Have any of these thoughts come to you?
- Some of the best musicians didn’t need to learn theory
- It’s nearly impossible to learn music theory
- The rules are unnecessarily restrictive
If you find yourself nodding your head to any of those, it’s all good. I found the same ideas to be true when I was figuring out the guitar as well – and the way false information can spread on the Internet, it’s no wonder how almost all beginning musicians come across these at one point or another.
And it makes sense that many professional players would want these ideas to spread – the more people believe these ideas, the easier it is for them to avoid competition. (I’ll go into detail about these lies in a future article).
But, before I go deeper into that, I need to show you why these the previous examples are false. Even if you don’t believe me yet, take a moment to hear me out, and you’ll see how these ideas might be stopping you from getting to the top of your game.
And that’s no coincidence.
So let’s get to the reason why we’re all here.
Understanding Music Theory Takes Years Of Practice
Like anything in life, if music theory is taught properly, it’s actually quite straight forward. If it doesn’t make sense in the beginning, that might be because it still uses outdated language thought up by a bunch of old white dudes who still thought the Earth was flat. (Ok, not really, but it gives the idea doesn’t it?) But, like any theory that has survived since long time, the concepts are often not as difficult as the language.
Think of it this way: the ideas that have the most staying power are the simplest; and this idea has outlasted technologies like unsliced bread, Internet Explorer, and leaded gasoline. This idea (music theory) has been around forever for a reason – it’s simple to use and learn.
Many students find it hard to learn theory, because it’s actually really difficult to learn it through articles on the Internet and in books, when it should be learned on the fretboard. When you start to read about music theory, make sure to have a guitar sitting comfortably in your lap. When you see an example, play it. Then, after that, make small notes about what worked for you and what didn’t. Then you’ll start to notice that you’re learning every time you flip a page or open an article in a new browser tab.
Also, if you’re having trouble and are learning from a teacher right now, it might be helpful to find another teacher (simple test: ask if your teacher thinks it’s easy to learn guitar theory. If they skirt the question, or give you a flat out ‘no,’ you might be better off learning from somebody new).
Music Theory Is Just A Bunch Of Restrictive Rules
I don’t believe that music theory has even a single hard rule. The "rules" you find in books are more of a guide than actual rules, which help the user to understand how sounds make music in practice. The Jedis of music understood that the Padawans would only learn through practice, and offered a set of guidelines to help that practice.
The practices that come at the end of each chapter are just as important as the reading itself – everything that comes before is nothing more than a guide or a suggestion to help you learn while practicing.
This is one of the reasons why many students have trouble with theory – they do the reading, but don’t always do the practice during or after. But the practices are the best part, it’s when you’ll really know what a topic is about, and how best to apply it in other scenarios.
That said, no student needs to read everything to understand the theory, as not all readings are created equally. What’s necessary is the application of the reading. To learn, you have to practice.
The Best Players Didn’t Need Theory
I’ll say it a thousand times over; this bucket holds no water. And since this idea doesn’t seem to go away, I’ll bury it for good.
There is a difference between being inspired to write a song, and being able to write a song. And, of course, you don’t need music theory to be inspired – although, knowing theory will give you more ideas in the long run. When somebody points to an artist who doesn’t know music theory, they’re pointing out an artist who has ideas, and gets inspired.
That said, putting a song together requires theory – even if that theory wasn’t learned formally. Most songs have a verse and a chorus, and even if it’s not done in a traditional way, all songs that utilize these forms are in fact using music theory.
Also, when songs are recorded, the band often has the help of a producer who helps smooth out the rough edges of a song – often using theory – to make the best possible version before the band takes it on the road. So in theory, a platinum-selling artist can get by without knowing music theory, but there are others along the way that incorporate music theory into the music to make the song "better".
And to the commenter who will inevitably bring up Jimi Hendrix and the never-ending myth that he didn’t knew music theory… good job, now go grab yourself a soda so the grownups can continue talking.
So there you have it. Music theory is the fastest and the best way to take control of your music. Let the haters hate while you take control of your learning, and then leave them in the dust with your sweet riffs.
And that’s all there is to it. Using and practicing theory is the quickest way to learn to play the guitar and other instruments. Tune down the dissenters when they tell you how long of a road it is to learn theory. Then go get on stage to show them some cool tunes.