Should You Learn Music Theory?

Must every musician learn music theory?

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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 mike@mikephilippov.com I would be happy to answer any questions you may have. I reply to all e-mails.

About Mike Philippov

www.mikephilippov.com www.thenextstepguitar.com

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: mike@mikephilippov.com

129 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Aziraphale
    zepledfan413 wrote: Nobody has ever said I play out of key and I only know the pentatonic scale. I don't know any chords or anything and I sound my best when I'm just goofing around without using the scales. Of course, there is a chance I'm playing parts of music theory but whatever. Expression is something you have to create, not learn.
    If you play within a key, you ARE playing scales. It's impossible to play within a key without using scales. You're just unaware of what you're doing. People think of theory as "rules", when it's actually hundreds of years of research on "what is possible to do", not what you "should" do. Saying it blocks your creativity is like saying learning more words makes it harder to express yourself, so you live your life using only grunts and the occasional "ok", "mhm", "penis" and so on. People think playing an extra note outside of the pentatonic box makes them so innovative and groundbreaking and sees it as proof that they don't need theory. I can assure you that hundreds of classical composers 300 years ago did the same thing. But they knew what they were doing and knew exactly where they wanted to put in an A#, they didn't just hit a random note and think: "Oh my God, that's not in the scale but it sounded good anyway! I'm a genious!"
    zepledfan413
    Nobody has ever said I play out of key and I only know the pentatonic scale. I don't know any chords or anything and I sound my best when I'm just goofing around without using the scales. Of course, there is a chance I'm playing parts of music theory but whatever. Expression is something you have to create, not learn.
    RevolverX
    My opinion is this. Those with the most interest in guitar will learn theory, simply because they would never dream of closing doors on the instrument. I love learning theory, not because I like math, or I enjoy torturing myself, but because I love this instrument. And to be honest: theory isn't even that difficult. I would encourage anyone new to the guitar to learn by ear first, though!
    psychokiller99
    i learned all the theory that i needed to know (how to read sheet music, the different scales, how to make them, key signatures, chord progressions, building chords, etc.) from the book "Piano for Dummies" believe it or not haha. it's a good book, and i learned to play piano from that and by ear. then when i picked up guitar, i applied theory to it and well there you go. piano for dummies, great book, i recommend it
    SynGates7X
    SlapMeWithBacon wrote: SynGates7X wrote: SlapMeWithBacon wrote: Who cares, I just hit a billion notes per second way outside any particular scale like Buckethead and it still sounds awesome XD If you are trying to insinuate that Buckethead does not know any music theory than you are highly mistaken. Dude, it was a joke. Of course he knows LOADS of theory I'm just saying, he doesn't always follow what are considered the 'guide lines', and it still sounds pretty incredible.
    Ok, my b. I was just checking, Cuz there are plenty of people on the website that have told me that Buckethead knows nothing and is a joke.
    SlapMeWithBacon
    SynGates7X wrote: SlapMeWithBacon wrote: Who cares, I just hit a billion notes per second way outside any particular scale like Buckethead and it still sounds awesome XD If you are trying to insinuate that Buckethead does not know any music theory than you are highly mistaken.
    Dude, it was a joke. Of course he knows LOADS of theory I'm just saying, he doesn't always follow what are considered the 'guide lines', and it still sounds pretty incredible.
    SynGates7X
    SlapMeWithBacon wrote: Who cares, I just hit a billion notes per second way outside any particular scale like Buckethead and it still sounds awesome XD
    If you are trying to insinuate that Buckethead does not know any music theory than you are highly mistaken.
    Sleepn_Giant
    Charlie4 wrote: I'm going to study Jazz in 2009 so I need to be prepared as hell If I'm gonna survive, that's why in 2008 all I'm gonna do is Music Theory. It might seem extremely dull but it will lead me into becoming a professional musician. The reason I'm going to study jazz is to be an all-style studio musician. Sacrifices are worth being made.
    What's wrong with studying jazz just because you like the genre a lot? (Like myself)
    Washburn1342
    KingJustinian25 wrote: with all the resources available now (online), you don't need to memorize and know theory, just how to apply it.
    Thats kinda like saying since you have a calculator you don't need to learn how to add Its good to learn theory but its also good to play with feeling just because you learn theory doesn't mean your creativity is gonna stop,try changing the tuning of the guitar, play in an open tuning your creativity will spring back to life,That is if you have lost it in the first place,I learned theory and I never found I lost my creativity anyways I've said my piece later all.
    aleksa
    great job writing this article... its cool! keep on learning music theory... if you don't need it now you'll need it later!!! trust me!
    Charlie4
    I'm going to study Jazz in 2009 so I need to be prepared as hell If I'm gonna survive, that's why in 2008 all I'm gonna do is Music Theory. It might seem extremely dull but it will lead me into becoming a professional musician. The reason I'm going to study jazz is to be an all-style studio musician. Sacrifices are worth being made.
    SlapMeWithBacon
    Who cares, I just hit a billion notes per second way outside any particular scale like Buckethead and it still sounds awesome XD
    Atreyu154
    Awsome, Could'nt agree more, plus any music theory opens the doors to so much, personally I play Piano, Violin and Guitar Acoustic/Electric and there is not a day that I dont find myself using it, it becomes sub consious so you can still be creative but know what your doing. Frederick Harris music produces a book called Rudiments of Music and its by Barbara Wharram and its my bible honestly. This book is chalked full of everything you need to know in detail from inversions to Dominants its in there But yes personal opinion everyone needs theory it just makes it easier.
    Fambi
    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.
    Not true for metal =P =P =P. Very good article, however.
    -SpasticInk-
    To use theory on the same instinctal level as experimentation you must learn it to a very high level I think that your mind makes up theory as it goes along, to understand what sounds good together, so in fact everyone is learning theory in the way that suites them argument closed
    rocker91
    Theory is the start. Once you know the basics, then you can rip them apart as much as you want, but you always need to have something to go back to when all else fails.
    Soulinfector
    It'd be funny if the only word in the article was "Yes." that probably would have done it for me.
    pooo15
    this is too fvkn true. i have to sit on my a$$ and listen to people talk about what key there song is and if they should be using the anal scale and what not.
    SynGates7X
    I always thought that knowing theory did limit you at first. But as you go on learn more about what is what and why it sounds the way it does, it really doesn't limit you. When you know theory, you learn to twist it the way you want to in a manner of speaking.
    Riffer_maddness
    quote from interview with Ace Frehly "what do know about theory?" he replies "I dont know jack shit" and thats my point
    Riffer_maddness
    i play in my schools band so i understand how octaves scales work but i dont apply them alot i know one scale but other than that i jus let it flow man jus make up some riffs that sound good and when i do solos i just go by certain paterns of note but no scales or keys or really any of that shit plus i jus taught everything to mydslefl so oh well
    Sleepn_Giant
    People have stated this before me, but some people still refer to Music theory as "rules" to make something sound good. But it isn't rules, it is just observation of music and how it sounds. No matter what you play, it has something to do with music theory. Music theory is just an understanding of music. If you are playing a Bb blues and your first lick has a B in it. You aren't going against theory, but rather modifying what the ear conventionally hears into something very different. But that is still theory because a B is a b2 of Bb. Basically what I am trying to say is that even if someone doesn't know theory and is playing something rather odd. They are still using theory, they just don't know it or understand it. With this understanding, you can structure your music however you like. It is just easier to do it because you can think "You know, I want some dissonance, how about adding the tri-tone here" or "I'm going to raise this chord up a half step because I think it sounds better".
    Aziraphale
    challengedmind wrote: jus wondering what exactly people think learning theory is? learning to play in more than one key, or one key on a different key is not theory. personally i think it depends on what your looking for, the author playing neo-classical stuff is of course going to need vast amounts of theory, someone in a rock or metal band only needs the bare minimum in my opinion.
    Well, then again because of that thinking we've reached a point where the vast majority of metal is ridiculously predictable. I play in a metal band and because of that I'm set on learning as much theory as I possibly can so that I hopefully can make something that doesn't sound like every metal band ever. I'd much rather listen to some cheesy 90's pop that has at least something interesting going on harmonically (you'd be surprised to see how often that actually happens), than listen to a metal band that has nothing original about them. More and more metal bands have nothing original about them.
    Scorge
    if you want a good teacher online(for free) then go to youtube and look up justin sandercoe. he's got some exercises and ideas that really helped me advance alot quicker with knowing what i'm doing. on the theory, i've heard of people come up with their own scales, so as long as you keep pushing forward with a sound that you like, and that you enjoy playing, then someday someone might look at what you're doing and say that is awesome. remember to never stop moving forward and learning new things and use them in your own way that you think would sound cool.
    metal_maniac#1
    Nightfyre wrote: Flamin' Mania wrote: ParkerScks wrote: well i think people should do what they want i have notaced tho when you are writing music with no knowlage of theory u just know how to wiz up and down the guitar because you may have lernt songs from tabs then it dosent really sound any diffrant but as soon as you start to lern theory you start to change e.g. ull play somthing and to your ears it sounds awsome but when you look with your eyes it ruins it i went threw that probblem and i couldent switch it off so i lernt more theory then i hit the bridge again and had to lern more and now im caught up in a vicious circle i recomend that if you really cannot improvise then lern your theory if you can improvise then dont and youll notace you lern things your self with out the use of text books or a teacher Yeah I agree with ye I found improvising was really easy and not only I thought it was good, but my band mates thought it was sweet. But then I started to learn theory and it was good at the start until I realised what i was playing wasnt right musically so I retuned it all and then it sounded alot like everything else i've already heard. So i had to learn more like you and the cycle began. Not saying that I havent learnt how to rip some sweet tunes now that I've learnt more but I have forgotten how I used to do things which kinda sucks With enough knowledge you'll understand that what you're doing wasn't necessarily "wrong". Maybe it was chromatic, that's cool. Maybe an exotic scale? Nothing wrong with that. Passing tones? I love 'em. Key modulation or quick changes in chord or mode? Adds spice if done correctly. You have to know the rules in order to break them, but music theory ISN'T RULES. They're guidelines, because after a while it hits you that there's an infinite number of ways to write a good lick. With all the different techniques, scales, modes, etc. at your fingertips, there really aren't any limitations. Theory just gives a name to what you're doing.
    i love you.
    in*limbo
    well... this seems to be quite the hotspot. I dont know much theory, i didnt have lessons. i taught myself, and whenever i need to know something about theory i look it up in "the guitar handbook" by ralph denyer, and then learn a lil bwt it and move on with fresh knowledge. but i have only scratched the serface. ive been playing in a band for round a bout a year now and i cant help but notice that when writing my problem is solos. they take forever. And this is Obviously down to my lack of theoretical knowledge as a player. I know a mate of mine who can do it easy, and he's been having lessons for years. i dont intend on learning theory proply, it'll make me change as a guitarist too much, even if my current skill does limit me somewhat. thats life good article
    vanceboy
    good article. Definitely study music theory as far as your goals go...you wouldn't want to learn classical guitar if you're just playing power chords. The thing I wonder about is...does the Mars Volta use music theory?
    Kipyt
    You don't NEED a teacher, but it makes it so much easier in my opinion, I'm so deep into theory now I can make the simplest riffs sound amazing, and I don't think I'd be this far without a teacher.
    Ravenblacktear
    You would be suprised what you can do with a little bit of theory. I mean, I do some things when I write songs that my guitar instructor doesn't even think of, mainly the way I shift from major and minor, but still be in key, and then my use of a minor 3 for desonance in a major song. I mean, if you learn theory right, then it should help you with your creativity. Think of the music as a painting that you are about to paint, and the notes are the different paints. One still needs to know what they are going to paint to make the painting, and that is completely up to them. They just have their knowlege of art to aid them in expressing themselves to the fullest. I mean, with theory, I was basically able to make a progression that is essentially just B, with alterations to it to get a different feel with each change, and most people don't even realize what I am doing is so simple. Then again, I would also recommend classical guitar to anyone who is really serious about playing guitar because it teaches you good technique, plus you would be suprised how many metal guitarist play classical. Most metal and rock doesn't teach good technique, which is why so many guitarists also play classical guitar. Once you get decent at it, you can make parts in two, even three voices, and that alone can expand your playing even further. It gets you used to writing harmonies, which drastically aids you in writing.
    pitobodies
    I know very little theory, and yet the songs i write sound good. I can improvise decent solos. I don't think music theory is necessary. But i am taking a class in school next year because i want to understand what i'm playing, and why it sounds the way it does. I believe it will make me a better musician. I don't think it will limit me. people who say it is limiting only say this because they are limiting themeselves to the theory they've learned. I don't need or want an in depth knowledge of theory, simply because i don't think it is necessary. That said, I think the author transposed the "You" and the "Should" in the title of the article. This is not anywhere close to an objective article. The author provides a good argument for learning theory (the side which he is clearly on) but states his opinions as thought they are fact in an attempt to balance the argument. He does not believe that every musician should MASTER theory, but does believe that all should LEARN it. Which, based on the title, doesn't quite seem like the point of the article.
    kevinmcelroyhcm
    If someone could tell me everything there is to know about music theory, i would not stop studying until i knew everything. The only thing i am doing currently is writing improvised songs, which suck, and studying the Circle of Fifths. What other parts of music theory am i missing?
    IbanezRGSHRED
    UGH. I hate when people say "Jimmy" Hendrix. IT'S JIMI. But yeah. I also heard EVH didn't even know his scales. Anyway.. I'm learning theory.. Or at least trying. I'll know it at some point.
    stigmeister2win
    great article, ive never understanded the music theori yet, but i think i will take it to the next lvl now
    fishermankyle78
    Ya, Ive been a musician over 25yrs,and I have not seen anybody yet worth a crap that hasnt had some theory lessons, come on how are you going to play a note if you dont know where it is, any body serious should at least learn basic theory, and guitar players should take lessons on how to form and make a chord and strum it, If all you know is the two fingered power chord, three fingered on the next level of player, you aint got crap, you can only play certain things your ability is limited, bottom line take some theory classes.
    beau05
    ive been playing for 3 1/2 years, 6 months ago i was stuck in the same boring mould of 'i need to learn more songs written by other people', which is ok, but i was limited creatively, but as soon as i learnt the basics of the minor pentatonic, i was amazed at how quickly ive progressed if anything, like this article has said, learning theory increases creativity
    Colton165
    RevolverX wrote: Here's my suggestions for those of you who like learning it all yourself: "Theory For the Contemporary Guitarist", Guy Capuzzo, and for those who want some trickier stuff, "The Big Book of Jazz Guitar Improvisation", by Mark Dziuba.
    "Theory for the Contemorary Guitarist" by Guy Capuzzo is my new Bible.
    Intoxicator
    I suppose like in other sophisticated life spahers, music demands understanding and knowledge. It's nice than you can not even say that it sounds nice, but to proove it with theory great article !
    WCS_Is_Worse1
    EdawMail wrote: a situation you need theory for 'lets do a jam in C#m' ok.. let me find it.... Really? I got it down then. and thats basic theory.
    my_name_is_nick
    Fambi wrote: 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. Not true for metal =P =P =P. Very good article, however.
    nope even metal does remember, metal evolved out of rock, which means it still has those fundamentals of music theory, just applied in a different fashion anyways, good writing there made some good arguments without trying to beat it in my head
    RevolverX
    Here's my suggestions for those of you who like learning it all yourself: "Theory For the Contemporary Guitarist", Guy Capuzzo, and for those who want some trickier stuff, "The Big Book of Jazz Guitar Improvisation", by Mark Dziuba.
    Theguitarman2
    im about to start leaqrning my friend whoas a teacher is going give me lessons for free sweet!
    HandT
    Trying to write truly expressive music without knowing theory is similar to trying to walk blindfolded.
    Perfect analogy, great article
    RevolverX
    This is a very good debate. Throwing in another of my own two cents, I think that if there's one thing you should consider looking into in terms of theory, it's intervals. Knowing what each interval sounds like and committing this to ear (with hours of practice), you'll be well off. Being able to identify intervals is key for transcribing and understanding motifs or phrasing common to specific genres. Where would metal be without the minor second, minor third, or the tritone?