Have you ever read any of these myths on online guitar forums?
1. It's not easy to learn music theory
2. Music theory is just a restrictive set of rules
3. The best musicians have never learned an ounce of music theory
If any of those options ring true for you, don't worry. I've also fallen into the same traps back when I was picking up the guitar; and there is so much misinformation available on the web, that I'm genuinely surprised when people out there don't sympathize with at least one of those options.
And, at some level, I know there are players out there who would prefer guitar students fall into these traps; indeed the more people hold these mistaken beliefs, the easier it is for the players who know music theory to excel above the competition.
(I will be following up on the topic of the sketchy methods some professional musicians use to keep their competition ignorant and harmless...)
But that's a topic for another time. Before I get into that, we need to discuss why the three ideas written above are ridiculous. By the end of the article, you should see how they are designed to keep your playing stagnant.
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 If it doesn't make sense in the beginning, that might be because it still uses outdated language thought up by a bunch of old white dudes who still thought the Earth was flat.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).
I've been saying this from the beginning, and I still believe that there isn't a single rule in music theory. Instead, music theory is more or less a set of guidelines to help resolve exercises. And of course, those who first created theory didn't have (or need) nearly as many texts analyzing it like we do today - they knew practice made perfect.
The most necessary part of any theory book is, in fact, the practice exercises that came at the end of each chapter; everything that was written before is a guideline, something to help you understand why sounds are strung together the way they are. Indeed, in practice many musicians actively break such "rules" when they play or compose: the "rules" are only training wheels.
When you don't do the exercises, you're not learning the theory. These students are missing out, and it makes sense why they don't understand theory in the end.
In fact, it's not completely necessary to read about all of the theory online or in books, as there are better ways to learn it. What is actually the most beneficial in learning theory is practice. Get out the guitar and play!
While it can appear this way, or a musician can brag about that, as soon as you dig a bit deeper that idea falls flat. This idea seems to be getting more and more pervasive, so let's get rid of it once and for all.
Having inspiration for a song and writing a song are two completely different things. A musician can be inspired, can string chords together without theory, but trust me when I say theory will help bring about more inspiration. When a person says that a musician has written music without theory, they're just saying this person had the inspiration for a song - but there are more layers that the original musician went through.
Whether intended or not, whether knowing the terminology or not, all songs use theory. And even if you don't know anything about theory, you've discussed it before. Have you ever thought about where the terms "verse" and "chorus come from? (Yup, that's theory)
But even if a songwriter says they recorded without theory, there is a guarantee that somewhere in the writing and recording process, another musician or producer has incorporated theory into the song. So for sure, a famous musician can get by without knowing theory, but only because they get help along the way from others who do: they stand on the shoulders of giants.
And to the first person who brings up that Jimi Hendrix didn't know music theory, congratulations, here's your cookie, go an take your place at the kiddie table while the grownups talk.
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.
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: