Should I Learn Music Theory?

A short article which discusses this topic without going into too much detail about the subject itself. Through use of analogies I have explained how I think of understanding music theory as it relates to any instrument. Hopefully this article will inspire student's to spend some time working on music theory to help them develop their voice on the instrument.

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One of the most ridiculous misconceptions about learning music is that knowledge and application of music theory will somehow produce stagnant, mechanical playing devoid of emotion and humanity. Look almost anywhere on the internet and you will find musicians giving advice' on how exclusively playing by ear is the only way to convey raw emotion in your playing. Now there are definitely players out there who know nothing or very little of music theory but still produce amazing music. This is certainly the exception, not the rule and I argue that even these players would benefit still from learning music theory. I will present my case for this using spoken language as an analogy. Music itself can be considered a universal language and I am sure most would agree. By this reasoning we can liken the ear only approach to music to learning a spoken language by ear alone. This would mean no written word, no understanding of grammar, no ability to consciously convey any message, no ability to participate in a conversation and so on. By this way of thinking the only way we would be able to communicate would be through replicating what we hear without understanding what it is we are saying let alone what context we are saying it in. Parrot anyone? Hopefully from this analogy you will have some ideas about why music theory is beneficial but let me go into a little bit more detail. What is a theory? A theory is a way of understanding or explaining something. By its very nature a theory has nothing to do with how the information is used in practice. Music theory provides a universal way for musicians to understand the vital elements of music. It can also include any statement, conception or belief about music. Without going too much into detail about any specific aspect of music theory (that would be an entire book!) let's take one chord as an example here. The chord will be C Major. If I have no understanding of what constitutes a C Major chord, how can I explain even this most basic of ideas to another person? I might be able to show a guitarist or a pianist where to place his fingers, but can I explain to him what a C Major chord actually is? Can you? Can you play a C Major chord on your instrument in more than one position? How about any position on your instrument? Now, say I want to play a C Major chord and have another musician create a melody over the top of it. If the musician has an understanding of music theory he will know what notes, scales, arpeggios etc will fit this chord. This is the point where the anti-theorists jump in and say ahh, see that has nothing to do with listening and using your ear! That's a mechanical exercise!' Well, it is and it isn't. Being able to attach names to these sounds allows our ear to hear these right' notes and immediately attach a label to them in order for us to understand them on a deeper level. If a player decides then to only run up and down these ideas without listening, then yes it will sound mechanical. However, this has nothing to do with the information, it is just raw information. If the musician listens carefully, he can manipulate all the wrong' notes and the right' notes creating tension and release because his ear knows where those right' notes are. I liken this approach to taking risks in your playing. I liken the ear only approach as being reckless. Now, of course if you work hard enough you can become a great player with your ear only. But I 100% guarantee it is going to take you longer and you are definitely never going to be comfortable in strange musical situations. To return to the spoken language analogy. If I know a chair is for sitting on, does that mean I can only sit down if I have a chair? Or if I know a chair is for sitting on, does that mean that standing on a chair would be impossible? If I explain a chairs purpose to someone else, will they immediately assume that it is impossible to challenge this theory of chairs'? Although this is a silly example, the exact same ideas are true in music. Just because a theory states that a certain group of notes will work over a certain chord, does not mean that you cannot challenge this. However, only an understanding of the theory allows it to be challenged. If there is no theory, what are you challenging? Have I lost you yet? Should everyone learn music theory? I am a believer that not everyone desires to become a great player on their chosen instrument. Some players seek only to accompany their voice or only want to play other peoples songs for fun as a hobby. However, knowledge is power and if you have taken the time to seek out this article with the question should I learn music theory?', then I think you know the answer. Final thoughts Music theory is merely a way to explain sounds so that they can be universally communicated. Nothing more, nothing less. It allows you to hear a sound and immediately understand it which then allows you to recreate it. Some of the very best musicians who have ever lived had an encyclopedic knowledge of music theory. However, it is of the upmost importance that you apply what you learn! Learning music theory will not stick with you unless you use it. Unsure how to apply it? Get a good teacher. To be the very best that you can be, it's nave to think that the vast ocean of written music and theory that is available to everyone is nothing but a bunch of mechanical exercises. After reading this I hope you have many more questions about music theory. Get a good theory book or teacher and start learning. That's where all the answers are. Andy Mclaughlan is a Scottish guitar teacher and musician. Visit www.andymclaughlan.com for more about Andy and his music. 2011 Andy Mclaughlan www.andymclaughlan.com

45 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    voodoochild23
    I think this is one of the best articles i've read in a while on here. If only I could have read this when I was 18. Music theory is a combination of the results of all the great music being written over hundreds of years, it's a wonderful thing to be able to sit and read about it for sure. But, what a lot of young musicians dont consider, is that music theory will find you even if you dont find it, if you're sincerly passionate about music at all. Piece by piece it all comes together
    Patrijz
    Totally agree... I find myself missing the theoretical knowledge I need to progress more. I wish I had the time to go in-depth and still have time to just play normal songs.
    guitarman1992
    Learning music theory helped to make me into a real musician, and I don't sound like a Goddamned robot either.
    Andy_Mclaughlan
    Guitarman...you have hit the nail on the head. Before I learned many music theory concepts I thought I was a pretty decent player. Looking back, I laugh. Maybe on a technical level I was ok. But my musicianship was non existant past good timing as I didnt really understand anything I was doing. Eventually I find the frustration gets to most serious players and then they know its time to get their heads in the books!:p
    KurdtStaley
    Theory is definitely worth while and anyone who thinks otherwise is just plain naive. I'm not theory nut, I don't even really think about it much when I play, but I know the basics of time signatures, scales, chords, and progressions. It's really helpful in writing consonant, or even dissonant music. When I hear a song with a unique sound I ask why it sounds that way, then I apply it when I'm trying to get a similar sound. Or by far my most common use of theory is after I've written one progression without thinking, I ask "where should I go from here?" and theory points me in the write direction.
    foo_diddles
    I personally think theory is a hobby, since only a minimal amount is actually necessary to artistic creation, and that knowledge can only be attained through trial and error. IE: I have a verse in G, knowing the names of the possibilities doesn't help me figure out what progression would work best as a transition, only playing through them to see what feels most accurate to the song and almighty groove. I do support basic theory knowledge, but mastery of the subject is unnecessary except to gain prestige (Hey baby, I know all 666 tritones )
    Andy_Mclaughlan
    Once you start learning more theory, you discover it relates to everything that you are doing. It allows you to hear in your head the sounds of different chord movements. It allows you to use different inversion to create smoother voice leading in your chord playing. It allows you to modulate keys with ease and so on and so on. With a basic understanding of theory your playing will be enhanced. With a great understanding of music theory your playing will be enhanced a huge amount. No-one has mastered music theory as when it is applied, it has an infinite number of possibilities waiting to unfold. I support learning what you feel is right. But music theory knowledge when used is not about prestige. In some circles it is expected of every musician. For instance, if you turn up to a jazz gig, noone is going to be impressed about your knowlefge of how to spell any triad. You will be expected to creatively use your wealth of knowledge on the subject to create interesting lines and chord voicings which transcend a mere knowlege of the subject
    Lakshana
    Great article! I actually like the chairs analogy- it was original and made a lot of sense! And thank you once again for writing this article. 10/10
    damarofi
    I'm a guitar teacher in Portugal for the past 20 years. Ever since Tablature was invented, I have had hardly any students come up to me and ask to learn to read music, much less music theory. But I think something is starting to change. What I've noticed here is, that as soon as the kids start to get the idea of continuing studying music for their future, they run up to me and ask me to teach them music theory. Well it's kind of hard to learn basic music theory in a couple of months to do the exames for university!! So my opinion is... if you're thinking of music as a job, study music theory!!!
    killerkane2k
    Andy_Mclaughlan wrote: buchla200 wrote: It's just shame that speed has become the critical factor in playing rather than musicality. Amen!!
    It was Eddie Van Halen, I think that said, "speed is a gimmic". I have played guitar for 26 years now. it wasnt until about 1 and a half years ago, i had decided that I was tired of getting hammered by a wall I could not see. So I started taking lessons.... Guess what... Music Theory has been the main line of it. My teacher, who probably should be a rock guitar god (I am not exaggerating at all) said once that if you give a guy a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. he was talking about the need to know how things work so you dont get stuck using the same stuff over and over again...which is what i did. Great Article Andy!
    Tikoman
    Theory should explain what you play and not dictate what you play. there is nothing wrong with it but too many people get lost in theory and forget to develop the most important part for playing music, the ear.
    Zach Eapen
    Great article Andy, every bit is true ! If a musician doesn't know music theory he's tightly tied to what he hears and replicates on his instrument without any scope for improvisation or deeper understanding about the scales or chords that come into play.
    ABrandNewName1
    C'mon guys. Dream Theater must be one of the best examples of using music-theory, since they all studied at e.g. Berklee! Do there music sound like mechinical excercises or something like that? Nope.. learn your theory!
    damarofi
    rockingamer2 wrote: You've been around since the Middle Ages?
    XD You could say that!!!!
    Andy_Mclaughlan
    Great point Steven. Learning music theory allows you to translate your knowledge onto an instrument like the piano!
    rockingamer2
    I'm a guitar teacher in Portugal for the past 20 years. Ever since Tablature was invented, I have had hardly any students come up to me and ask to learn to read music, much less music theory.
    You've been around since the Middle Ages?
    KG6_Steven
    Excellent article. I teach guitar lessons and also recently started taking piano lessons. Knowing theory is almost required if you want to teach guitar. I don't know how many times I've been able to use theory to explain something. Without knowing theory, I would've given a blank stare and said "I don't know." Knowing theory has also come in handy for learning the piano. It really allows you to correlate what you know on the guitar to the keyboard. Knowing theory is a huge plus!
    Crazyedd123
    although i love music theory (i apply it quite alot and it has definitely helped me as a composer), i sometimes feel i could do without the 'italian' terms: appogiatura, acciacitura, alegro.etc. i nearly lost a place in my university because i didn't know the terms during the interview theory test. still, i definitely agree that it should be a foundation that you can build a song off of.
    Tyler.Allain
    IMO Theory is the way a person can communicate to a band or another musician music without actually playing it. Knowing theory is important but not critically important for a hobbyist.
    buchla200
    carnagereap666 wrote: I agree, but something that has always been bugging me is the fact that musicians tend to think that Music Theory is a bunch of rules. The problem with this is that it's not. It's simply an assortment of facts. I've said this before and I'll say it again: The musicians that we praise tend to be the ones that break the boundaries and don't follow 'THE RULES OF MUSIC THEORY!!!" But by doing this, they add another fact to music theory, so then it becomes the norm to break boundaries.
    Yes! Also, the best musicians I know are the ones who know the "rules" (or facts as you put it) and have left them behind. But to do that, you had better know them. Of course if you just want to rock out and make millions, then you won't need all this stuff (for now at least), but the fallacy is that some think it is less fun. Actually theory opens up your instrument and avoids frustration in your playing. It's just shame that speed has become the critical factor in playing rather than musicality.
    Andy_Mclaughlan
    buchla200 wrote: It's just shame that speed has become the critical factor in playing rather than musicality.
    Amen!!
    jim conquer
    Hi Andy, Just read your article there. Well done Mr. As a musician and teacher of too many years to remember I can't begin to stress the real importance of music theory especially in relation to guitar. IE... Simple language cannot work - I tell a student to move up one string. (Is that in pitch ie towards the floor sounds higher in pitch on guitar, or up a string from the floor which lowers the pitch) Confusing??? That is just the start really. To be a complete musician and have the ability to compose, improvis and blend all the elements of music you NEED TO KNOW THEORY. Apart from that, the right teacher makes it relevant and fun which inspires students to reach their potential. Jim Conquer http://guitarzcool.moonfruit.com
    Andy_Mclaughlan
    I agree with your post. My thinking is as follows...sure many musicians get along fine without using theory. But every single musician will and can benefit from a knowledge of music thoery regardless of their current ability. I agree with your points but I ama guitar teacher and so it is my duty to coerce students into what I know is best for them!haha
    USCENDONE BENE
    I feel a knowledge of the most basic level of music theory should be learnt by pretty much everyone so people can explain the most basic idea of what a C chord is to another person. But whether you should go for more advanced theory or not depends on the person, i think many people can get along fine without it. I once played in a band with a guitarist who produced amazing solos over any chord sequence i was chugging out purely because he learnt a few scales and worked out their positions up and down the neck. For me he then became limitless in what he could do - if he learnt the scale in C but i was playing in the key of D, he knew the basic theory so just shifted everything up 2 frets. Forget double sharps/flats relevant to the key of the music when playing the piano. But then i'm a firm believer of less is more. Music theory is not for everyone. If you have a natural songwriting craft that gives you great music then just go with it. Beatles style. Then when you find you have run out ideas, maybe then bust out some theory learnin' . Nice article, but there is almost always two valid sides to any argument (not saying what i said is valid, but your article could explore thinking from the other side a bit more)
    carnagereap666
    I'll admit I just kind of scanned it, but when it's 60 AM in the morning and you haven't slept in 12 hours, you get a little lazy. hahaha.
    Andy_Mclaughlan
    well since there are 2 sides to any argument, i challenge you to write an article describing the benefits of NOT learning music theory.
    kratos379
    I believe the people who learn entirely by ear have an implicit, although limited, understanding of music theory. People who actually learn music theory understand it explicitly and can go further with it, since they know why certain things sound good and not just that they sound good.
    Kill-Em-All
    carnagereap666 wrote: I agree, but something that has always been bugging me is the fact that musicians tend to think that Music Theory is a bunch of rules. The problem with this is that it's not. It's simply an assortment of facts. I've said this before and I'll say it again: The musicians that we praise tend to be the ones that break the boundaries and don't follow 'THE RULES OF MUSIC THEORY!!!" But by doing this, they add another fact to music theory, so then it becomes the norm to break boundaries.
    totally agree with you theory gives us rules and it also gives us the ability and knowledge to break the rules to get what we want
    eyalcisv
    Learning the basics is a MUST Scales, Chord construction, etc, will help you understand everything and IMMEDIATELY improve your playing. However, further than that - it helps, but not mandatory. Keep in mind that many musicians never had the ability(such as money) to learn such things. Also, if you keep on doing only what the theory says, it will be boring. All great musicians broke these rules, and this is what makes music interesting.
    bazo666
    eyalcisv wrote: Learning the basics is a MUST Scales, Chord construction, etc, will help you understand everything and IMMEDIATELY improve your playing. However, further than that - it helps, but not mandatory. Keep in mind that many musicians never had the ability(such as money) to learn such things. Also, if you keep on doing only what the theory says, it will be boring. All great musicians broke these rules, and this is what makes music interesting.
    You need to know the rules, to break them
    strat0blaster
    Theory is insanely helpful to some people and insanely confusing to others. Do you want to learn theory? That's the question that matters. My advice? Get your feet wet and see how you feel about it. Speculation only leads you so far before you're talking without firsthand experience, and without that experience you'll never know if you would have loved or hated it with any certainty. Personally, I avoided it like a plague for years, and when I finally got into it, I realized it could have helped me in a number of ways. Typically if you've been playing for a decent amount of time without any theory formally, you're going to find that you already know some of the stuff you were trying to avoid, and use it regularly but had no concept of it or what to call it, so you were unaware it was theory at all.
    Flibo
    ciadude2 wrote: Theory is a set of guidelines, not rules. But typically if you do something, no matter how random, it can still be classified with some type of theory.
    I wouldn't even dare to call music theory a set of guidelines. Music theory in my eyes is used to describe music and to analyze why something sounds like it does.
    AeolianWolf
    musicians who "don't follow theory" aren't breaking any rules -- they simply don't know enough theory to explain what they're doing. the concept of breaking a rule is foreign to music theory.
    Iommianity
    A knowledge of theory won't make you a great musician, but it will make a great musician better.
    Jet Penguin
    Should everyone learn music theory? Absolutely. It's only a benefit. But, Music theory is only a theory. There's no substitute for aural skills and creativity, and the "rules" of theory are more like guidelines, and can always be altered or broken as the musician sees fit.
    ciadude2
    Theory is a set of guidelines, not rules. But typically if you do something, no matter how random, it can still be classified with some type of theory.
    carnagereap666
    I agree, but something that has always been bugging me is the fact that musicians tend to think that Music Theory is a bunch of rules. The problem with this is that it's not. It's simply an assortment of facts. I've said this before and I'll say it again: The musicians that we praise tend to be the ones that break the boundaries and don't follow 'THE RULES OF MUSIC THEORY!!!" But by doing this, they add another fact to music theory, so then it becomes the norm to break boundaries.