Unlocking the Musician in You: 4 Reasons Why You Need Music Theory

Music theory is the best trick up a musician's sleeve. If you're the type of person who thinks that music theory has "rules," and that these "rules" will only hold you back from becoming the musician that you want to be, then this article is for you.

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As a budding musician, you've often been told that studying music theory is important, but will learning a bunch of chords and scales really help your playing? Have you heard that theory traps players? Are you afraid learning theory will hold you back?

This is a very common belief, as theory, at a glance, doesn't look like it offers any real reward when learning how to play guitar. Of course, if you spend any amount of time reading articles and tutorials about playing online, then you've certainly come across one of two posts saying it will only hold you back when learning the basic composition skills.

I felt this way when I first started as well, but what I found out is that most people who hold this belief don't know how to study music theory. The worst part about this though, is that when people spread this message, it reaffirms the false belief that theory doesn't actually help students learn to become great musicians, when in reality, the opposite is true.

That said, it isn't difficult to learn to study theory the correct way. It can actually be easier and more fun than you expect - and once you start to get the hang of it, it's usefulness and practicality becomes immediately clear for every type of musician, whether just for improvising, learning songs, and especially composition.

While going over the best approaches to music theory in their entirety is beyond a simple article, here are a few good places to start off:

The "Rules" of Music Theory Don't Exist

The biggest opposers of music theory dislike it because of all of the "rules," but in reality, there aren't any rules, and players will be encouraged to break the "rules" they learned in the future. This idea comes from the type of people who skim a couple pages of a book, and read that there are things they are not supposed to do. When they put the book down and never pick it up again, they are left with a sour taste, believing the "rules" only served to hold them back from compositing truly meaningful music.

Of course, this isn't the truth. These lessons are not meant to be a "rule book," instead they're supposed to be a set of instructions for learning a concept; sure, that exercise might have a couple rules - but those are there so you can learn the basics, which you will certainly break later on.

Some sets of exercises from the same sources will have different rules for a similar outcome, which can cause confusion, but that's because they focus on an entirely different concept that will be learned with time. Of course, the person who only reads a couple of pages won't be able to fully synthesize the learning objective without reading the entire book. Just remember that next time somebody tries to talk you out of learning theory.

Learning Theory Is Like Working Out

Those who have set foot in a gym know what it's like to repeatedly work every muscle, regardless of it's real-life usefulness: push ups, squats, dead lifts - to somebody who doesn't live that life, these movements are all superficial. Yet, those who do these tasks regularly are better at performing tasks in everyday life, while noticing many health benefits.

Sure, at the gym you may not be climbing an actual mountain. But when you do the training that is recommended for you, you gain strength. And when you do go on a road trip with friends and family and want to have a remarkable experience, you'll have a much easier time. It just makes sense.

I'm often asked what value there is in learning theory such as chords and scales. The obvious answer is that you can use them to compose, but the actual reason why we practice this, is because it makes us stronger musicians - you won't use it everywhere, but you will know how to adapt it to your style.

Chords and scales can be applied to your playing as soon as you learn them. And the more you know how certain sounds are created, the better you will be at creating the sounds that you hear in your head.

Playing Using the Subconscious Mind

Some people don't want to be burdened by thinking about the music they are creating. The believe that by thinking about different tones, modalities, and scales will slow down their playing - they just want to think about the music. I for one completely agree with that.

Think about when you're behind the wheel of a car. Are you concentrating on all of the rules of the road? Most definitely not. But even if you're not consciously thinking about it, you're still following the laws, because you memorized and internalized the rules when you got your license. At this point, you don't need to recall these memories every time you see a road sign, you just intuitively follow them.

This is exactly the same for guitar players, and I guarantee if you're reading this, you already know something about that. When you switch from an E chord to an A chord, you don't think about lifting each finger and placing it on the right part of the fretboard. Unless you've never made that movement before, then you have most likely already memorized the movements and don't consciously have to think about each finger placement.

And if you can do that without thinking about it, then with practice, you will see exactly the same results when you're learning theory. When I go into a sweet blues solo, I'm not thinking about which mode I'm moving into when the turn around hits, but I intuitively know which one is going to sound best, and how I can move there in time so that it feels right. I'm not a wizard, this is just a result of climbing all those mountains.

To Conclude

Music theory isn't the soul crushing beast that some fervent deniers call it - it's actually one of the secrets behind every great musician - that is, for those who have found the best teacher to help learn it the right way.

If you want to learn the best ways to learn theory, feel free to navigate to my website where I have a music theory map in the link below. This map will help you find out where you are on the spectrum, and help guide you to were you need to go next.

About the Author:
Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and teacher with a passion for music theory applied to guitar.

33 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Hahahah, nice april fools guys. I don't need theory, I can sweep pick.
    Not an April fools. And what do you sweep pick exactly? Arpeggios? Last time I checked, arpeggios were a concept from music theory...
    That flew over your head so high it's not even funny.
    Oh, no, I got it, and answered in kind This just proves that there are only so many levels of recursive humor that UG can withstand before a comment is taken seriously...
    people have been playing what could be described as arpeggios way before they knew the theory behind it, or said theory existed.
    True, but it does not mean anything. Just to make a metaphor, people have been traveling long distance before they knew anything of airlines, but this does not mean that if today I want to travel from US to Europe you take a boat or walk across the Bering Strait... just because it was possible before, does not mean that it was easy or practical. Theory will ALWAYS come after the fact, and it makes it easier to understand what is going on. Learning theory is quite literally "standing on the shoulders of giants".
    Hi I was just curious of somethin do u support the globe earth or the flat earth ?
    I have played guitar mega years...and I suffer from a nerve affliction which prevents me from cohesive alternating picking, or even all types of anything requiring speed...An arpeggio for me is virtually impossible unless i cheat. it affects even my eyes from learning anything over 126 bpm... Yes i can play within faster speeds, but not solo..I had an EEG which proved that. Thus i've learned to excel at chord and melody in ballads, and r and b @126 bpm....I never learned theory...but I WANT TO NOW....what do you suggest? any thoughts at all will be greatly appreciated. Respectfully yours, Richard Baxter, sr.. my reading is pathetic due to this affliction.except for 6 string chords
    The sad thing is that this was posted on April Fool's Day, so most people will think of it as a joke. This is full of great info and tips to guitarists who are just beginning to get their feet wet in theory. Personally, I see theory and playing your instrument to go hand in hand. It's like exercising a lot at the gym, put having a poor diet. You'll get some results with a poor diet (little theory knowledge), but you'll never reach your full potential as a being fit and healthy person (or in this case, a musician). Improving your diet (learning more theory) will only help your results.
    Great article. I believe that knowing music theory and "feeling the music" aren't exclusive of each other, you can do both. To me, music theory helps explain why music can make people feel a certain way and thus helps me have a better idea of how to create a certain mood when playing. It's about perspective, if you go into it thinking music theory will only box you in, it will because subconsciously you're already expecting it to. If you expect it to expand your playing, it will because you're approaching it with that mindset.
    This is a great article Tommaso! I used to be the type of guitar player who would try and 'do things by ear' and just 'feel the music' but it always led to really, really shitty playing. Ever since I started learning theory, my playing has skyrocketed and I am able to do far more with the instrument and with a great sense of control over what I'm playing.
    Jace Bastian
    Great article! Especially likening learning theory to driving; the better you know it, the less you have to think about it, the better and faster it will get you where you want to go Thanks for the help!
    This is the best video I have seen about the topic. Describes my thoughts exactly.
    Thanks for posting that. Very interesting. I do agree with this video in nearly everything. Yes music theory is descriptive, not prescriptive (and as such can be used as an help in composition and improvisation). Yes, the Build+Drop is similar to elements of the sonata form. Yes, it's not smart to take pride in ignorance (only for this point, this guy deserves all the likes we can give him on YT) The only thing I do not agree is his explanation of the parallel fifths, that is simplified to the point of being wrong. Despite popular opinion, power chords are NOT parallel fifths (though they may appear this way to someone who has studied counterpoint, but does not have a firm grasp of orchestration). Parallel chords are doubling of one voice at the 5th. The difference being that in counterpoint you try to write independent voices, and you avoid conducting these different voices in parallel fifths because they destroy the independence of the voices (though exceptions apply). In power chords, on the other hand you have a SINGLE voice (usually defined by the root notes) and you are just reinforcing it at the 5th. It's a technique similar to "section harmonization" that is typical of Jazz arranging, but has its root in Classical and Romantic orchestration. So, no, Rock musicians are not "breaking" any rule of counterpoint because they are not trying to compose independent voices. power chords and parallel fifths are only superficially similar, but they have different aims and functions. Of course this is just a minor disagreement (pun intended), and the main point of the video stands: one needs to know in what context we are applying music theory.
    But I think his point was exactly that - you shouldn't try to apply the rules of counterpoint to music where the rules have no application. Rock music is not about strict counterpoint, and yeah, the different chord tones in power chords aren't separate voices. Some people don't understand that the rules only apply to strict counterpoint style and think everything that doesn't follow those rules is somehow "wrong". And I think that's exactly what the video was talking about. When something is not in strict counterpoint style, applying the counterpoint rules doesn't make sense. Well, that's how I understood it. Or then it was just an over simplification to get the point through, because most people are familiar with power chords. But yeah, you are right.
    Well, the "rules" of counterpoint are all over modern music anyway (that's why it's still very useful to study it). I think at the end of the day we agree
    Great article Tommaso. Theory provides awareness of the available choices of content to use from which musica; skills can be built. But I think the way theory is taught should be far more pragmatic, far less high-brow, for motivation.
    I agree. Lots of the bad name that music theory got is due to the attitude of many music theory teachers.
    What's a great way to learn music theory at home? Are there any particularly useful books or courses anyone can share?
    You should get Tommaso's music theory map, if you haven't already. That'll show you what concepts you need to learn, and in what order. You should also check out his youtube channel, he has a lot of great content. And I promise he isn't paying me to say this
    Hi Tommaso, great article, but i hope there will be an article about how to actually learn the theory, or should i say, how to approach learning the theory, what are the main concepts and such, not just the why's, but also the how's. It would be a great help, for myself personally, and i guess for a lot of other guitarists and musicians.
    If you read through my other articles (here on UG or on my website) you will find many tips on how to learn theory. As for the main concepts, the music theory map I mention in the article (available on my website) would be your starting point.
    I would say learn theory by using actual music to understand the concepts. So when you learn a theoretic concept, try to find songs where that concept applies. Or just listen to music and when you find something that sounds cool, try to find an explanation for that. The most important thing is not only understanding the explanation but also the sound. Actually, knowing the sound is more important than knowing the explanation, but of course knowing both is even better. Music is sound so hearing what the theoretic concepts sound like is really important and helps you a lot with understanding them. Just reading theory articles may not work that well, unless you already have a good grasp of theory. IMO the most important things would be keys and chord functions, and also understanding chord and scale construction. Good ear is an important thing. If you have a good ear, learning theory becomes so much easier. And when you learn theory, it also helps your ear.
    An arpeggio is a chord ,picked one string at a time. As far as knowing theory. It's great for guys like me who don't have perfect pitch. I use theory as a guide to make my own music and it works.