Levon Helm Wanted You to Learn Music Theory: Exhibit A


The music community recently lost my favorite drummer/lead vocalist of all time (sorry Phil Collins). Levon Helm of “The Band” passed away a few weeks ago but not after teaching the world some classic tunes like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Up On Cripple Creek”, and of course “The Weight”. These songs are known and revered by many a music lover, plenty of whom play and sing solely by ear. I play/sing with a choir group in South Boston led by a prodigious gospel/rock pianist by the name of Pastor Burns Stanfield. He has a knack for hearing progressions in his head and laying them down like a thunderous hailstorm of harmony and rhythm. I remember one occasion where the sustain pedal actually broke off due to his driving foot stomping. Many of the other highly talented choir members are a bunch of city folk to whom music is still very much an oral tradition. Lyrics are scribbled on pieces of paper, SATB parts are hashed out on the fly, and a song will (almost) never sound the same twice. The music is very accessible for all who want to perform, and the lack of polished music theory rigidness creates an arguably more emotional experience for both the listeners and performers.

Now, onto the other side of the coin. This choir group doesn’t stick to Hymns. Pastor Burns loves “The Band” and we often play some of their tunes for special events. After several years of listening to the chorus of “The Weight” performed incorrectly, I hit my breaking point and decided to lay some knowledge on the choir. The part that always gets everyone flustered is after the last “Take the load off Fanny” line where the singers rest on the first beat, then have an arpeggiated “And, And, And…..” followed by two singing “You put the load right on me” staggered by a beat. That is a tough enough sentence to write, so you can imagine how difficult it was to try and explain it verbally. The concept of a time signature is the missing link here. You need to understand how 4/4 time and 3/4 time works to hear this accurately, and perform it as The Band intended. The “You put the load right on me” measure switch to 3/4 time is quite significant.

To explain the concept, I notated the chorus for “The Weight” with a program called noteflight we have been using in our Theory courses. It is my first go at using the program so bear with me.

Notice measure 5 is in 3/4, meaning there are only 3 quarter notes in the measure. Try playing the file while counting out loud and see how it goes. The little numbers on the top are beat numbers so you can count, clap, stomp along with the tune. I am not going to get into what time signatures are in this post but we do cover rhythm in our Music Theory courses. If you are interested in learning about notation, rhythmic dictation, and harmony, you should check out the Music Theory 101 course.

RIP Levon Helm

Levon Helm



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