Prog rock guitarist and teacher with a passion for Music Theory applied to Guitar.
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 ExistThe 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 OutThose 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 MindSome 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 ConcludeMusic 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.