Why Music Theory is Neither Beneficial or Detrimental

An exploration into Music Theory from a "different point of view." Focusing on alternate views on how Music Theory affects a musician and their composition choices.

Ultimate Guitar
I read tommaso.zillio's article titled "6 Things Most Guitar Players Don't Understand About Music Theory" just moments ago and whilst I felt there were some extremely valid points made within its content, I also felt the article was rather one sided and needing a more open mindset. Bare in mind that I am not writing this to disprove Tommaso, only to provide further insight into the subject. Both views are neither right nor wrong at the end of the day and are just opinion. I am a 23 year old guitarist who has been playing and composing since I was 14/15. I have studied guitar in many ways such as, by myself, private tuition, and at academies. Despite all of this though, I have never learnt theory past learning different modes. I have had the chance to learn more but I didn't feel it interested me enough to do so and I also feel it isn't needed for my aspirations as a musician.

Do I Need To Know Theory To Write/Learn Music?

NEVER have I even thought of using music theory to write a song or learn a song I am hearing. Unless you count knowing how to play a chord, I simply just listen to whatever is in my head or is coming out the speakers and simply figure it out. After doing this for many years I often find myself knowing what note is being played before I even touch my guitar. Practice makes perfect and if you play your guitar long enough with focus you can do the same. Referring back to Tommaso's article: "We musicians need to know theory as writers need to know grammar." There have been many illiterate people who have had a knack with words yet have no idea how to write them down. Cockney talk is a poetic artform for some and highly entertaining, ever wondered why when you think of a Cockney Geezer it is an image of a homeless person you envisage? The same goes for music. Jimi Hendrix might have known music theory but can you say the many artists in the Punk Movement knew music theory also? Some did, but the general idea of playing Punk music is that anyone could do it. You simply just needed to pick an instrument up and play. Check out Siouxsie and The Banshees first ever gig at the 100 club. This leads me to my next sub-heading..

Does Music Theory Affect Your Taste In Music?

This can never be answered factually. My opinion on the matter is that the more knowledge you have in an artform, the higher chance your tastes in said artform are different from that of someone who has less knowledge. My brother is a film buff (Aspiring script writer). As kids we used to watch the same films mainly with slight differences in our taste. As years went by however and my brother studied films through various courses, his taste of films completely changed from liking most mainstream films to disliking them and liking obscure films that half of the time I feel are completely horrendous (although some are pretty cool). I noticed the same type of behavior change whilst studying music at academies. The course began with most of us at pretty much the same level of knowledge. Our tastes in music were slightly diverse but mainly within what some would consider mainstream styles of music. As the course went on and I felt disinterested in the theoretical aspects of the lessons, my peers' music tastes changed drastically from when they started and they began to even dislike what they used to like and have a new loving for more virtuoso styles of music. Mainly guitar virtuoso's like Jazz players, complex metal players etc. Outside of my class you could tell what the members of bands current year/term of study was simply by the choice of style of the band. This leads me onto my next part...

Does Knowing More Theory Affect Your Compositions?

It is my belief that for most it does. Whilst someone could say that just because they know complex theory, doesn't mean they have to use it, if we go look at my above statements about changes in taste, this could have a drastic affect on what a musician writes. When writing a song, a composer can come up with ideas they think are good, and some that are bad and want to burn. How does a musician decide though which are good and which are bad? Is it because they like it or dislike it in a similar way they like or dislike different songs of music? I reckon so. If you look at famous artists in history. Frank Zappa, you could easily say he has a good knowledge of music theory. His compositions are highly virtuoso. Now take a look at Kurt Cobain. Do you really think the rebellious high-school dropout had a huge knowledge of music theory? His songs weren't very virtuoso at all. Both composers are highly noted in the industry as successes. This leads me to my next point...

Is Music Theory Needed In Order To Be Successful In The Industry?

It all depends on what you feel is successful and what part of the industry you wish to work in. If you want to be a highly sought after session musician then you will most likely need a solid amount of music theory. If however you want to be in a famous Punk Band then you don't need to really focus on it at all. You are a unique individual with your own taste, ambitions, and inspirations. Decide your own future. Only you know what you want to do and if you find Music Theory uninteresting and hard to learn, its most probably because you don't want to learn it and have a different taste, ambition, and inspirations from someone who does find it interesting and does want to learn it. Don't let academics tell you that you are wrong and will fail for not knowing it because it is simply untrue and there is huge evidence against it. I hope you have enjoyed this exploration of a different point of view. I am certain there will be a lot of you who disagree entirely with what I have said and I welcome it. It's good to hear views from all over the spectrum to get a clearer view as a whole over things.

32 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Being the author of the original articles I have few things to say. The first one is that both you (karstaag) in your article response and many others in the comments to my original article have misunderstood completely some of the points I was trying to make. I didn't say that music theory is the end-all holy grail ultimate goal of music - of course it isnt'! It's something that makes your life easier, and make some things possible that otherwise would be impossible. It is also something that is best learned with a teacher. It's incredible how an article on music theory can generate so much reaction. What I said is not even controversial, it is just common knowledge among pros. Now, if you (not you Karstaag in particular) learned your theory without a teacher, and you are now afraid of not being able to think outside the box, well, that's what you get for learning by yourself. You should have enlisted the help of a good teacher, and now you would be able to think BOTH inside AND outside the box. That's one of the messae in my original article. Another thing I'd like to make clear is that I'm not an academic. I'm a working musician. I am as distant from the academic world as I can be. To answer in brief your questions: * Do I Need To Know Theory To Write/Learn Music? Well, do you need to be proficient in any technique? Of course not. Do you need to be able to play your guitar? Well, no, look at the early Punk movement. The question is: "It is more FUN to know what you are doing, and to be able to do more and better, and to improve constantly?" The answer is a resounding YES! *Does Music Theory Affect Your Taste In Music? and *Does Knowing More Theory Affect Your Compositions? Well, duh, of course it does it. Think about it: if by absurd studying music theory would NOT change your tastes and your compositions, then why the hell you should study it? You are studying it PRECISELY because it makes you a better composer, and the foremost way to do it is to educate your taste so you can make better musical choices. The real question is: can your brother make better movies than you or not? If yes, his training worked. That is the ONLY thing you should care about. *Is Music Theory Needed In Order To Be Successful In The Industry? You mean, it is necessary to have a tool that allow you to be a more prolific writer, to create your music faster and give better results, that offers you many more options that would come to mind, that gives you a way to communicate rapidly and efficiently with other musicians, that takes out the guesswork in many situations, etc? Again YES! It is worth it Final message: as Kaarstag says, it is your future. Decide wisely.
    Cheers for replying man! One thing that stands out is the reply is the perception of what is good or not? What is better? How can anyone say that song A is better than song B? It's only ever an opinion. My main passion involving guitar is songwriting. I have been writing since I picked up the guitar and is the main way in which I have learnt the instrument. Just through making song after song after song. I actually find it more fun not knowing what I'm doing and just creating something which I feel sounds awesome. The reason I think is because if I know what I'm doing it doesn't really have the same 'magical feeling' it would. I have no outstanding desire to improve despite trying to force myself and having prime opportunities to do so. As for knowing music theory making you a better composer I return to my point about it changing your tastes. It is a matter of opinion on what is a better composition. In some cases this could affect your success if you are following your tastes. If your idea of success (varies from person to person) is a signed band earning a living then you will find it hard to achieve if your taste and composition work is based on virtuoso guitar music. If it is a more mainstream style of music though it is easier to market. I have no passion for movie making. There is however a friend of mine who is aspiring in the film industry and writes scripts (like my brother does) and he is finding easier success because his scripts have a more mainstream appeal to them. As for the last bit, again its opinion. I hear the music I want to create in my head.. It's not a case of sitting down and using some tried and true formula of theory to make a song. A song idea comes into my head and then I play it. From brain to audio. As for options, again, the perfect song for me is pretty much in my head. Better results? Opinion. I rely on musicians in my band who have ears. I don't need to give them sheets of paper with tons of writing on it.. I just give them the idea in advance and we work it out at the rehearsals. Very minimal time is used. No guesswork needed. As for whether I am a professional musician or not, there isn't any defining principle that can determine this but I feel I am if not on the verge of being one. I currently have a band going really well with interest from PIAS records (Young Guns, Enter Shikari) which hopefully will pull through. It is my aspiration in life afterall. I guess its a case of 2 directions, one destination. You have your way, I have mine. I just wanted to bring to light that there are other ways of doing things.
    James Scott
    "The reason I think is because if I know what I'm doing it doesn't really have the same 'magical feeling' it would." How do you know if you won't study theory? You've no idea what it would feel like because you won't even try. And do you really think that "mainstream" composers don't study theory? Your idea that studying theory turns you into a nerdy virtuoso is so wide of the mark it makes me wonder if you are trolling. Maybe if you knew how and why certain musical ideas sound good, you'd be able to come up with better ones, and more often? But you are openly proud of your ignorance of your art, so how can you tell us anything about the merits of differing approaches when you haven't tried anything except guesswork? This is why you are getting attacked in the comments - for someone who doesn't know any musical theory, you seem awfully certain about what knowing it will do you your (and our) compositional style despite your entire evidence being "my brother's taste in films changed when he started studying theory".
    My evidence is also the people around me at the school. As for not knowing theory, I have learnt up to basic Jazz with superimposing different chords, arpagios, modes, creating tension etc. None of which I use for my composition work. All of what I've said is my experience being around a diverse mindset of students. It's not a case of me spouting shit out of my ass but more people's unwillingness to submit that there might be an alternative to what they did themselves. That is why people are attacking me here. And yes, some mainstream composers know theory. Not all though. There is a counter to what you all are religiously saying yet you all just assume that anyone in that counter is just a lesser musician! I am here to say that there IS another way. Nothing more. I'm NOT here to say I'm better than you or that what you have done is wrong. If you can't face that someone has a diffident opinion then go bury your head in the sand. All I'm doing is exploring views yet some of you have come in as I defecated on your bible.
    steven seagull
    How can anyone who claims to be educated believe that learning more about your chosen field can ever be anything other than beneficial?
    James Scott
    Guitar players get into a false sense of security about music theory because it's possible to learn guitar to a reasonable standard without knowing a lot of theory. I'm currently learning piano - and believe me, you simply cannot get a recognisable tune out of that instrument without a really strong understanding about keys, intervals, scales and chord construction. If you won't learn theory, you'll get some distance on the guitar before you hit the wall. On piano, you'll hit it straight away.
    Music theory came about as a means of explaining what it is we are doing when playing an instrument. Theory is not a means to an end, but for anyone who has passion for music; it is something they should want to pick up a little at a time along the way. The key word is "little". It is ridiculous to assume that we need to cram our head with as much knowledge in as little time as possible. People who say that music theory is not required are extremely closed minded as are those who say it is required. Music theory can be beneficial but as this article makes clear, there are plenty of solid musicians with little to no knowledge of it.
    Learning music theory is not detrimental to your playing or understand of music, and it is definitely beneficial. No matter what level you are on, knowing music theory will make you a better musician.
    A lot of this article didn't seem to focus on the topic of, "why music theory is neither beneficial or detrimental" like the headline says and more on the topic of "Music theory can change how you view music". Learning more about music and how it works will of course change how you view it. It would be ridiculous to say otherwise. Now, on to the actual headline: I don't see how music theory is not beneficial since it is simply learning the language of music so that you can write music you want to write with ease and say what you want to say to other musicians with ease. It is inherently beneficial.
    I didn't say it was either in the end Thats the catch. My argument to suggest it 'could' be detrimental was on how it changes your taste. If your taste is changed for more complex/virtuoso styles and then inherently becomes the style you compose in, and you are seeking mainstream success.. Chances are you will hit a brick wall these days. That would be considered detrimental. However if you aspire to just be a session musician for example, theory is the toolbox you need, therefore it's beneficial. It's a case of situation and person rather than just one is right and the other is wrong. It isn't black and white.
    This article is more about your brother and you becoming movie and music snobs due to the institutions and people you hang out with rather than a deeper knowledge of movies or music. So basically you guys are simply diplaying arrogance rather than knowledge. If Michael Bay was the alternative your brother would like Transformers. If crazy jazz was all over the charts, you'd be a fan of Taylor Swift. No music theory to see here people, please move along.
    For a moderator I find your comment quite ignorant and rather repulsive. Is that snobby enough for you? How have I come across snobby when I have tried to outline how whilst another person who has a differing opinion is right, there are other opinions which are also right? I'm not looking down on people for having knowledge over theory thankyou very much. So don't be so quick to judge! Infact I find it quite funny that you assume myself to be like my brother when I was pointing out the opposite. I am a big fan of mainstream music. I appreciate more complex and virtuoso music (non-mainstream) but it isn't usually my taste (some is however).
    The article doesn't explain at all why it isn't beneficial. Music theory is roughly just understanding how note X sounds over note Y. It allows you to be much more diverse than someone who doesn't make any conscious decisions with the notes that they choose to use. Some musicians who have used their music theory knowledge: -Freddie Mercury -Brian May -Zakk Wylde -Marty Friedman -Jason Becker -Yngwie Malmsteen -Randy Rhoads -Joe Satriani -Jon Lord -Steve Vai -Paul Gilbert -Steve Lukather Do I need to say more? Music theory is nothing that will take your creativity away.
    I wasn't trying to say it takes it away I was trying to outline the risk of your music and composition tastes being changed to more complex styles which 'could' make it harder to market. It depends on the persons aspirations.
    Cold Reader
    It depends what you want to do too. If you just want to be a guitar player (bass player, drummer etc.) then you can do pretty well without theory. If you want to play with/write for string players, brass sections or anything a bit more ambitious, you would definitely need to understand about how to write beautiful open chords and transposition (although the transpose button in Sibelius has made transposing less of an issue). Obviously, things like this won't appeal to everyone, but if you wanted to broaden your employability, and in this modern music industry, it is advisable that you be able to do more than one thing for a sustainable career, then you would pretty much HAVE to learn music theory.
    The arguments you bring are actually very supportive of the fact that music theory helps your creativity. You're basically saying "All my friends that learned theory broadened their music taste, I didn't and I still only like mainstream music."
    Broadening your music tastes is cool. However a lot of the historic composers were the 'anti' of the current scene. They were different. Some even HATED what everyone else liked. I guess they were the hipsters of the day. You could say it was their less accepting attitude to music which benefited their success.
    ive never had music theory be detrimental to my writings and as for tastes...i never really liked popular music of now but i can still enjoy a good tune in fact i think i can enjoy it more than the average person because i know whats going on at a deeper level than most people while it is true that you dont NEED it to be succesful im on the boat of "rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it" btw nothings stopped me from jamming out on some power chords from time to time not even knowing what a N6 chord is and i hope it never does
    Discussing whether theory is beneficial or not is kind of like discussing whether the colour blue should be used in your painting. Use it if you want, nobody will stop you. If it achieves your goal, then go for it. The only people I hear arguing about the colour blue in a painting are the critics, and I've yet to see a groundbreaking work come from a critic.
    I wrote a similar comment on the article you had based this one off of. I think it comes down to timing. Mostly this. If someone is feeling stuck with their playing, what would be the next step? Theory. Now I'm not a 100% on theory (yet) but, if people just aren't ready for it, then they will not learn it. If it's forced on them, then they build up these ideas that we all hear now about creativity and such. There is merit though, If I learned all of the complex modes and scales for your typical jazz song, I would probably use that more than my go to blues Barre chords, but I'm sure I'd still play them, and probably play them more and better with the knowledge of Theory.
    Lol this is retarded. You ever write a song where you're stuck on a G chord and then put a C chord after it and go "hmmm that sounds good..." well congratulations you just created a V to I cadence... that's music theory.
    I'm not saying to not know anything. There are more ways to improve yourself as for example: a songwriter, than learning music theory. I've been writing songs since I was 15 and you could say that was more of a hands-on approach to learning my field. I learnt the tools a different way.
    Cold Reader
    What do you see as "Theory"? To me, chord construction, scales, arpeggios and transposition spring to mind, but if you're worth your weight as a musician (not 'you' specifically, but any musician), surely these things are just part of what you do and shouldn't be separate entities.
    My definition of what music theory is, is no different to what you think it is. I'm trying to point out that you don't need to know music theory in the sense of say a Jazz musician who is thinking of different modes and arpeggios that work ontop of whatever chord is coming next. I'm saying by not knowing or applying it in the same sense a musician like that does, you can still create something of quality. It's a different method, that's all. It's just a different process of getting to an end result. Neither are better. It's just a context of taste and opinion on what you feel sounds better. The point I'm trying to get across is that you don't NEED to know music theory in the sense of memorizing the modes, chord formulas, and pen to paper mathematical theories in order to be a great musician. There are other routes that are just as good in order to reach the end results. I am probably doing exactly the same as a musician who IS using his theoretical knowledge except instead of thinking "I'll do this because my theoretical knowledge supports that it sounds good" I instead think "I'll do this because in my head I can hear that it sounds good and I know how to traverse whats in my head to my guitar." I did point out however that learning said theory in a conventional pen and paper way can affect your tastes in music to a more virtuoso way and from that what type of music you tend to compose. This COULD be detrimental to your goals if you wish to aspire to something such as a famous band since the style of music you COULD be writing might have disadvantages in the industry due to a smaller target market. It all depends on what type of musician/career you want to be/have. Do you think Nirvana would of created the music they did if they knew an extensive amount of music theory? I highly doubt it.
    Kurt Cobain was a huge admirer of John Lennon and studied him intently. In fact Nirvana was very influenced by The Beatles. Lol Kurt Cobain didn't know music theory... All of these guys "knew music theory". They just didn't study it as an art form... and probably couldn't break down a complex jazz tune theoretically, but that doesn't mean they "don't know music theory". If you know that C goes to F you know music theory.
    Cold Reader
    I don't think that anyone would argue that you can't create music without theory, most people probably write the same way that you and I do and use their ears. I see theory as something to fall back on, if something's not working like a chord or harmonizing a melody line, it's a sort of safety net to go "this is what works", which seems to be true for most composers. Of course, as your final statement says, there is much more to music than simply playing the chords, the aggression and lyrics of Nirvana are a testament to that. We could probably debate for hours if Nirvana would or wouldn't have written the same/similar songs if they knew theory and we probably wouldn't get anywhere. Somehow, even if they did know theory, conforming to it just doesn't sound like something they'd do. With the changing tastes, I'm not sure that's an argument. If your tastes change, I would assume your goals would also. This then takes you on a musical journey that maybe you wouldn't have taken before, rather than achieving your goal and hitting a wall because you're done now. I do see where you're coming from. A guitarist who wants to play in a band could, arguably, not need much theory to achieve a great deal of success. That's fine, I wouldn't argue that. But there is a whole area of music beyond that where theory definitely is beneficial, if not imperative to help you do the job.
    This article is so fucking stupid. Knowing theory and knowing how this works and how this works with that, why chord A and chord B sound nice together, why this scale sounds different than that scale are going to make playing and composing a lot easier and a lot more fun.