One of the most ridiculous misconceptions about learning music is that knowledge and application of music theory will somehow produce stagnant, mechanical playing devoid of emotion and humanity. Look almost anywhere on the internet and you will find musicians giving ‘advice’ on how exclusively playing by ear is the only way to convey raw emotion in your playing. Now there are definitely players out there who know nothing or very little of music theory but still produce amazing music. This is certainly the exception, not the rule and I argue that even these players would benefit still from learning music theory.
I will present my case for this using spoken language as an analogy. Music itself can be considered a universal language and I am sure most would agree. By this reasoning we can liken the ear only approach to music to learning a spoken language by ear alone. This would mean no written word, no understanding of grammar, no ability to consciously convey any message, no ability to participate in a conversation and so on. By this way of thinking the only way we would be able to communicate would be through replicating what we hear without understanding what it is we are saying let alone what context we are saying it in. Parrot anyone? Hopefully from this analogy you will have some ideas about why music theory is beneficial but let me go into a little bit more detail.
What is a theory?
A theory is a way of understanding or explaining something. By its very nature a theory has nothing to do with how the information is used in practice. Music theory provides a universal way for musicians to understand the vital elements of music. It can also include any statement, conception or belief about music.
Without going too much into detail about any specific aspect of music theory (that would be an entire book!) let’s take one chord as an example here. The chord will be C Major. If I have no understanding of what constitutes a C Major chord, how can I explain even this most basic of ideas to another person? I might be able to show a guitarist or a pianist where to place his fingers, but can I explain to him what a C Major chord actually is? Can you? Can you play a C Major chord on your instrument in more than one position? How about any position on your instrument?
Now, say I want to play a C Major chord and have another musician create a melody over the top of it. If the musician has an understanding of music theory he will know what notes, scales, arpeggios etc will fit this chord. This is the point where the anti-theorists jump in and say ‘ahh, see that has nothing to do with listening and using your ear! That's a mechanical exercise!’ Well, it is and it isn’t. Being able to attach names to these sounds allows our ear to hear these ‘right’ notes and immediately attach a label to them in order for us to understand them on a deeper level. If a player decides then to only run up and down these ideas without listening, then yes it will sound mechanical. However, this has nothing to do with the information, it is just raw information. If the musician listens carefully, he can manipulate all the ‘wrong’ notes and the ‘right’ notes creating tension and release because his ear knows where those ‘right’ notes are. I liken this approach to taking risks in your playing. I liken the ear only approach as being reckless. Now, of course if you work hard enough you can become a great player with your ear only. But I 100% guarantee it is going to take you longer and you are definitely never going to be comfortable in strange musical situations.
To return to the spoken language analogy. If I know a chair is for sitting on, does that mean I can only sit down if I have a chair? Or if I know a chair is for sitting on, does that mean that standing on a chair would be impossible? If I explain a chairs purpose to someone else, will they immediately assume that it is impossible to challenge this ‘theory of chairs’? Although this is a silly example, the exact same ideas are true in music. Just because a theory states that a certain group of notes will work over a certain chord, does not mean that you cannot challenge this. However, only an understanding of the theory allows it to be challenged. If there is no theory, what are you challenging? Have I lost you yet?
Should everyone learn music theory?
I am a believer that not everyone desires to become a great player on their chosen instrument. Some players seek only to accompany their voice or only want to play other peoples songs for fun as a hobby. However, knowledge is power and if you have taken the time to seek out this article with the question ‘should I learn music theory?’, then I think you know the answer.
Music theory is merely a way to explain sounds so that they can be universally communicated. Nothing more, nothing less. It allows you to hear a sound and immediately understand it which then allows you to recreate it. Some of the very best musicians who have ever lived had an encyclopedic knowledge of music theory. However, it is of the upmost importance that you apply what you learn! Learning music theory will not stick with you unless you use it. Unsure how to apply it? Get a good teacher.
To be the very best that you can be, it’s naïve to think that the vast ocean of written music and theory that is available to everyone is nothing but a bunch of mechanical exercises. After reading this I hope you have many more questions about music theory. Get a good theory book or teacher and start learning. That’s where all the answers are.
Andy Mclaughlan is a Scottish guitar teacher and musician. Visit www.andymclaughlan.com for more about Andy and his music.
© 2011 Andy Mclaughlan