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

Here are 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.

Ultimate Guitar
"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.

This story was written by a UG user. Have anything interesting to share with the community? Submit your own story!

236 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I used to think like that but than I realised that I was wrong so I begun studying theory and I can say that it's the way to progress. Absolutely awesome tips!
    Definitely! I used to think theory was stupid because of famous guitarists that didn't know it but after learning theory, I have progressed so much as a musician and a guitarist.
    Maybe it's just me, but for me. "All great guitarists KNOW theory, that doesn't mean that they have studied it" to quote another thread. Not all great guitar players know the names of every scale. And some people train their ears just by listening to something and replicating, over and over again. I know someone that has more than 50 hours of tabbed instrumentation that knows not a single scale name. And lastly, you dont need ear training to know that some frets dont sound appealing when you press them down. But maybe that's just me.
    If you want to break down what you actually said you just defended a giant time-waster. The guy effectively spent time learning all about an instrument without the ability to communicate it with other musicians.
    I am sure theory does help a musician progress in his musical abilities. but wlewis248, your statement is quite ridiculous. unless he's planning to be a teacher, who gives a damn if he communicates verbally about how great his theoretical knowledge is. if he's able to communicate via sound, thats all that matters.
    while it is completely possible to create great music without understanding theory, the truth of the matter is understanding theory will help you immensely. all guitarist know some degree of theory even if you didn't know it was theory. All chords are created out of specific notes in a scale. this is theory. Many players create great music with only knowing a few chord shapes and pentatonic scale patterns. Again this is still music theory. You may not know what every interval or mode is but the fact that you can play a scale is still music theory. Understanding music theory will expand your knowledge of how to use chords and scales. That will allow you to create more freely. It will also help you to move around the fret board more fluidly and effortlessly.
    Which is better, Mr.tommaso.zillio: A self-taught musician who doesn't know music theory? Or a Musician who quit music because they never learned music theory?(which is very common thanks to the pressure put on people to learn music theory) And how does driving a car and playing music even compare? One you can mess up with, and live the next day. The other could cost lives. Bad comparison there.
    In my 40 years I regret not learning music theory much sooner. I would have been a much better player for it, and explored the fretboard much deeper..and it IS deep. Theory expanded my playing, into a larger vocabulary especially with chords, lead voicing, & becoming a more tasty player. Think about it when you get into ruts..& ruts are guaranteed, anyone says who no is suspect. The great news is I had a blast learning it once I committed to do so.
    But theory is just theory... You must learn about say... chords construction and train your ear to that but If you can't play them and have musical good taste it is not worth to go further than that in theory... Just eat your bits. Grasp a little something here and there and play it. But one thing is the truth: there are several player who know a lot of music theory and have a lot of good skills in the guitar but just can't make good music... Because a scale sounds like a scale and that is boring...
    I know nothing about notes, or tabs, or anything... I am completely self-taught. I just recently begin to learn what the strings are called, because I actually bought a tuner pedal that shows what the strings are called. I never cared about music theory. I just wanna show that it IS possible to write good songs anre play solos that makes sense without knowing anything about msuic theory, here we go (I play drums, guitar bass and vocals)
    Check out the solo at 2:10 Here's a solo... It's basically improvised, but it's the second or third take because my first try was a bit sloppy. But it's still the same solo as when I first played through it.
    Well, I've written and recorded several albums that has been released by Stormspell Records the last 3-4 years and I've heard little to none complaints about any lack of composing skills. I can admit that I'm a bit sloppy at playing, but I never excercise at all, either on drums, guitar or vocals, I just like write and record stuff, and if there's some sloppy parts... I don't care as long as the whole picture is good I'm a perfectionist in the sense that I want the "feeling" of the song to be perfect, not some Andy Sneap production or super-tight playing Hope to get some answer on this
    Just look at all those iconic blues and rock guitarists who only know/knew a few chord shapes and pentatonic scales. Most of em dont even know the intervals, only the shapes.
    You know, I never thought of it that way. I never thought that in an art form used to express oneself that one had to be taught and completely stripped of any artistic individuality by somebody else. It must be this attitude that is pumping out these dry technique robots who pass as guitar players in these days. I wonder who taught music to the developers of music theory, since it's impossible to play music without being shown how by a teacher with 40 PHd's from eight different jazz academies, and taking into consideration that jazz is only about 100 years old.
    There are going to be d-bags in any profession. My theory teacher is less of a teacher and more of a tyrant but I just keep on chugging. At the end of the day learning theory is cool because you know exactly where to go once you make a move. Guitarists simply dont like to admit that they're constrained even though they're reminded of it every time they hit an off note in a solo or miss the beat of a rhythm.
    Guitarists make excuses for not learning theory because it sucks. I can be honest with myself and admit that I hate studying it. It's like sitting down with a math book, it's not bad once you get into and start making progress but it's still brutally boring most of the time. I finally enrolled in a theory and ear training class to force myself to learn it but I wayyyyy rather just play my guitar any day of the week.
    I agree to this, but yet disagree at the same time. Music theory is important, something I'm considering hiring a teacher to teach me, but for basic songs, you don't need to learn music theory. If you want to become a really good guitarist, learn the theory. It pays.
    I have made a YouTube channel designed to take Music Theory and explain it in a way that guitarists and musicians alike can fully grasp the importance and efficiency of without all of the garbage and confusing nonsense. It gets old being told that everything is a box and that you have to modify this to make something else when in reality it's very cut and dry and very simple to grasp the basics. Start here and learn Music Theory fast.
    Yeah ... that is REALLY ignorant to state that Mozart was average in any way. That alone discredits anything you have to say. I thought this article was very average.
    I learned to replicate the sound i wanted. And to be honest I still don't know half of the things I play. But as I progressed, ten years later I now know some theory. Can shred at 250 bmp. Can't play to a click. And replicate almost any sound or song With a matter of minutes. You need theory.
    I'm confused. Where's the link to Tom Hess' site? I think a lot of guitarists and musicians are interested with stumbling upon their own stuff that sounds cool by themselves and the extremely broad, and misunderstood, idea of music theory being like a shortcut to said 'stuff' (i.e input chord progression -> recieve the correct notes to play over it) mightn't just appeal to them. I've heard plenty of people say that "Hendrix never studied theory" crap alright, but I think to say this: "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." ..is a even sillier thing to say, totally different end of the spectrum and just as wrong I feel. It doesn't take a musical genius to know that a V-I cadence sounds great to end a song on, and through the combination of ear training and basic theory, one could learn a lot of things by themselves. Of course I imagine the more advanced levels of theory like the stuff they teach for university jazz courses or whatever might get heavily diluted through the internet. But for the basic theory, sites like this and magazines like Guitar Techniques are fantastic I think. Anyway where's that Hess link?!
    Tommaso isn't Tom Hess. If he chooses to post certain Tom Hess articles, he can. But don't call him Tom Hess. Also, your point about Mozart. The point of not learning music theory alone is so that you can have someone explain things to you. In other words, you have an experienced guide. It's like if you were hiking in the remote parts of the Andes Mountains, you would hire a guide. You could just hike it without a guide, but the guide knows the best routes and what to do in emergencies and such because he or she has been training longer than you have.
    Never said he was the ubiquitous and all powerful Mr. Hess 'crazysam23'. And don't bother with the commands either lad. I might as well respond to Tommaso's reply below, and I'll break it down a bit also. When I quoted you in my first post, the part about Mozart, I commented on your faulty logic. To put it in my own words this time, you said that if one were to attempt to learn theory by themselves, and unless they believed they had the same raw talent as Mozart ('Talent is NOTHING,' you said in reply to N7Crazy below remember?) they would fail. I went on to say that it doesn't take a musical genius to know that a V-I cadence sounds great to end a song on. Ironically it was through musictheory(dot)net that I learned about cadences a few years ago. I learned this information through the internet anyway, and I connected the dots myself as to how powerful the resolution sounds firsthand. You seemed to believe that I thought the V-I cadence was an outline of what all of Mozart's music was. Your deductive skills are baffling. And I don't agree with your assertion of 'only basic theory' either, but I'm not merely going to write a large reply just because it would look impressive. I just know you're wrong. The argument of building blocks is pretty much universally applicable, it's just some basics are more basic than others. It's not that I disagree with the general idea of the article Tommaso. Music theory is beneficial to all musicians. I just don't agree with any of these Hess clan articles that tend to claim we 'Joes' are too thick and lazy to learn theory for ourselves. It's over aggressive marketing. Nice to see diversity of opinion anyway.
    Ripshadow,I have read what you have to say and all I have gathered from your convoluted, poorly-worded, and unnecessarily extensive comments is that you are simply an ass.
    Unless you were familiar with the area and an experienced hiker. And once again I must say Johann Sebastian Bach "had the greatest amount of raw talent" (whatever that even means) of any composer before or since. Don't believe me? Go listen to Magic Flute, then the Brandenburg Concertos.
    What I meant is that Mozart was the one with the largest head start. He had a phenomenal musical memory. He had an incredible facility at learning piano technique. A great natural attitude to performing too. He had many of the possible advantages that genetic can give you. And YET he still had to study - under a teacher. What I DIDN'T say is that he was the best composer - just the one who started with the largest initial advantage. Mozart is, in fact, quite an average composer compared to many others. Bach, to take your example, is much better as a composer. Incidentally, Bach is also someone who had little natural attitude and had to work really hard to achieve what he did. How? Again, studying under a teacher. What you hear in Bach it's just the product of hard work, anyone of us can do the same with enough study. Bach said it himself in his letters
    To say Mozart was average makes me genuinely believe you are a retard when it comes to classical music... Stick to guitar... I'm genuinely offended by how much you THINK you know about classical music
    Uh, whether or not Mozart's a great or average composer very much depends on how much you enjoy lengthy scale passages interspersed with the occasionaly arpeggio. He's certainly not objectively good in the same way that Bach is.
    Great article, though I am skeptical about "I can teach myself". I mean, of course having a teacher can boost your progress but it'll never make you find your own style of playing like teaching yourself would, imo.
    Dude thank you for posting this. Im a bass player and a guitarist who never got serious about the music. Now with this i know i can learn music theory to get better riffs and better Basslines. THANKS.
    so this is basically an ad then
    It's really funny how threatened people feel when you call them out on how they learn and tell them there's a better way. This comment section is hysterical. I took lessons for years when I was a teenager. My guitar teacher was in a metal band but also was a classically trained guitarist. He started to teach me theory in a certain progression and it made sense. But it does get complex and you do have to THINK and study and be able to understand mathematical concepts. At that point at 17 years old, I checked out. F that... I know enough 'basics' and can come up with enough cool stuff by jamming and noodling on my own, and maybe reading some books. Well, if your goal as a musician is to be in Nirvana, I guess that is acceptable. But what happens is your playing doesn't progress at all and you compound bad habits by not learning proper theory and technique. I was a terrible player in my 20's because I didn't learn anything. Now in my 30's I've revisited some of that theory that I should have learned 20 years ago and my playing is NOTICIBLY improving by leaps and bounds. Things that I hear in my mind, I can now put into sound. I think a lot of people are put off because you do have to use your brain and comprehend some concepts that may not initially make a lot of sense. So they shut it out, reject it as stupid or useless, and say they'll be fine on their own. That's cool if you will accept certain limits a a guitar player. But if you really want to take you playing to an advanced level, you can't do it without properly understanding music theory. Basically what this article is saying is it's all building blocks... you have understand one concept before moving onto the next. It's common sense. All this author is saying is that not getting the concepts in the proper order will confuse people, teach you the wrong things (or get you to the right things much slower) and turn you off to theory. That's when theory seems stupid and pointless.
    I have found theory incredibly useful myself, but I know people who arrived at a similar level of understanding without ever conceptualizing it. I know one guy who never even learned tabs, could shred like a mutherf**#3r. Of course this was based on an understanding of music theory, but an instinctual rather than conceptual one. It happens. Every one is different. I'm very happy studying worked for all of you but you have to admit it comes easier to some than others. This coming from someone in the latter group. C03x1st ya'11
    Could the guy who could shred like that communicate his musical ideas in a concise and understandable fashion though?
    He was coherent, if that's what you mean. Uneducated does not mean stupid, you know. Talking to him is a lot easier than you guys, that's for sure.
    I minored in music in college and took several courses in both classical and jazz theory. I feel every musician should have a background in theory, whether or not they use it is up to them. It just helps you to view things in different ways, and it certainly helped me progress my playing
    The sentiment of most negative comments here can be summed up as: "Don't say I need to start thinking. I hate having to think!"
    I just posted some comments, why don't you read those. I actually like to think by the way. yes I know music theory as well, but the things the author of this ad has said aren't what he says they are. I've learned theory by myself. That goes against the ad makers set of rules right there. If you don't believe me, ask me a question about theory. I don't mind answering questions. Oh but wait then I'd be that "Joe" guy by answering someone else's questions right. It's not only what he's saying, the attitude with which the ad maker is saying them with. He's disrespectful. If y'all are fooled, go ahead and buy into this guy's stuff, your loss not mine.
    At the beginning of this article, Tommaso stated that he too started out learning theory by himself, as many others do. He goes on to say however that once he found someone who could guide him, it made a great difference in his clarity and depth of understanding. Since he experienced both scenarios, he IS able to make a comparison and know what the difference is. If you have only ever learned by yourself, then you cannot make that comparison. So how on earth do you support your statement that what he's saying is not true?
    That's simply not logical. If lightdark truly has learned theory by himself, he would have the same knowledge as one who studied theory (in a sense, we learn EVERYTHING by ourselves). It's that simple. The question is in whether or not he HAS - however, if he hasn't, it does not prove that people can't learn by themselves. He can't support his statement, unless he can prove that he has indeed learned completely on his own - but that doesn't mean his statement isn't true, or that your logic is anything but faulty.
    I have. If you don't believe me, go to this link. I can make modal vamps, although I find those kind of boring since you're locked to one mode, for it to be truly modal that is. I know how chords are formed, interval-wise that is. I understand how to analyze a piece of music and transpose it. I do know theory. I promise. I realize there's a whole lot more to theory, I do know a lot more than just what I listed out. If you need proof, just let me know, so I can prove it. I do appreciate you understanding my side of the argument though.
    Oh, I didn't mean to call your knowledge into question. I was just saying that we don't know how much you know, and, regardless, his point was illogical. Sorry bud, didn't mean to sound like I was questioning your ability.
    Very good article! Thx for sharing your knowledge, Tommaso Shaking my head here over some of the comments. There is no such thing as a free lunch! If you wanna be a "top musician" you gotta do your homework an theory is a BIG part of it. To ignore theory is like going to a new town to visit a friend without looking up the address first. You have to knock on every door until you find him. Good luck with that!
    It's possible to know where your friends live without knowing the specific address. Point=null
    Oh, and this just happens to be your first post? Could you be a more obvious salesman?
    Salesman? Because Im new here and don't agree with people bashing the article?
    Hey SlapHand. Welcome to UG! Get used to be accused of being paid by the author of an article (or be a fake account) if you agree with him - it's the norm here. NewModel: if you think SlapHand and me are the same person, you know you can report us to a moderator? Please do. I'm sure they will be happy to reassure you
    No one said that you two were the same person, so where'd you get that from? Although salesman could imply that, it more likely was meant that you two were advertising for the same site.
    After reading all the comments here, I'm going to register at his website simply because he's handled them all with grace and dignity (which is more than I would have done, given the utter buffoonery of some of the respondents). As I mentioned previously, I am not in complete agreement with his business model, but his personal conduct is exemplary, which leads me to believe he's an honest businessman. Haters, you've failed in your mission. Go away.
    So insulting people is responding with grace and dignity, yeah sure. He called someone grammatically challenged, that's insulting someone.
    I think you need to go and reread the exchange, the poster in question was grammatically challenged. If you think that's an insult, stick around, I'll show you what real insult is...
    Well, if you want to insult me go ahead, I can think of some too. Oh and by the way, even if someone's native tongue isn't English, He doesn't have to have the attitude that he's better than everyone else here. Look at some of his answers to Linkerman. Some of those are insulting, and some of them are spoken with a very immature attitude. Oh and just so you know, I did read it before I posted that. either way it's still insulting, even if the other person is understanding.
    He wasn't insulting that guy. That guy's native tongue isn't English. It isn't an insult to say that someone who isn't a native English speaker might be grammatically challenged. Yes, Tom did come off snarky, but I think he wasn't aware that the guy didn't speak English as his native tongue. Anyway, it wasn't an insult so much as statement of fact.
    Well, can't really fault me if my model of "quiet dignity and grace" is Gene Wilder:
    That is to say: light up guys. See things with a bit of humor.
    I'm a bassist and playing with guitarists who know nothing about music theory is the most frustrating thing I've had to deal with. I just won't deal with people who won't make an effort to understand theory. Once you get a grasp of some of the more basic parts of it, it really opens up your playing and what you're able to write.
    Nice troll post... Bassist....Theory.....Pffft.. j/k!!
    "Bassist....Theory.....Pffft.." Chris: I do agree. Nothing more frustrating than having to explain what scale to use on a secondary dominant, and then having to settle for another chord progression in Aeolian or another 12 bar Blues because that's the only thin they can play over.
    Just so you know, Tommaso, I do appreciate that you've started an actual discussion. I've said my piece, and while I still do not agree with all of your posts, we DO agree that many guitarists can get much further by taking the time to understand what they are playing. Thank you for starting the discourse, it is valuable.
    So as someone who knows little theory, where do I start?
    As a guitarist on Ultimate Guitar, I'm going to assume that guitar is your main instrument. With that assumption, I'd say the best place for you to start learning theory would be to learn the notes of your fretboard; once you've learned that, I'd say you could stand to learn the various forms of rhythm (eg 4/4, 3/4; the durations of the notes, quarter notes/eighth notes), your major and minor scale in C (for starters, it makes learning the rest a bit easier), and how to build chords (intervals in groups of two and more, arguably). A good site for the basics is (http://www.musictheory.net ), but really, I'd say stick with that for the basics until you have a rough idea of what exactly you want to learn. I'd guess it seems a bit complicated when you're looking at the whole thing- if you take it piece by piece, and take the time to play and listen to what you're learning as you work through the site, it does become manageable with practice. Another benefit to this site is that he has ear training; this will let you learn a bit from the main page, and then listen to it and help you to associate the sound with the concept. This will help you develop your ear, in turn making simpler to translate your imagined music to the fretboard .I'm not sure how much you know, but once you figure out what you're really interested in, there are a plethora of other resources out there beyond this. If that seems especially daunting, and keeps you from going after it on your own, but you still want to know, I'd say your best bet is to find a teacher. I do think that it is very important to note something, however. In the end, it doesn't matter what the teacher tells you, if you don't actually take the time to learn what they put in front of you. I've been taking jazz lessons for the past few years, but without the discipline to work through the material my teacher has placed in front of me, I've only made a few spurts of progress. A great teacher is only as useful as your desire to learn, yes? With that said, a great teacher is also an extremely valuable resource. If you find somebody that really knows their shit, and also has a style that you can mesh with, you can easily, with focus, make huge leaps in your understanding of music. There have been quite a few times when I've been sitting at a musical plateau for weeks, and then I go over my papers from my teacher and something just "clicks". It's a different kind of "click" than the self taught one, though, and for me has made my writing much more fluid, and could be totally different for you; having a more experienced guide let you know where to go is invaluable. More concisely, having an effective teacher will let you know what you should learn next. These are not mutually exclusive, either; the best way to learn is from lecture and practice, so it follows that using the internet as well as a teacher would be the best way. That way, when you're not sure about what you found online, or if something just doesn't make sense, you have a professional that can answer your questions. This is a wall of text already, so I'll stop here. Good luck, and remember to enjoy your journey. Take it at your pace, one step at a time. Oh, and sorry I'm so long winded. TL;DR : (http://www.musictheory.net ) if you're good at learning on your own, or a teacher if you're more into having personalized guidance. Both if you're really serious about it. Music Theory: "the study of the theoretical elements of music including sound and pitch, rhythm, melody, harmony, and notation"
    One thing I should mention about a lot of people is that they know more theory than they think they do. I guy like Jimi Hendrix for example... dude claims that he didn't know any theory, but that really isn't true. See, a lot of times when people say they don't know theory... what it really means is that they don't think they know theory because they were never properly instructed on it. The same can be said about anything really. Just because you weren't ever formally educated and don't know the proper terms in some area doesn't mean that you don't know it.
    Actually, a very famous example of this is the song "Whipping Post" by the Allman Brothers. There's a quote by Gregg Allman on the song: "I didn't know the intro was in 11/4 time. I just saw it as three sets of three, and then two to jump on the next three sets with: it was like 1,2,31,2,31,2,31,2. I didn't count it as 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11. It was one beat short, but it didn't feel one short, because to get back to the triad, you had two steps to go up. You'd really hit those two hard, to accent them, so that would separate the threes. ... [Duane] said, 'That's good man, I didn't know that you understood 11/4.' Of course I said something intelligent like, 'What's 11/4?' Duane just said, 'Okay, dumbass, I'll try to draw it up on paper for you.'"
    You bring a lot of sense to the discussion. There are different ways of knowing that are not being given due credit here, however solid a lot of the advice is. And Bach was the composer with the greatest amount of raw talent. This is irrefutable. Get your facts straight. Mozart had unrivaled form, Beethoven unbeatable intensity, but Bach's music was complex (and, in my opinion, beautiful) in so many ways that have not been matched since (no, not even by Dark Side of the Moon. Thriller fans, forget it)... but I agree with the central point, that learning theory can only make you stronger.
    "Beethoven unbeatable intensity" You should listen to "The Shape of Punk to Come" by Refused. Or maybe The Bronx first album.
    Actually, Bach had to learn all of his stuff. He had some raw talent, but he spent years and years under teachers before he become an excellent composer. But your main point is correct.
    Bach IS a better composer than Mozart, goes without saying. My point is that Mozart had an head start because he had more "natural inclination" to music. He was gifted, in a sense. Both had to study a lot though.
    link no1
    The first thing to know is that music theory is not "hard": everybody can understand it.
    I'm sorry but this is an opinion, not a fact. Some people may genuinely find music theory a hard thing to grasp, the same as with pretty much every subject. Other than that, the article is pretty spot on.
    Good article,i am by know means looking to study theory but i do know the basics when i had lessons when i was younger and even though its very limited it has helped me,mainly what the basics notes and chords are.
    The entire thing is an advertisement. Just because it isn't a paid thing doesn't mean it isn't an ad. Have you read the definition of the word lately? "the action of calling something to the attention of the public, especially by paid announcements" Now, especially doesn't mean every time. He's calling attention to his website; like you suggested above, there's a chance that he's getting ad revenue. Either way, it's an ad. A self aggrandizing and inflammatory ad, at that.
    "A self aggrandizing and inflammatory ad": you are going to learn faster with a good teacher, and here's how to find one locally. If this is an ad, then I suck at writing them. Not only I do not offer any products, but I'm sending you to local teachers. I must have skipped marketing 101 And I get no ad revenue on my website (there no ads on it)
    I took ear training and theory for 2 years, (was told that i have a really good ear by more than one instructor). It was helpful to a certain extent, but I don't get why you think everyone needs to keep doing it. Keep paying for classes learning someone else rules for music. It was enjoyable to learn it but I prefer righting my own music and being an artist rather than a scientist.
    Calymos, you're sort of acting like a pedantic douche here. By your definition, the previous sentence was an 'ad' for your douchery...since I called it to the attention of the public. Have a nice day.
    And in doing so, called attention to your own douchery. Hey man, what's up with this house of mirrors?
    There is a distinct difference between learning notation and learning composition. Learning notation is a fundamental part of learning theory, while learning composition can only happen after an understanding of theory is cemented in a student. Anyone who has ever been schooled in music will know this is true. You can't gain a legitimate understanding of theory without learning notation.
    I disagree highly with your 'playing by ear' and 'theory harms creativity' comments. If someone claims they play by ear, it doesn't mean they cant transcribe or understand what they are playing. It's just in a different way to what YOU do. I don't use theory at all to compose or figure out songs I want to play. I just use my ears and know by the sound of what I hear, where it is on my guitar. With composing, the way I see theory in composition is that it is a tool that neither hinders nor benefits composing yet does both at the same time. Do you think the Punk rock musicians back in the 70's that started that huge wave in the music scene knew tons of music theory? Some but not many. If they had done, would they have made the music they made? For me I see music theory as simply 'knowledge' of music as a 'science'. But the more 'knowledge' you know, the higher the chance it affects what you perceive as a good composition (since thats all we really go on.. what we feel is good). Just like a film student would have a more diverse taste in films and maybe even a disliking for mainstream films, a musician maybe changes their tastes from having more knowledge of music. So this could affect what music they compose and also change the type of audience that would listen to the music.
    It's incredible how we are able, as Italians, to always have great points and to express them with an incredible amount of arrogance. That said, I think that theory knowledge has to be coherent with what you actually want to play. I have no interest in prog or fusion, neither in classical music, for example. If I wanted to play them, for sure I could not avoid learning theory. That said, for what I like to play and to listen to (funk, rock, blues, hair metal, thrash metal, sludge metal) I feel OBLIGED to get my shit done and to know at least the 75% of what I'm doing when I am playing or jamming, in order to play coherently with what I like. Wich means some harmony stuff (also really useful to make vocal harmonies in the band I play), rhytmic groups, the scales I'm playing and the chords composition. I cannot read music, I probably use wrong terms or whatever, but I can confirm that just as I started focusing on what I was doing under a more theoretical approach, I started improving a lot, even without a teacher. I think that the "false myths" you attack, dear Tommaso, are just potential competitors in your market as a teacher. You made it so far and your carreer proves it... Don't feel envy for those that are happy of doing what they're doing, even though it sounds wrong for you.
    Leather Sleeves
    Wow, a lot of comments. Great article. I think one of the most important points, (and one I'd never thought of or heard someone suggest before), was to find a teacher who's actually doing what you want to be doing. Although finding a good teacher around here's probably harder than learning on my own, but I guess I should try.
    I love how it says this article is 99% spam free, when the entire article reads like spam, and then you click on the link, and it takes you to a site that assures you you are only one click away from the map you need. Damn you spam monger! And damn myself for clicking on it lol.... 99% spam free
    This is a good article. The reason most people say music theory isn't necessary is simply because it's boring to them or they don't understand how it relates to their instrument...7 years into guitar and I just took my first music theory class and I must say it was extremely useful when I was learning one of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.
    This is a good article, which builds a lot on what you think would be common sense. However, I do not agree with your statement that you have to be able to do something to teach it. Someone who has a perfect grasp of a concept may still not be able to use it - and more importantly - someone who is able to do something may not understand the concepts behind it. Ability is something completely different from understanding.
    If you never learned to cook a steak, could you SHOW someone else how to do it? You could tell them, "This is how I learned to do it". But if that person then said, "Ok, show me please", you'd be stuck. And they'd probably go, "Why should I listen to you, if you've never even done it? How do I know what you're saying is actually correct?" The proof is in the pudding, as they say.
    I don't think that's what Homer means. I'll provide an example of doing and not understanding. Someone can learn the theory of a subject. For example, take biology. At school level, it's all about learning off definitions, or learning theorems in maths... you can learn them off and write them dozens of times, but doesn't mean you understand them.
    That's why you should check if they can DO something with it. They learn the theorem by heart? Useless. Can they solve an actual problem with it? Then they know it. "the theory of of a subject" SEPARATED from that subject is useless. Being able to do something is necessary (but not sufficient) in order to understand it.
    And, using my smaller example, the point was that if you never actually have done something yourself (such as cooked a steak), then saying it's done such and such a way is useless. Similarly, if you never (for instance) learned how to do a barre chord, then you can't really teach someone else how to do it. You'd have no idea if they were doing it wrong.
    Although I see the value of theory... I see guitar like a canvas, I'm painting images of sound that I'm sure could be explained by theory but that isn't my job...I am an artist... I let my mind run wild and keep my ears open, constantly surprised by sudden twists my hands create before my mind can catch up... sure it may take me longer to "compose/paint" a musical piece but at the end of the day I have something beautiful that I created without referencing a book or looking up a scale... It's Music NOT science, at least to me... I play what I feel
    yeah you don't really though. You playing what you feel 99% of the time would be theoretically correct but your arrogance makes you want to believe you're some kind of pseudo-genius.
    I've always been an "ear musician". Going back I wish I had a proper teacher for sure. I've been playing for 11 years and probably would have saved myself a fair amount of time and trouble/be farther along than I am currently. I guess there is a part of me that really doesn't identify with really complex music, so I've never really deemed it incredibly necessary to understand in logistical terms, what my heart and ears understand in emotional terms. (that sounds ultra douchey lol, but I can't think of another way to explain it) Either way, good read! I'll have to research your map during a time that isn't my lunch break Kudos!
    I never understood not listening to complex music. There's SO much you miss out on...classical music, most Jazz, some Metal, some Hardcore...I could go on and on. Don't miss out, man.
    *Computer issue, damnit!* "Hendrix never studied theory" crap alright, but I think to say this: "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." ..is a even sillier thing to say, totally different end of the spectrum and just as wrong I feel. It doesn't take a musical genius to know that a V-I cadence sounds great to end a song on, and through the combination of ear training and basic theory, one could learn a lot of things by themselves. Of course I imagine the more advanced levels of theory like the stuff they teach for university jazz courses or whatever might get heavily diluted through the internet. But for the basic theory, sites like this and magazines like Guitar Techniques are fantastic I think. Anyway where's that Hess link?!
    You want a link to Tom Hess website? I really don't get why, but since you want it here it is: http://www.tomhess.net/ Mozart: if for you Mozart's music is "end a song with V-I" then you TOTALLY need to learn your theory properly. As for "basic theory". There is ONLY basic theory. All "advanced" theory is just made by more complex applications of basic concepts. But if these basic concepts are not crystal clear, then you go nowhere. In other word: there is no "secret technique" taught in jazz university courses - it's just a proper understanding of the basics and their scope that allows you to build up on them and combine them to create the music you want. And no, I don't think the Internet is doing a good job at teaching even "basic" theory.
    http://www.musictheory.net this site goes over pretty much everything "basic". Obviously, it's not entirely comprehensive, but it's a damn good resource.
    The same thing I wrote on a comment below: "I'm glad you cite musictheory.nt, as it is one of the prime example of what I say above. While I commend the authors for their effort, they are making your life more difficult. For instance (and this is a non-comprehensive list): - Notice how the "basic" lessons are ALL about reading music. As I wrote extensively in another column here on UG http://www.ultimate-guitar.com/columns/g... music reading is NOT music theory, the two are largely independent and you should learn your theory before you learn how to read (and many Suzuki teachers would agree with me on these points) - Then they go immediately on compound meters and odd time signature BEFORE they even do the major keys. I guess they want you to play Dream Theater before you can play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star - Then they even have you learn all inversion of 7th chords BEFORE you put together a chord progression with triads! As if 7th chords are just objects you can put one after the other... 7th chords arise due to voices moving in a specific way. This is not a different "style" of learning: if you learn to build 7th chords (and suspended chords, and altered chords...) with moving voices, your chord progressions sound MUCH better, MUCH faster and are MUCH easier to learn... I could go on and on regarding this specific site. This is just to show you that I was not bullshitting: there ARE very specific issues with what I see on the net in most sites, and these issues are making YOUR life much more difficult than it needs to be."
    My reply to your comment below. "You know what, no. Absolutely not. Music theory- by definition, mind you - is the study of musical notation. It is the written language of music, which is impossible to separate from the spoken language- if you play it, it can be written. I intrinsically disagree with what you're saying, and simultaneously believe that you are committing multiple informal logical fallacies by means of red herring, reification (citing self as source), and slippery slope. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the website going over compound meter- by saying "I guess they want you to play Dream Theater before you can play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star", you're suggesting that what they are doing is misleading; there are quite a few simple folk songs that run in 3/4, (Star Spangled Banner, Take me out to the Ballgame), and for that matter, I'd say that popular songs such as Pink Floyd's Money in 7/8, suggest that this is an integral part of music theory. As far as learning all of the inversions go, I again disagree with you, but not on terms of the site itself. If somebody is going out of their way to learn music theory, this is not the end of their journey; this is part of it. What you're suggesting in this counter argument is that this is the only site the student is going to be looking at, and this should, quite simply, not be the case. Resources aren't like that; they do not exist in a vacuum, and should not be treated as a linear expanse of knowledge. Personally, I went through the first little section of the website and then proceeded to learn the things that I was interested in, completely skipping most of the site. Also, you say :"This is not a different "style" of learning: if you learn to build 7th chords (and suspended chords, and altered chords...) with moving voices, your chord progressions sound MUCH better, MUCH faster and are MUCH easier to learn..." -however, this is entirely subjective. A side effect of learning theory is that you learn to teach yourself, and as such, one would experiment more. This is contradictory to what you say in the rest of your paragraph, as "7th chords are just objects" is inherently false. I mean, really, if somebody is learning what an inversion is, don't you think it follows that they would then explore different ways of creating them? So moving back to my original point, I believe that you're committing the fallacy of ambiguity. You're citing yourself as a source, and frankly, you are not a reliable one. You've got some good points, and I do not disagree with everything you say. However, for you to rag on people about learning online, and then cite your source, to me you are tarnishing your own name. I'd be more than happy to continue this, if you feel it necessary. I've used this website for the past 7 years, and do not appreciate users like you trying to scare young guitarists into downloading your ebook, especially considering how hypocritical your argument is for it." TL;DR You're bullshitting and I've got logical proof of it.
    "Music theory- by definition, mind you - is the study of musical notation. " Wrong. This is EXACTLY one of the problems in reading stuff online and taking it for granted I'm sorry, but your "definition" is plain wrong. Music theory is the study of why music works, why it evokes some specific emotions in us, and how to leverage this knowledge to make more music. Music notation is just how to put down music on paper. You can study how to put together (say) a great chord progression without knowing how to read a note. You can also be able to sight read anything, and have no idea (say) how to write a solo on a chord progression. The two things are unrelated. I do think that musictheory.nt is making a good job at teaching music NOTATION, but I think it's making a terrible one at teaching music THEORY. Not that YOU took out this website here. I purposefully avoided naming any in my article. I commend the authors for their effort in putting it together. I know their intentions were good. I have no beef with them. As a final note, Pink Floyd's Money is in 7/4. Fail
    I thank you for making this point, as I've argued much the same myself. My high school music theory teacher used that site specifically to create all lessons, and once I realized what was happening, I failed out of the class on purpose because it was such a waste of time. I knew more theory going into the class that I'd learnt from my guitar teacher, than what I learnt from that woman who was so clueless as to not even realize that what she was teaching was NOT music theory.
    If she was teaching 7th chords, major keys, etc., that IS music theory despite what Tommaso and his tom-hess-self-proclaimed-virtuoso-fan-group are claiming. Music theory is why things work and don't work. Music ANALYSIS is why certain things evoke certain feelings. Tommaso, you're very unreliable!
    both of your definitions of music theory are wrong. Music theory NEVER attempts to explain why it evokes specific emotions in us. It does not answer why music works either. Both of these topics belong in the field of psychomusicology. "Music theory" in the most common sense is the description of common musical idioms and structures in western music since the development of tonality. If I were to provide my own definition... Music theory is the study of the relationships and organization of pitched, rhythmic, dynamic, and/or color elements of sound. This definition includes the study of intervals, chords, scales, modes, etc; it covers serial elements of 20th century music with the inclusion of rhythmic, dynamic, and color aspects; finally, it includes structural analysis (organization) which is an incredibly large part of music theory/analysis in art music.
    shreddymcshred: while I agree on the definition of the technical art of music theory as based on relationships etc, I have to point out that if music theory as a whole does not relates to emotions, then it is useless for musical purposes. I do agree that many sources teach only the technical part of music (say, the difference between a major and a minor chord is the 3rd). But what you NEED, and what a correctly taught course in music theory will give you is how to use these technical elements to make art, i.e. the emotional connection (i.e. everything else being the same, a major chord is heard as happier than a minor chord). Mind you, it's not just me saying that, it's a number of great musicians that happened to be also great teachers (Schoenberg in his Harmony book, Hindemith in his theory series, etc...)
    The thing for me that made theory come alive was when I decided to take a freshmen music course in college. (I'd be in college for 2 years, but I was flirting with the idea of a music minor at the time.) The professor would first show how things worked on the board, writing it all out on the staff. THEN (and this is the important part) he would sit down on the piano and play those chords/intervals/cadences/whatever. Without hearing it all, it was useless to us.
    Emotions are useless for musical purposes? Well, that is how contemporary pop music producers think... Tell that to people like John Frusciante who apart from having great knowledge in music theory always says that emotions are the most important part in song writing...
    Music theory is useless? You're a very intelligent man Tommaso...
    bassgiant: Read the rest of the comment. I can't really be responsible for what you get if you read only one line of my comments
    We are not even talking about the same thing.
    Arguing with this guy is painful, isn't it?
    He's a self-proclaimed know-it-all with a closed mind... All his arguments are based on his own opinion (or one he was told by his "elite group" leader!)...
    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/m... "the study of the theoretical elements of music including sound and pitch, rhythm, melody, harmony, and notation" If you start looking into the history of western music, "music theory" began with Pope Gregory I; he's responsible for some of the first written music, and as such, the very start of "music theory". In all seriousness, you're ENTIRELY incorrect. Music notation and the study of how said notation interacts are intrinsically linked, as they started at the same time. I'm not sure how much music history you know, but you're certainly flaunting your ignorance. "Wrong. This is EXACTLY one of the problems in reading stuff online and taking it for granted." I got my definition from one of my old teachers with a PhD in Theory and History- where'd you get your information? And yes, you're right, Money is in 7/4. I mistyped, however, it'll serve a purpose. Can you explain to me how, exactly, 7/4 is different from 7/8 in half time WITHOUT notation? If somebody were to not know music theory (by your argument, notation), would this matter to them in the slightest? Or, let's say they learned it by ear, how would this effect them?
    "Can you explain to me how, exactly, 7/4 is different from 7/8 in half time WITHOUT notation?" Simple. They've a different feel. 7/8 in half time should feel different to people than 7/4. If you can't tell the difference, then you need to go back and listen two. It's like how 6/8 has a different feel than 3/4; we don't say 3/4 is 6/8 in half time (because it isn't notationally or feel-wise). We don't just arbitrarily pick time signatures because we want to. Rather, we pick them based on the rhythmic feel we want a song to have (or at least, that what a good composer should do).
    Crazysam is wrong. 3/4 groups notes into 3 main pulses, the quarter note being the beat unit. 6/8 groups notes into 2 main pulses, the dotted quarter note being the beat unit. 7/8 and 7/4 are indistinguishable, so long as the tempo is taken into account.
    Checkmate to Calymos. Whoever voted that comment down must be completely ignorant to any music theory, for them a definition is there.
    Unbelievable, isn't it? Let's spell it out: it wouldn't. It wouldn't matter in the slightest how they learned it. I know this is an ad but its logical fallacies are harmful to the wallet and, more importantly, development of any one trying to learn about music.
    Why do people keep saying this is an ad? I've yet to hear tommmaso ask for your money. In fact, the music theory map he provides is free. Yes, he make money based on ads at his website (I don't know; just saying it's a possibility), but he's not really even directing to his website. He's asking you to sign up for his newsletter (which is free), if you want the music theory map. Why is that so bad? After all, it's not like you can't unsubscribe at any time you choose, right? Though it'd be a bit of douchebag move to subscribe simply for the music theory map and then unsubscribe. /shrug