The Difference Between Theory And Music Notation

Author: Tommaso Zillio

Tommaso Zillio - professional guitarist and guitar teacherWhen it comes to learning theory, it can be tough to know where to begin. Are there certain things a musician MUST know how to do in order to fully understand theory? Namely, knowing how to read music notation?

I have many new students who come to me anxious to learn music theory because they are convinced they can’t do it without a deep understanding of music notation. While the basics of music notation really isn’t as complicated as it may seem, it’s actually a completely separate practice and you don’t need to have one to learn the other.

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Yes you heard that correctly. You don’t need to know how to read music notation to learn music theory.

How is this possible? And how are you to know if you should be focusing on notation or not? Keep reading.

Notation Isn’t Everything

Let me be clear that it is extremely useful and sometimes even completely necessary for some musicians to learn to read notation. This is especially the case for the ones that have jobs that require them to sight read. This includes session musicians, jazz players, orchestra pit musicians, classical players, and more.

However, there are many great musicians out there who have a less than great ability to sight read. There are lots of rock, punk, pop, blues, and metal players who get by without knowing how to read a single note.

While this is true, it’s important to realize that learning the basics of reading music is not as difficult as it seems. Even having a basic understanding of notation can take you a long way as a musician, especially when it comes to learning rhythms. If you are curious, I have an eBook on music notations that goes over just these things.

Ask yourself if learning to read music is truly going to be the best use of your time at this point. The answer will depend on where you are at and where you plan on going as a musician, so keep reading to find out what you should do.

Learning Theory Without Learning Notation

Reading notes and being able to sightread is not the same thing as learning theory. Notation is simply one of the ways we can communicate a piece of music. It is also one of the ways we can explain a theory. However, notation isn’t the only way we can communicate a musical idea, and it’s also not the only way we can explain theory.

You will find that there are some advanced concepts that can only be described using notation, such as orchestrations or counterpoint. Though there is much in the world of theory that can be learned without notation, such as chord progressions, modes, and scales. How is this possible? I will explain below.

Knowing Chords Without Knowing Notation

The concept of chords and chords progressions are easily explainable without first explaining notation. Just think about it. What makes up a D major chord? You need a D, and F# and an A. And to play a basic I IV V chord progression in D is simply D G and A. You could be jamming along with your friends in no time without ever knowing how to notate any of it.

To take chords one step further, the concept of using inversions also does not require the use of notation. If you are looking to learn more about this in more detail, feel free to check out my course on chords and progressions

Learning Scales and Modes Without Notation

To learn the complete theory of modes and scales, all you need is you and your instrument (and a good teacher to explain everything wouldn’t hurt either). One of the ways this is commonly done is by demonstrating scales and modes simply using the fret board. But this isn’t the only way it is possible.

Truth is, its best to leave to leave notation out of the picture when learning how modes relate to each other. It’s more helpful to think about scale degrees when it comes to learning modes, for instance, which modes have a minor or major 6th, and so on.

This is also true if you are looking to compare the various chords that you can get from modes. Actually, trying to use standard notation when learning this can do more to slow you down than to help progress your learning!

If you are someone hoping to learn more about this, you can check it out in my Master of the Modes course where I do just that. Though if you aren’t totally against learning about notation, I’ve included a bit on that as well.

So, What’s The Point?

It’s important to recognize that when you hear most famous guitarists talk about how they’ve never learned any theory, what it actually means is that they don’t know how to read music. Often times, musicians know way more about theory than they realize (especially if they write music).

What I am trying to say in all this is don’t be afraid of music theory. If its your lack of notation knowledge that is holding you back, now you can see why it doesn’t have to. And if you are excited to learn more but are not sure of where to start, I have a beginner guide on how to get started with music theory. Happy learning!

About the Author

Tommaso Zillio is a professional guitarist and guitar teacher. Visit Tommaso’s site to know more about music theory for guitar

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