Everybody has a different idea of what music theory is or isn't. Once common misunderstanding is that music theory is no more than music notation, or learning and knowing all of the notes and scales. While having that knowledge is beneficial to your playing, music theory goes much deeper than that. If this is all you practice, then it's easy to lose track of the real meaning.
Music theory, at its essence, is actually all about knowing and utilizing the impact of music emotionally. Every sound, every progression, whether it be consonant or dissonant has the ability to affect the audience in an emotional way. Knowing the chords and the musical keys allow a musician to write a cohesive song. And different scales, by definition, are used to compose and play songs with a certain feeling to them.
Whether this whole concept is new to you or you already have some experience, this guide will teach you how to avoid getting away from the big picture.
Music Notation Isn't Everything in Music Theory
Believing that theory is comprised of knowing music notation is one of the things that actually harms a player's ability to learn an instrument. Learning notation is helpful and a necessary part of some theory, but it is just a small part of the big picture.
There are actually a lot of players out there who are well-versed in music theory, but don't actually know the standard notation all that well.
Understanding how chord progressions work together, as well as understanding rhythm and musical form are truly independent from the standard notation.
One famous example of a player who does not use music notation is Hans Zimmer, the movie composer who wrote the music for "The Dark Knight" and "Gladiator" - all of his writing is done on a computerized piano roll rather than a score. He doesn't use notation, but he is using music theory as a composition guide.
Learning Music Jargon Is Not the Same as Learning Theory
It may be faster if you simply know that a Mixolydian scale uses a minor 7th note, where a Lydian scale has an augmented 4th. But that knowledge should never be mistaken for actually understanding why and when this knowledge works.
Knowing the name of a mode in a scale means nothing more than that.
The listener doesn't know or care that you are using a C Mixolydian scale - and the name shouldn't really matter to you either, so long as you are using it correctly.
There are many composers out there who will admit they don't know what mode they're using, or even if they're using a mode at all - but they're still using even though they don't know the name of it. I recently had a spoke to a local composer who admitted to ending her songs with a few different standard chord progressions. It didn't take long to figure out that she was actually using the standard 5-1 authentic cadence and 4-1 Plagal cadence. If she had known the names of this before, would it have actually helped her be a better player?
Finding the Name of a Chord Isn't Knowing How to Use It
When was the last time you stumbled upon a forum thread where the author is looking for the name of some obscure chord? Have you noticed that as soon as the chord is named, the thread is never touched again? It's as if the forum users care more about showing it off to their friends than actually using it right in a song.
A music theorist doesn't care about writing the chord down, but instead we look at how the chord sounds, how it works in a progression, how it will interact with other chords, and the way it feels.
It doesn't matter if we know its name or not, because that doesn't actually mean that we know what it does. In another sense, what use is a word to a writer if they don't know what it means and how it changes a sentence?
Scales Mean Nothing if You Don't Know How to Use Them
Some people believe that if they move their hands up and down scale patterns for hours each day, they will suddenly know how to play guitar. I've looked at how the scales taught in some systems are harmful (such last the CAGED system) in other articles, so I won't go in depth here. Beyond that, it is a fact that teaching students how to play a C minor pentatonic doesn't teach them how to play the blues.
It doesn't come down to chance that students who only learned scale/chords patterns have issues learning how to use them in practice to compose or improvise. The best way to look at it, is if you can play the same way on another instrument, then they're going in the right direction. There may not be a way to practice an G shape on a piano, however, if you know your theory, then you'll know it is possible to play the D major scale on it.
The D major scale is an actual object in music theory, the G shape is simply a fiction of a specific system of scale patterns.
By learning the theory behind the scales and not just the patterns, you will naturally orient yourself on the fretboard.
How to Tell if It's Real or Fake Theory?
The answer comes down to a simple question: How is the "theory" being taught? Lessons should be experienced and not abstract: are the students hearing the affect of their practice in each concept that they study? When they learn a new scale, or a new cadence, are they also learning the different ways it can be used and how it changes the feel? This is also a major part of ear training.
So here's the test: you should be able to compose something with the example you were taught. If you aren't able to make a short composition with it, then you have not learned any new theory.
When you're learning theory, try changing the question to "how does this work, and what does it do?" instead of "what is this called?".
About the Author:
Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and teacher with a passion for Music Theory applied to Guitar.