tune in Bm I can play an A# in measures built on the V7 chord (F#7) when improvising or harmonizing - which is not something that would ever have occurred to me before.

(For you harmony players out there, be patient. I'm just now entering the "Duh!" Conservatory of Music.)

Of course, I made the connection by practicing scales and arpeggios, running through a number of exercises in D and Bm, and then playing some tunes I know in Bm (Reel Eugene, Two Rivers). Theory helped me figure out what to practice and what to listen for.

I think the same may apply to scientific theory. Even a layman's knowledge of thermodynamics or evolutionary biology can bring about a shift in attention and expectation . . . with a little practice.

As an aside, I've also devised a mnemonic for the Renaissance modes, in order:

"I Don't Play Lydian Mode A Lot"

(Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian)

I'm unduly proud of this.

1 comment:

Doc Nagel said...

This bit of theory is something I intuitively gathered learning to play guitar in what I think is the typical way for American kids (that is, just picking the thing up and trying to play along with records, or in a - usually very bad - band in school). Guitars in standard tuning are practically built to lead a player to discover such things by total accident. I can't read standard musical notation on staffs, but start me off in any key and I can just knock off a dozen chord variations in it and make them fit together.

I'm starting to learn to play fingerstyle, just getting the fundamentals, which is similarly leading me to more or less re-learn how to play the instrument. I feel like my playing is being broken down and I'm starting to rebuild it.

Now, if we could only do the same thing with "the economy" somehow...

I Don't Purchase Luxury Merchandise A Lot