Occam’s Razor, The House Of Memory, and Learning The Guitar

“Occam’s Razor” is a philosophical thesis which says, in essence, that, given several potential solutions to a problem, the simplest one is usually the best. (Apologies to you philosophers out there, as I know some of you have a more complicated way of saying that…)
It has also become a sort of folk adage that shows up in modern culture. TV detectives use it to explain why the spouse is the prime suspect in a murder, for example… and it has corollaries, sort of like Murphy’s Law.
I was thinking about the concept today while involved in a discussion on Flatpick-L, the internet flatpicking guitar list. What I was thinking was that the best guitar players and teachers have usually found a way of simplifying the concepts which help them and their students make music.

    Some examples from jazz giants:

  • Jimmy Bruno recommends keeping it simple when first learning by ignoring extended chords (9ths, 11ths, etc.), and just dividing chords into 3 main families; major, minor, and dominant.
  • Pat Martino recommends envisioning all solos as extensions of minor scales, even while playing over major or dominant chords.
  • The late Joe Pass said that, when considering a ii-V-I progression, whichever line worked with a V chord would also work over the ii chord….and, by the way, it would also work over the I chord.

I think that these ideas are also in resonance with a concept called the House Of Memory. (I read this concept in a novel one time, but, ironically, I can’t remember which novel it was…) Anyhow, the House Of Memory says that you can remember a lot more information if you organize it in a hierarchy. You imagine a house, and you put a certain number of memories in each room. The house becomes the framework. Rather than trying to remember 100 facts, you remember ten rooms, each of which contains 10 facts. The idea is that the brain can hold more info this way.
Music works the same way. Instead of the House Of Memory, you can have a framework of music. Like Jimmy Bruno’s framework, you can have 3 simple chord families. At first, maybe your only G dominant chord is a G7. Later, it could become a G9, a G+5, a G7b5, a G11, a G13, and several others. Or like Pat Martino’s minor scale concept; there are many minor scales…melodic minor, harmonic minor, natural minor, and others. Maybe you can start with the Dorian mode, which has a recipe of 1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7-8. After awhile, learn a second minor scale (harmonic minor, for example) and study how they differ, and which chords fit with each one. Then you can go on from there.
Anyhow, I hope you get the idea. See if you can identify a simple way of conceiving music. It may not agree with anyone else’s view, but we’re all wired differently, and all it has to do is help you make better music. You may develop your own vision, or connect with someone else’s way of simplifying music. After all, Pat Martino’s view is different from Joe Pass’s view, which is different from Jimmy Bruno’s view…that’s why they call it “Theory”…


Posted on May 25, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. danny gotham

    yup, you’re preaching to the choir. keep it simple!

  2. Todd Roberts

    I taught 10 to 12 year olds for aloooong time.In the begining it became clear that the BEST teachers made things easy by simplifying.Unskilled teachers tend to make things seem harder than they really are,I have theories as to the reason for that,and create more tension in their students. This hangs on my music stand “Simplicity is the final achievement…after one has played a vast quantity of notes and still more notes,it is simplicity that emerges as the final reward.” Frederic Chopin

  3. I only have been “playing” since my second trip to Kamp K in ’06.The first trip was surreal. I began knowing nothing and I mean NOTHING about the chromatic scale or ANY musical theory or technique I attended public school,2 major universities and taught school for over thirty years….and started this journey in complete ignorance.
    In your class on that second trip to Marysville I realized the chro scale was in alphabetic order! SERIOUSLY ! I had well over ten private lessons and the subject was not addressed until my beautiful Rita said, “Why are you not learning scales?”…I says, “Scales what is that?” My perspective is unique,in that I taught.I then entered into learning something from a position of complete ignorance,at 55. This whole learning process has been as interesting to me as anything I have ever done. I look forward to further discussion.

  4. Jan just reminded me that the “mansion of memory” is from the wonderful novel “Little, Big”, by John Crowley

  5. The house of memory concept reminds me of things I’ve read of the “method of loci”:


    As per those old Roman dudes, Cicero and Quintilian.

  6. Great article, I think Allan Holdsworth falls into this category as well. For all the complexity of his playing, his way of thinking is pure simplicity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: