A How-To Guide for Spotting Fake Music Theory

Music theory isn't learning how to write down different notes, or practicing and reciting scales on a guitar. It's about experiencing the way notes interact and the effect they have on the listener.

Ultimate Guitar
Do you think learning music theory has limited your progression and stifled your creativity? The truth is that it could very well be, just not for the reasons you might think. The real reason could be that you're not learning the right things, or studying the wrong way. Here's how you can tell.

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.

57 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Great article! I definitely find myself learning all of the terms and how to talk big but never taking the time to use it in music.
    this is such a big eye opener to me, especialy the final sentence should be taught to all students of music
    Dom Hawthorn
    Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and teacher with a passion for Music Theory applied to Guitar. .... ?
    A mentor told me 40 years ago that the difference between me and top session musicians was that they knew what they were playing. He was so right. I wish I had a teacher like Tommaso back then to help me connnect the dots sooner and faster. I believe composition came before theory and that Theory was an attempt to apply rules using a language that is much more resitrictive than composing and playing. Connecting to the theory is less enticing, less salient but not connecting will likely stunt a music career like it did to me. Finding a teacher that positions theory correctly is a gem.
    Fantastic article! Now some stuff I've been stuck on for months makes total sense. I was equating scale patterns on the guitar with the theory behind them, unable to differentiate between the two. Even though I knew the theory behind the pattern, I didn't realize the importance of being able to transfer the skill from guitar to another instrument or voice.
    I fully agree we th this guys/gals concepts and integrity. While subject to open discussion this article is pretty sweet. I have not read anything else by this person, but, i really abide by alot of these points myself. I have alot of friends who ask where i came up with a melody, or solo or backing track. I always say, if you know the key and mode thats says what you want, the rest is trial and error. Finding what works and does not work and WHY.
    You can actually construct melody by using chord tones as a base, then everything else is embellishment/ornamentation and passing non harmony notes, Schoenberg wrote a book about it, it's quite interesting, A guy called Slominsky did a similar thing in a book called "Thesaurus of Scale patterns and modeS" or something along those lines, I'd really recommend giving it a read.
    (replying to Ha_asgag comments) I disagree. It's only after you understand how something works that you can practice it. Confidence and inspiration does not come if you do not have a solid understanding. "Common sense" means nothing to people when they are learning. You would be surprised how often a student of mine (offline or online) thanks me because "I finally explained the missing piece without resorting to things like 'just practice it' or 'it will come with experience'" (actual quote). Invariably, the missing piece is part of what I call 'real theory'... and it's always something really simple, but no amount of common sense will substitute for actual knowledge.
    It is "common sense" to let your ears decide what notes sound appropriate or what notes to emphasize in a given situation. How you play and the timings that you use are other aspects that affect the music. No amount of analytical thinking and music theory will explain exactly why a piece of music sounds good or not. You can't really say or conclude, "It sounded great because he played this interval over a ii-V-I."
    First, music theory is not only analytical. If it were only analytical, I would agree with you. Second, music theory CAN totally explain why a piece sounds good or not, and what emotions it express, and how to compose other pieces with similar feelings. If you don't think it can, it's because you have not gone in depth enough yet in your knowledge of music theory (and I don't blame you for it, because there are preciously few resources available for that kind of knowledge). Third, again, talking about "common sense" is not going to help a beginner to understand. Breaking it down into understandable pieces and then putting them back together will.
    Music theory is not what explains why a piece of music sounds good but it is a person's perception of sound that does this. The way a guitarist or vocalist controls his or her vibrato is governed by the ear's judgment and not necessarily knowledge. What you can teach a student is the skill to control the vibrato.
    Music theory IS an explanation of a person's perception! A person's perception is automatic (though training can improve awareness of the process) and music theory is a model of that perception that allows us to control it. If you know that model, you are more effective as a musician (yes, even for vibrato). Goes without saying that once you know the model you need the technique to implement it too... but if you don't even know WHAT works, what are you practicing? There ARE parts of music theory that explain how vibrato influences perception and give SPECIFIC directions to make your vibrato better (that is, it's not just a matter of taste). If you don't know these, what are you doing when you practice your vibrato? Try randomly until it sounds good?
    LOL! I like the way you defined or "redefined" music theory. I think what is stressed most of the time is the analytical and structural side of it.
    I agree. Music theory doesn't tell you what sounds good/bad or what is wrong/right. It just describes music. Whether something sounds good or not is all up to you to decide. But you can use music theory to figure out what you like. You can analyze your favorite songs and find the things that you like in them.
    This article should be called: "Solfeggio sucks".
    ... but ear training rocks
    I had the chance to go through "Melodic Guitar Improvisation" and thought it was a good e-book you wrote but this article seemed to be a contradiction to what you wrote years back.
    Solfeggio sucks to deaf and nonrhythmic people. People that fail at solfeggio have a real hard time getting rhythms and patterns. I mean, is like learning a whole new language, literally makes you smarter if you understand how learning develops neurological connections. Now ear training, you either have ear or you don't. You can learn pitch, but not ear.
    "Now ear training, you either have ear or you don't. You can learn pitch, but not ear." Bullshit. It improves with the correct training, like everything.
    "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." I disagree. Not everybody is a composer. And even if you are using those concepts, it doesn't mean you understand them in theory. But if you hear a song and can recognize that the song uses certain theoretic concepts, that's when you have learned it. Music theory is just a way to describe music with words. But yeah, I agree with the article in that some people think they know theory when they know the names to some random things but aren't really able to recognize them when they listen to music or play a song. Theory is not just some random jargon. To really understand theory, you need to understand music in practice (ie, use your ears and not just do technical exercises like "what notes are in Gb7#9b5 chord" or "what is a diminished 7th above an Fb"). Also, not every "music theorist" is a good player. One could learn theory without even being able to play an instrument or without being able to compose. What's the use for that? Well, I don't know, some people just find it interesting. Music theory by itself doesn't make you a better player or composer. You don't need to know theory to write amazing music. You don't need to know theory to be an amazing guitarist. You need to "know practice". Knowing it in theory does help of course. Having explanation for stuff is helpful. But there are plenty of people who know music theory well but have never written a song. And there are plenty of people who know a lot of theory but aren't that good at playing their instruments. And then there are plenty of great players and people who write great songs but know nothing about theory. But yeah, what's wrong with many people is that they learn these scales and chords and then think they are some kind of rules that you must follow. And that using accidentals is somehow against the rules. And that's a good example of when learning theory wrong can be harmful and limiting. If they really understood theory, they would know that they can write anything they want and it will most likely have some kind of a theoretic explanation to it. And if it doesn't, you have created something completely new. And if that sounds good or becomes the done thing, people will find an explanation for it. But it's very unlikely anything like that will happen, at least if you are using any of the 12 notes.
    Thank for the detailed comment. I think you raise some good points that I'm in agreement with, but I want to comment on one of your paragraphs here: > Music theory by itself doesn't make you a better player or composer. Actually 'real' theory does. Why study it otherwise? : > You don't need to know theory to write amazing music. You actually do. You don't need to know the names, sure. That's kind the point of the article: to distinguish the useful theory from the fluff. > You don't need to know theory to be an amazing guitarist. Again, you actually do. Unless we are talking about somebody who will always play from tabs note-by-note (which would not be a 'great' player in my book)... and even in this case theory will help. > You need to "know practice". Knowing it in theory does help of course. Having explanation for stuff is helpful. Agreed as written. But you would be surprised how much more efficient your practice is if you have a firm grounding in theory. > But there are plenty of people who know music theory well but have never written a song. True. At the same time there are plenty of people who have incredible technique and never recorded a song. Having a skill does not automatically means that you use it. >And there are plenty of people who know a lot of theory but aren't that good at playing their instruments. True again. They are either learning 'fake' theory, or they are learning 'good' theory but did not have enough time yet to implement and integrate what they learn (that is, their musicianship is a work in progress). > And then there are plenty of great players and people who write great songs but know nothing about theory. No, that is actually not true. I wrote an article about "6 misconceptions regarding music theory" that addresses that. I think you are on the right path, your comment overall says many true and positive things... but you are underestimating the impact that the theory you know has made to help you play.
    I think we kind of define music theory a bit differently. Music theory has to do with the explanation of sounds. If you don't know the explanations and don't know how they apply to music, you don't know theory. If you know music practically (through playing your instrument but can't really verbally explain what's happening in a piece you hear), you don't really know theory. Jimi Hendrix didn't know theory. The Beatles didn't know theory. Slash doesn't know theory. A lot of rock artists are like this. I would say music theory is an analytical tool. It's a way of analyzing music. My comment may seem like it disregards theory. But that wasn't my intention. Theory is helpful and it makes music make more sense. It's way easier to pick stuff up by ear. You can instantly have an explanation for things that you hear in music. It's way easier to structure music. And BTW, I'm a to-be music theory teacher. I'm definitely interested in music theory and I think it has helped me to become a better musician.
    I would say music theory is a language - kind of. One can "use" certain theoretic concepts in their music without being aware of it. It's all ear. That's what I mean with those who know music in practice, not in theory. But you can't really understand theory without knowing the practice. Even if you know the theoretic terms, that's not really theory if you can't recognize them in actual music. Actually, one could know things in practice really well and know some theoretical explanations but is just simply not able to connect those two. Theory only starts making real sense after you have learned enough about it. It's all about whether you can see the connection between the theoretical stuff and the practical stuff. Combine those two and you know music theory.
    I can agree with you that theory is taught today in many places as an analytical tool... but this is not the whole of theory (though some theorist would like you to think that) Do you think people like Bach or Beethoven were studying and teaching theory for analytical purposes? Or maybe they were studying and teaching theory and composition together, as part of a unified whole? Also... Hendrix and the Beatles knew theory damn well. To build more "mystique" they advertised themselves as being "naturals", but they (and many others) actually studied a lot. On the connection of practical stuff and theory we agree: this is what I meant in the last paragraph of the article ("Lessons should be experienced and not abstract")
    OK, all I can say is, we certainly have different definitions of what "music theory" means. The way I would describe Jimi Hendrix's and The Beatles's knowledge of music is "theory in practice but not in theory". Or maybe "the knowledge of music in practice". OK, I think this is how I would describe the knowledge of music theory: "If you can't explain what's happening in a piece of music, you don't really know theory." So that also includes the practical part. But practical part on its own doesn't include it. As I said, if you know everything by ear but not the explanations, I would say you've got a good knowledge of music in practice. And about the Bach and Beethoven comment. You learn from music by analyzing it (ie finding certain patterns that other people have used in their music). But yeah, of course they studied both composition and theory. But they are a bit different things. Composition is a skill of its own. Similarly as playing your instrument is a skill of its own. Of course they also overlap.
    Actually the original classical composers had to have amazing knowledge of theory, or at least how it works. They couldn't have composed for orchestras without theory because they didn't have anything but a blank piece of paper, and maybe a piano. But they actually had to compose purely by using theory, a skill that I think is pretty dead by now when you can just use a computer program to write the sheet music and have it play while you're composing. Bach couldn't hear his composition until it was actually played by a whole orchestra.
    That's true. But Bach would know what his composition would sound like before hearing somebody play it because he had a good ear. He knew what the notes he wrote would sound like. And I bet he could use a keyboard instrument or something like that to try out his ideas. People can compose in their head. You don't need an instrument or anything to compose a song and to know how it will sound like. Yeah, you do need theory knowledge to write it down of course. So yeah, if you are going to use pen and paper to write music, theory knowledge is pretty essential. Theory knowledge definitely helps you process the sounds you hear in your head.
    Are you even aware of how many methods to learn cello there are by Bach?
    Actually, in order for one to truly understand music theory, and that means being able to apply its prinicples, one must be able to compose music, and also in most music schools music theory is taught alongside a piano and an aural skills class
    Composition is not taught in the 7 years one must take to be a classical guitar player in a conservatory. Music theory, however, comprises a vast part of the training. Same goes for cello or any other instrument. Composition is a complete different discipline, same goes for conduction.
    That's why many classical guitar players (not all, thanks God) are GREAT executors, but poor overall musicians. They have been taught a discipline separated from is natural application. Note also that this is a recent development. In older conservatory courses composition was routinely taught. Knowing how to compose at least simple pieces make you more sensitive to the "flow" of a song, and makes you a better (and less robotic) executor. Also, if you never compose, all your knowledge stays "theoretical" and superficial.
    I go to a music conservatory for music education, but even our performance majors have to take conducting. also composition is a part of our music theory class. we learn new ideas, and then apply them using composition. also an orchestration class is required of both education and performance majors to graduate
    synysterfan: I agree. One does not need to become a full fledged composer and churn out a new symphony every week, but being able to compose short pieces is essential to understanding theory. Theory and composition (or improvisation) are two sides of the same coin.
    I still don't agree. Yes, they usually go hand in hand (if you know theory, you can also write music), but theory is about analyzing music (it doesn't go the other way around - plenty of songwriters don't know anything about theory, they just know everything by ear). Of course when you analyze music, you also get inspired by it. So yeah, they kind of go hand in hand, but I wouldn't say you can't understand theory if you don't write your own music or improvise. The way I "use" theory is that whenever I play a song, I kind of automatically analyze what's happening in it. And when I hear music, I do the same thing. Whenever I get musical ideas, they are not really theory based. They are ear based. I have kind of picked up the "language" of music by ear. I also know the explanations for those sounds - that's theory. But sound comes first. Theory for me is something that supports my ear. If I hear a melody in my head and can't use an instrument to try it out, I can still kind of "notate" it in my head. It's not just sounds - I also know the explanation and this makes the idea stay in my head.
    Dimebag used to say that "If it sounds right, Its right" I think that's true, while theory is important its not always necessary in writing cool music.
    I know the subject of music theory should not turn into a debate. Only a deaf person will play through a scale shape or a series of notes several times and still not have the slightest idea how those notes musically. The reality is that it just takes a little practice, common sense, confidence and inspiration to turn a I-IV-V chords or the notes of C Major scale into several songs.
    This is such rubbish. Everything in this article is obvious. It's like saying, just because you know what engine your car has doesn't mean you know how to fix it. What a strange article.
    I just use Italian words to impress the ladies Arpeggio... *Panties drop*
    So, you told us what were learning wrong, but you gave no real info on how to actually improve
    Gret article, thanks for writing it! Great ideas to keep in mind when learning new pieces of theory.
    What's y'alls opinion on the "Music theory made easy" lessons taught by Steve Stine?
    Music theory is already easy. It just takes interest and effort, just like playing an instrument.