6 Things Most Guitar Players Don't Understand About Music Theory

author: tommaso.zillio date: 06/13/2013 category: music theory tips
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6 Things Most Guitar Players Don't Understand About Music Theory
"You should not study too much theory or you will destroy your creativity." Do you agree with that? If you do, you are probably better off not reading the rest of this article as I am going to show that this and other commonly held beliefs about music theory are completely false and harmful to you.

When I started playing guitar I was a strong believer in the "learn-by-yourself" method i.e. collecting all the information I could from Internet, journals, book, and friends. After all, the more information the better, no? What I did not realize at the time is that there is a lot of bad information handed down as if it is the absolute truth, and I was completely incapable of discriminating between the useful stuff and the damaging stuff. In short: I needed some help from somebody who actually knew things.

Of course eventually I found help, and now I am here to offer some.

The first thing to know is that music theory is not "hard": everybody can understand it. On the other hand, music theory is "complex": is made by many little things that all work together, each one of them being simple.

Of course, it would be a daunting task to learn all of them at the same time. This means that there IS a simple way to go through music theory (more than one in fact), but it also means that if you encounter these thins in the wrong order, then you are going to be completely confused. In fact, as we are going to see in a minute, there are many approaches to music theory that are common on the net that are simply damaging to your progress if you try to follow them.

So, let's have a look at some of the major roadblocks that can delay or completely stop your understanding of music theory, together with some suggestion on how to get rid of them. This list is not exhaustive, but it covers at least some of the major problems:

I Don't Need Theory: I Can Play by Ear

I wish I had a dollar for every person I heard saying that so I could retire on a private island and not work for the rest of my life. And while sipping my Mohito, I would reflect on the fact that this "play by ear" excuse is just that: an excuse. In fact most of the people that use it have never done any ear training worth mentioning: they can't transcribe the songs they like, they can't play the musical ideas that pop in their minds. Ultimately for them "playing by ear" means adopting the "Hail Mary" strategy: playing something random while hoping that something good will come out of it. Most of the time, it doesn't.

We musicians need to know theory as writers need to know grammar. It is not the ONLY thing we need to know (far from it), but it is absolutely necessary. While it is a common occurrence for many famous musicians (or their fans) to boast that they do not know any theory, once you go and actually check the facts you will find that this is never the truth (the first one to post in the comments that "Hendrix never studied theory" will get a pat on their head and a lollipop before being sent back to music pre-school).

So, now that we have established that there ain't such a thing as a free lunch and we need to actually put some effort in if we want to be great or at least good, let's see what not to do.

I Need No Ear Training

It goes without saying that the previous point should not be construed to mean that you do not need to train your ear. Duh.

Learning music theory and training you ear go hand in hand. Trying to do only one is like trying to ride a bicycle without one wheel: useless, overly difficult, and a guarantee that you will hurt yourself. In fact I do take the radical position that ear training and music theory are in fact the same thing. If you think about it, all music theory concepts can be explained as "If you do X, that's how it sounds": "If you play a cadence, it sounds this way," "if you play the notes of the chord while improvising it sounds this way," etc.

As you can see though, if you don't know what "this way" is for every single concept you learn, then you are not really learning much! This is why there are a lot of people who say that music theory is useless: they didn't connect the "formal" aspects of music theory with the actual reality of music. After all, a map of your city is useful only if you know the relationship between the funny lines on the paper and the actual streets.

Luckily, there is a very simple solution for that: every time you learn something new in theory, play it. Make sure you have at least 3-4 examples for each concept you learn (you can compose them yourself in case).

Theory Will Harm My Creativity

If music theory destroys creativity, as many claim, then it follows that never in the history of music there was a musician who knew music theory and was creative at the same time. In other words, all the following musicians composed uncreative music: Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Tchaikovskij, Coltrane, Parker, Django Reinhardt, Hendrix, Satriani, Vai, Jason Becker (Yes, Hendrix knew theory. Get over it!) I don't think this is a tenable position, in fact I find it plain ridiculous.

The truth is that if you study theory the right way, then it helps and support your creativity.

The wrong way to learn it is to think of theory as a set of "rules" to follow otherwise the "music theory police" will put you in jail. But this is not what music theory is: rather you should think of it as the collective experience of all past composers, a set of procedures and "tricks" that you can use when appropriate to move from a musical idea to a complete piece. Of course, even if you do not know anything about music theory you might have an occasional spark of musical genius, but you won't know what to do with it.

I Can Teach Myself

Would you consider teaching yourself how to drive a car? What could go wrong after all? :-) Learning to drive by trial and error does not seem the best idea, right?

By the same token, you should not consider teaching yourself music theory by trial and error. You may thing that while trying to drive a car you can hurt people, there is no harm done in trying to learn theory without help. Or is there? Sure, there are musicians out there who are able to compose even if they did not study music theory. But I can't help to think that all these guys had to rediscover the wheel by themselves, that it would have been so much easier for them if they knew more theory, and in fact what songs we are never going to listen because these guys didn't realize their full potential? What could they have done if they knew more?

The composer with the greatest amount of raw talent ever was probably Mozart. And even with his incredible natural gifts he had to study composition for more than ten years. Unless you think you are more talented than Mozart, then don't try to learn alone.

The Information Is All Available on the Net

The net is a great resource, and there is definitely a lot available just one click away. And yet all this information can work against you rather than helping you. How? Well, in order to be useful to you, the information you come across needs to be relevant to what you want to do. You see, you will need to study different things if you want to compose music for film than what you should study if you want to improvise on a blues. It's not that one is "better" or "more difficult": they are just different and require a different skillset.

For this reason - and I realize I'm not the first to say that - you need to know what your goals are and have a plan in place in order to reach them. Without a plan you are simply going to end wherever chance will take you, and in most cases this is not what you wanted at all!

In order to help you find what your goals are and how to arrive there, I have written for you a "map" of music theory that you can download and will show you where you are and what you need to study next. You can find a link to it at the end of this article.

I Can Ask My Friend Joe

Everybody has a "friend Joe" that is supposed to be more knowledgeable. But are you really sure that he actually knows what he's doing? Where did he learn what he knows? In fact, this is a good question to ask regardless if you apply it to your friend Joe or to your teacher or to the author of the article/book you are reading.

I am probably stating the obvious, but many self-styled "teachers," both online and offline, are simply coping each other without really understanding all the concepts they copy. And when you read a copy of a copy of a copy of the original concept, then it is no wonder you are getting confused! You would be surprised how many WRONG things I found in books an DVDs that are sold all over the net.

My point here is: trust only people who are actually doing what you want to do! Do not buy books from people who say "I am a teacher but not a performer/composer/writer." These people do not have a first-hand knowledge of what they teach, and most likely there are errors in what they teach. Of course with this I do not mean that all teachers are failed musicians - this is simply not true. But make sure to check the quality of your information source.

As a side note: when I say you have to check your teacher, I do not mean to ask him if he has a music degree. There are many musicians out there who do not have any "official" degree but are still very competent in what they do and teach. The only relevant question is: is this person able to do what you want to do? It's not the piece of paper, it's the actual skill that counts.

What Should I Do Now?

Three things:
  1. Forget about learn-by-yourself books for the time being.
  2. Decide what you want to be able to play and write down a plan on how to arrive there. If you need help in this respect, download this map of music theory that I wrote for you and will tell you where you are and what is your next step.
  3. Either follow your plan, or take it to a competent teacher that will help you implement it in the fastest way. Don't waste your time by running in circles.

About The Author:
Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and teacher with a passion for Music Theory applied to Guitar.
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