If you are a beginner musician without a teacher to guide you, it can be tough to know when exactly you should be learning certain things. Especially theory. Is it something you should start learning right away? Or are there certain things that are useful to know before you start?
A musician who is first starting out might tell themselves "I just have to learn a certain number of chords and scales, THEN I can move on to learning theory". In fact, this is exactly what I had myself convinced of as a beginner musician. Though, is there really any merit to this?
Before you answer this question for yourself, please first take the time to make sure you understand the difference between music theory and music notation as written about in a separate article.
The short answer to this is that if you already know a bunch of scales and chords, then you are without question ready to start learning music theory. But if you feel you need a bit more convincing, keep reading.
Let's break down this whole "taking time to learn chords and scales before music theory" idea. While this is a situation many beginner players might find them in, even more advance players might still be convinced to put of learning theory. So before you decide one way or another, consider the following:
After you learn a handful of chords, whats next? What can you do with this information? Perhaps you will read a couple chord charts and play some tunes, but what happens when you are asked to transpose that song to a different key? If you've yet to start learning theory, you might be asking yourself why and how this is done.
In brief, if you are playing a tune that happens to be awkward to play (for example, they all land on barre chords) or perhaps if you are accompanying a vocalist who needs a quick key change to fit her vocal range, then you need to know how to transpose a set of chord progressions to accommodate this.
What are some other possibilities for all these chords you've been learning? If you are drawing a blank, you might want to think about looking to music theory for some ideas.
From an outsiders perfective, theory seems like it's dull, confusing, and not actually that necessary to play music. Understandably so. Without the help of a good teacher to guide you, the world of theory can seem vast and hard to navigate. Especially when you aren't being told where exactly these theories can be applied in actual music.
The truth is, however, that theory is there to make playing and understanding music simpler for musicians. And when you take the time to properly learn it, you will quickly notice how much it opens up the possibilities for your playing.
Though again, it makes sense why you might initially feel this way. If you are open to learning more but not sure where to start, feel free to take advantage of my free eBook made for those who want to learn music theory from the very beginning. Take a look and see if things start making a bit more sense.
What's going to happen when you choose to solely work on learning chords or scales is that sooner or later you are going to realize you have no clue how to use them in any meaningful way.
You might look to other musicians who know the same set of chords you do, the same scales you do, but somehow they seem to take their music further. What's clear is that these are the people who know some theory, even if they've learned it unintentionally (which is more common than you might think). All it takes is an understanding of theory basics to make all the difference in your playing.
So you could choose to hold off on theory, and wonder why things aren't coming together for you as they seem to for other people. Or you could skip all that and just start including theory into your practice right away. Why hold off on having cool ideas and being able to translate them into your music when you can start reaping the benefits of understanding theory now?
Perhaps this wasn't completely apparent in the rest of the article, but if you are asking me, you should begin studying music theory immediately. There really is no need to wait. If you are someone who has tried to learn theory but never saw the point of it, that's because the person teaching you wasn't doing it correctly.
Learning theory doesn't only give you cool facts to share at your next party, but it also will definitely work to improve your physical and creative abilities as a musician. So why put that off?
So in conclusion, whenever you start working on your technique as a player, whether thats through scales, chord progressions, or finger tapping, that is when you should also begin your studies in music theory.
Tommaso Zillio is a professional prog rock/metal guitarist and composer based in Edmonton, AB, Canada.
Tommaso is currently working on an instrumental CD, and an instructional series on fretboard visualization and exotic scales. He is your go-to guy for any and all music theory-related questions.
Send comments or questions to: