The point of this article is to contest the viewpoint that a musician who wants to learn how to rock before they learn how Canon was composed in D Major will be somewhat limited in their ability to play and compose music.
First, let's get one thing straight: I am NOT writing this article to downplay the importance of learning music theory. The point of this article is to contest the viewpoint that a musician who wants to learn how to rock before they learn how Canon was composed in D Major will be somewhat limited in their ability to play and compose music. The key argument I will be making is that you can learn theory after learning how to rock, without even trying to learn it.
I will give you a bit of background about me. Not because I want to feel like a celebrity or because I have an ego (and I do), but because this article relates to guitarists like me and therefore my own experience can serve as foundation for my argument.
I love many genres of music. I believe that learning an instrument can give you a greater appreciation/understanding of music and can open your mind to other genres because of your love for the sound of your instrument. I was never into Guns 'n' Roses until I started playing guitar and heard Slash make his guitar sing.
When I was very young I enjoyed listening to classical music. I never delved into the composure of it, I had no need to. I wasn't going to play the violin or the piano, I just loved the melodious sounds. I had a basic understanding of sheet music because I learnt the recorder in grade two (didn't we all). I didn't take in any of the theory taught in high school music class, I felt more enjoyment could be had from watching grass grow. I just played with the percussion effects on the keyboards. The first thing I learnt on guitar was the Peter Gunn theme. It was unintentional, someone taught me to play it. I had no motivation to learn guitar, although I did envy those who could.
Then I saw a band at my high school cover Blink 182's Dammit. I was hooked on that riff and all I wanted to do was play it. I wanted to pick up a guitar and rock, like so many of you when you first got that urge to learn. I bought a Strat copy at age thirteen and began lessons with a teacher. I received three lessons before my teacher told me he was accepting an offer to teach music overseas (was I that bad?). In those lessons I learnt five major things:
01. A proper picking/strumming action and how to hold a plectrum.
02. I had tightened my strings so much my guitar neck had bent.
03. The 12 Bar Blues, Joy To The World, Amazing Grace.
04. How to play sheet music using the first 3 frets.
05. Playing guitar starts to feel like work if someone tells you to do it and what to do.
Learning sheet music was boring. I wanted to play Dammit, dammit! Scarred from the lessons, I did not seek out another guitar teacher. A friend introduced me to the concept of guitar tablature and I got hooked on that. Many months went by, I got better and better at playing and slowly started learning more complex songs. The day I learnt Dammit was perhaps the happiest day in my guitar playing life. But I didn't stop there, and neither did you people with the songs that made you want to learn. I moved onto other music that made more complex use of guitars e.g. Guns 'n' Roses, Eagles, Bon Jovi, Avenged Sevenfold etc.
Theory gives music a universal language. A language that we can speak using any instrument we learn how to play. When two instruments speak the same language they produce a harmonious sound. Without this language we would be unable to form bands/orchestras/quartets/quintets/sextets/whatever.
I believe that you do not need to want to learn theory to be able to learn it. You will, however, need to want to compose your own music. With this desire you will explore and discover it all for yourself. After years of playing guitar without ever having touched a musical theory book, I can tell you that most (if not all) of it will come naturally with time and practice. Whether our names for items of theory are consistent or not is irrelevant, I've still learnt them and attached my own labels to them. Down the track I will pick up the names you use for items of theory from talking to you, e.g. melody, pitch, harmony, octave, scale, modal etc. The transition will be easy because I already know the content of these, all I am missing are your labels. When I learn these we can make our instruments speak the same language.
If you disagree with me at this point, then I ask you, how did musicians compose songs and play in harmony before any concept of universal theory was developed?
Up until a couple of weeks ago I didn't even know what music theory was. I looked up a few definitions and some lessons and realised it was all that I had discovered over my years of playing guitar. I learnt my own theory through mimicking those I idolise musically. Every guitar technique I learnt came from tablature. I learnt scales from solos in songs like All Torn Down (The Living End). I learnt that the most efficient way to play these scales was to use all four fingers. I learnt the names of scales through tuning my guitar with an electronic tuner and saying right, that's a C#. I learnt an order of notes through moving the scale up a fret at a time and saying that one's a D. I know that the B string is tuned 4 steps higher than the G string as opposed to the rest of the strings which have 5 steps difference between each other. From this I concluded that scales must move up or down a fret when you shift to the B string. I learnt that melody isn't fret 12, 13, 14, it's 12, 13, 15. Skip a fret here, add one there. Patterns such as these form melodious combinations fit for solos. I can now improvise solos in a specific key. Because I made these discoveries for myself, I did not stop at learning what was written in the book like some (but not all!) of the theory-first guitarists I know did. I started exploring my own techniques for creating effects and attached mathematics and semantics to my guitar playing. Does that sound like limited ability to play and compose music? If it sounds like I am boasting, then good. I am proud of what I have achieved by myself, and I'm sure there are many on this site who have a similar story or can atleast relate. Yes, many successful self-taught guitarists eventually turned to theory books to further their composition skills, but many did just what I did.
Having never learnt theory formally, I cannot accurately compare this method of learning to my own. I can, however, offer you my opinion based on seeing other people learning formally. Learning theory my way was a lot of fun. It was a great personal discovery every time I noticed something like a pattern. I didn't sit there rote learning it from a book, or trying to transfer what I'm reading onto the strings. Apart from my few lessons, I never learnt something on guitar that I didn't want to learn.
I do not think there is anything wrong with learning theory-first or simultaneously with learning to play guitar. If you believe that is the best way to learn, or you had a keen enough interest in theory to want to learn it, more power to you. Contrary to the impression this article may give you, I actually believe this to be the most efficient way to learn guitar for the purposes of composing music. My method took longer, though I felt it was far more enjoyable. And I do not feel limited in my ability to compose music. I am fed up with the criticism about those who are eager to get playing before they even hear the word scale. If like me, these musicians want to learn how to compose later on, they will. As I said earlier, as long as you want to learn how to compose music then theory will come to you naturally through self discovery. Thank you for reading my lengthy viewpoint, even if you disagree with it. I respect alternative opinion and welcome any comments you may have. Peace.