Must every musician learn music theory? Is it really necessary? There are some guitar players that claim that learning music theory is helpful, while others insist that studying music theory will somehow make you think too much about your art and in fact will get in the way of your creativity. So who is right here?
Let's think about what would happen to your musical skills if you take the time to study theory. You will inevitably gain a greater understanding of the guitar and learn the fretboard much better. You will be able to understand what other musicians are saying when they are talking about music. Your improvising skills and soloing ability will improve dramatically (check out this article for more tips on soloing and improvising). You will have more options open to you if you decide to pursue a career in music (become a guitar teacher, or go to school for music.) Finally most importantly, you will be able to come up with creative musical ideas on a more consistent and frequent basis (I explain why below). Trying to write truly expressive music without knowing theory is similar to trying to walk blindfolded. You may end up where you are going eventually but the process will be much slower, filled with more obstacles and much less satisfying.
Those that argue that learning music theory inhibits your creativity have either never studied theory with a good teacher (this is very important) or more frequently did not learn how to APPLY what they have learned to composing. As a result, whatever knowledge that has been retained is largely useless, hence the argument against learning theory. Furthermore, there are some that claim that guitarists such as Jimmy Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn did not study theory. This may be partly true, but there is no doubt that these players had at least a rudimentary understanding of basic concepts such as the pentatonic scale and they knew their way around the fretboard well (have you ever heard them play out of key?). Furthermore, let us not forget that guitar in general (and electric guitar specifically) has evolved greatly in the past 50 years. Nowadays, it is almost impossible to be considered a professional musician (or even an advanced guitar player) without understanding at least the basics of theory such as intervals and construction of triads.
Another argument that sometimes comes up against learning theory is sort of related to the one described above and that argument is that music theory somehow boxes you in and forces you to only think and write music in structured ways in accordance with strict music theory rules. After all, these critics might say, playing music is all about playing what sounds good, right? Well of course that part is true.BUT! whenever I hear someone make this argument (that music theory boxes you in with its strict rules or limits your creativity in some way), it becomes clear to me that there exists a huge misconception on why music theory even exists and what it stands for in that person's mind.
Remember, music theory is not really a set of rules. All it is, is a set of observations on how music was written and what makes music sound good (or not) that go back hundreds of years. These observations (of accepted conventions) have been written down as sets of guidelines that we now refer to as Music Theory. Music was written for many hundreds of years before some people decided to analyze the basic principles of how it was composed and write it down in textbooks (which we now know as music theory). By studying music theory, you will understand why certain things in music sound good, and how you can apply that knowledge to your own playing/songwriting/improvising etc So in a sense, by studying music theory you are in fact learning how to make your music SOUND GOOD! (of course this is true if you are learning music theory from someone who knows how to teach it in a way that is relevant to your musical ambitions) By learning these guidelines you can choose to follow them, or you can choose to alter them to your own liking, or you can choose to abandon them entirely if you wish to. But all it does is provide you with a greater number of options to be a more expressive musician. EVERY style of music uses the basic principles of music theory in some way (believe it or not, even blues and rock!). And by having an understanding of these fundamentals, you can only become a better player at whatever style you like.
After you learn some music theory, whenever you come across a certain piece of music that you like, you will be able to understand on a mental level (using music theory) what is happening in the music to make it sound so good, and if you wish, you can adapt this new knowledge to your own playing and writing. Your improvising and soloing will improve as well if you understand a lot about how chords are structured Can you now see the ENORMOUS potential to help your musical skills by learning theory? With all the arguments made above, why would you NOT want to learn about how music really works?
By the way, as an aside point I have never heard a single person who knows a great deal about music theory (and truly understands it well) say that they think this skill is not important or somehow limiting to a musician.
With all of that being said, I do NOT believe that every musician should become a master of music theory. I believe that everyone should learn enough theory to reach their ultimate musical goals. This may require little theory or it may require a lot. You have to judge for yourself based on YOUR needs. If you desire to just play your favorite songs on the guitar and do not plan on writing your own music, then learning theory would not be high on your priority list. However if you aspire to write your own songs, to improvise and create your own solos, become a professional musician, go to school for music or become a guitar teacher, then not knowing theory will hold you back dramatically. So think about your goals and do not attempt to learn theory without a good teacher to guide you. It will be similar to trying to teach yourself math or science.
Hopefully after thinking about the points made above and analyzing your goals, you will be able to reach a conclusion on whether or not you should learn theory and how much music theory knowledge will be necessary to move you closer to your dreams.
For a beginner guide to music theory, check out this article: Music Theory 101
You can contact me at email@example.com I would be happy to answer any questions you may have. I reply to all e-mails.
About Mike Philippov
Mike Philippov is a professional virtuoso guitarist, music composer and instructor. He is currently working on an instrumental CD that will feature music in the virtuoso neo-classical and progressive rock styles. Mike also teaches guitar, both privately as well as through guitar clinics. Mike is also a co-author of several instructional products including: a Backing Tracks CD Improve Your Improv as well as instructional courses: The Ultimate Sweep Picker's Guide, and Serious Improvement for the Developing Guitarist.
Currently Mike is busy working on several projects including composing and recording a solo CD featuring music in the neo-classical and progressive rock styles as well as more instructional products that are in the works at this time. Please visit www.mikephilippov.com to hear some of Mike's playing and sign up for a free newsletter which is sent out periodically and contains helpful tips and advice for guitar players.
E-mail Mike at: firstname.lastname@example.org