Have you ever looked at music theory and wondered how this was going to help you play guitar? The truth is that if you’re learning the wrong theory, then it won’t help at all. This is a guide for people who have been attempting to learn theory, but just haven’t been able to see it making a difference in their playing.
Everybody has a different idea of what music theory is or isn’t. Once common misunderstanding is that music theory is no more than music notation, or learning and knowing all of the notes and scales. While having that knowledge is beneficial to your playing, music theory goes much deeper than that. If this is all you practice, then it’s easy to lose track of the real meaning.
Music theory, at its essence, is actually all about knowing and utilizing the impact of music emotionally. Every sound, every progression, whether it be consonant or dissonant has the ability to affect the audience in an emotional way. Knowing the chords and the musical keys allow a musician to write a cohesive song. And different scales, by definition, are used to compose and play songs with a certain feeling to them.
Whether this whole concept is new to you or you already have some experience, this guide will teach you how to avoid getting away from the big picture.
Music notation isn’t everything in music theory
Believing that theory is comprised of knowing music notation is one of the things that actually harms a player’s ability to learn an instrument. Learning notation is helpful and a necessary part of some theory, but it is just a small part of the big picture.
There are actually a lot of players out there who are well-versed in music theory, but don’t actually know the standard notation all that well. Understanding how chord progressions work together, as well as understanding rhythm and musical form are truly independent from the standard notation.
One famous example of a player who does not use music notation is Hans Zimmer, the movie composer who wrote the music for The Dark Knight and Gladiator — all of his writing is done on a computerized piano roll rather than a score. He doesn’t use notation, but he is using music theory as a composition guide.
Finding the name of a chord isn’t knowing how to use it
When was the last time you stumbled upon a forum thread where the author is looking for the name of some obscure chord? Have you noticed that as soon as the chord is named, the thread is never touched again? It’s as if the forum users care more about showing it off to their friends than actually using it right in a song.
A music theorist doesn’t care about writing the chord down, but instead we look at how the chord sounds, how it works in a progression, how it will interact with other chords, and the way it feels. It doesn’t matter if we know its name or not, because that doesn’t actually mean that we know what it does. In another sense, what use is a word to a writer if they don’t know what it means and how it changes a sentence?
Music theory isn’t just about knowing the terms
It can certainly be easier to pass ideas around the jam space if everyone knows the difference between Dorian and Aeolian modes in the key of C, and yes, it might be easier to teach them the names for communication purposes. But the issue is when people mistake knowing the name for knowing how and when to use it.
Just because you know a word doesn’t mean you know how to use it in a conversation. And really, it doesn’t matter to the audience that you know the name of the mode you’re playing in… and if you know how to use it, it probably doesn’t matter to you either.
There are plenty of composers who don’t know the name of mode they’re using, and in fact they don’t need to know the names to intuitively use it. Even just a couple of days ago, I spoke to a musician who said she tends to go back to a few usual chord progressions when she’s ending a song. After talking for a couple minutes, it was obvious that she was actually using perfect and plagal cadences. But even if she had known that, would she have been a better player?
Scales mean nothing if you don’t know how to use them
Some people believe that if they move their hands up and down scale patterns for hours each day, they will suddenly know how to play guitar. I’ve looked at how the scales taught in some systems are harmful (such last the CAGED system) in other articles, so I won’t go in depth here. Beyond that, it is a fact that teaching students how to play a “C minor pentatonic” doesn’t teach them how to play the blues.
It doesn’t come down to chance that students who only learned scale/chords patterns have issues learning how to use them in practice to compose or improvise. The best way to look at it, is if you can play the same way on another instrument, then they’re going in the right direction. There may not be a way to practice an “G Shape” on a piano, however, if you know your theory, then you’ll know it is possible to play the D major scale on it. The D major scale is an actual object in music theory, the “G shape” is simply a fiction of a specific system of scale patterns. By learning the theory behind the scales and not just the patterns, you will naturally orient yourself on the fretboard.
How can I find out if the theory I’m learning is fake?
Look at how you are learning the theory. Music theory must be an experience: to actually learn how theory works, you have to listen to the way a note changes a progression, and hear it in every concept you are taught. This also applies for every scale and every musical device that you learn. The best part is that it’s two birds with one stone, because this is also the way ear training is supposed to be done.
There’s also a simple test: when you learn something new, can you use it to compose a simple song? If you don’t know how to, then you haven’t actually learned the concept.
When you begin to learn a new piece of theory, the best questions to ask are “How can I use this” and “what does it do in a different context” rather than “What is it called”.
About the Author
Tommaso Zillio is a professional guitarist and guitar teacher. Visit Tommaso’s site to know more about music theory for guitar