5 Lies You've Been Told About Music Theory

"As a wise man once told me, you're never smarter for not knowing something."

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5 Lies You've Been Told About Music Theory
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Guitar instructor Tyler Larson from Music Is Win presented an interesting video covering some common things guitarists might hear regarding music theory.

You can check out the highlights below, feel free to watch the embedded video for the whole thing.

Lie #1: Music theory compromises creativity

"Think of music theory as a shovel and your creativity as the gold buried in the ground. Music theory is a tool to help you access your creativity; it can even reveal new treasure chests of innovation you never thought to look for."

Lie #2: <Insert guitarist here> never learned music theory

"The huge majority of successful musicians - famous or not - has spent a lot of time on both technique and music theory. If you're avoiding a deeper understanding of guitar playing because you think your idol didn't spend any time studying their craft, you're probably wrong."

Lie #3: Having a good ear means you don't need music theory

"This might sound a little snarky, but there is a big difference between having a good ear and a trained ear. And training your ear is not as difficult as it may sound."

Lie #4: I'm self-taught, I already know everything I need to know

"A lot of guitar players are self-taught, but that doesn't mean they haven't fallen victim - just like you and I have - to the endless vortex of noodling.

"You're never wrong for grabbing your guitar when the mood strikes, but noodling is something a lot of self-taught guitar players treat as practice. You can become a decent guitar player that way, but the road is going to be much more winding and full of potholes."

Lie #5: My guitar teacher says music theory isn't important

"Be very wary of any guitar teacher who says you don't need music theory to improve. As a wise man once told me, you're never smarter for not knowing something."
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48 comments sorted by best / new / date

    T4D
    music theory is something everyone should learn, But not follow or obey
    zwArthurtje
    Music theory is descriptive not prescriptive anyway. So there's nothing to obey in the first place
    Weybl Himself
    This. Sometimes when trying to understand some tricky piece of theory you can accidentally stumble onto something really cool which is technically "wrong". It's not a set of rules, just a framework to help you work out where to go.
    N7Crazy
    When talking about theory with other people, I always recite a phrase my guitar teacher told me many years ago; "It's harder to break the rules if you don't know what they are to begin with"
    Slackerbitch
    Music theory isn't trying to give you rules, so there is nothing to follow or obey. It's only trying to explain why what happens is happening. Listen to some modern classical music, like Kalevi Aho, at times it can seem super chaotic, but theoretically everything can be explained.
    bparks1986
    My music became infinitely better after learning music theory, and you would be surprised that half of the time you think you are not obeying music theory, you're really just following a rule you didn't know about.
    the_bi99man
    That's because it's not a set of rules. It's descriptions and explanations. But yeah, there's nothing that can't be explained. If you're playing an instrument that uses the 12 semitone scale we all know, literally every combination of notes physically possible has been studied and documented, and you can find a chart telling you how it sounds with whatever other chords/scales. Never make the mistake of thinking you discovered something new because you don't know theory and stumbled onto a cool sound. It's probably just a harmonic minor scale.
    BadBatou
    Exactly. But solid knowledge is always great.  It gives you lot of keys, and it's your decision to choose which and how many doors you will open.
    stixhogan
    I like this sentiment, I agree. I think everyone should at least understand what it is.  At least at a very basic level.  It's not required to do anything, but it certainly helps to understand why something works and why something doesn't.
    HugoPan
    the last one is something I have never heard about in my entire life. any teacher who says something like that deserves to be unemployed.
    GR84
    No not everyone who picks up a instrument needs to have a music theory background, but for those who want to go further, Music theory sets the ground work for understanding your instrument or songwriting at a deeper level. It does not negatively impact creativity in any way shape or form, that is pure lunacy to assume that, sounds more like laziness to me, you can always learn more, and understanding some theory can really help when you've hit a wall, or feel the need to improvise, it kind of sets up a visual element to music that is hard to explain but really aids in comfort and creativity
    Monkedelic
    I agree with most of what you say, as someone who has played guitar for 30 years with virtually no formal knowledge of music theory. Not to sound like a pompous ass, but I have an excellent ear that I'm certain I acquired because my parents enrolled me in a Suzuki course for violin when I was 3 or 4 years old. Suzuki methodology essentially draws a parallel between learning music and learning ones native language. It therefore strongly emphasizes starting before age 5, and avoids all theory and aptitude testing until much later. Suzuki likens theory to reading... you speak (play your instrument) before you read (read music or learn theory). Everything is learned by ear early on in Suzuki and almost always, those who become world renowned musicians are already prodigies, able to play and write and understand complex pieces of music, before ever learning a lick of theory. They begin to learn theory only after they can already play their instrument fluently. I only had Suzuki training for a couple years because of financial reasons, but what I learned in Suzuki at a very young age just became instinctive to me and has served me well later on when i learned guitar, drums, etc. I have often felt limited in terms of my technical ability, but I have always overcome it in my songwriting because I can easily write a different part that Im able to play. Musical ideas and creativity have always come very easily for me, and I've always felt like I've developed a unique style on guitar because of my technical limitations. That said, my technical ability had always continually improved over 30 years, just out of learning tabs of other guitar players, and through figuring out how to play what I hear in my head. I would love to know music theory and it's not laziness that stops me. It's that I would so much rather be playing.
    The9
    I agree man, I can learn songs I hear but I feel creatively I am stuck as I can never write my own music
    ksk7
    if you want to break the rules, know what they are first!
    The9
    I struggle with theory and have been unable to pick it up, but god damn I really wish I could, play bass and feel like it could unlock the fretboard for me
    HimitsuUK
    Keep trying, what are you struggling with specifically?
    The9
    I am just struggling to grasp any of it, for example guitarist I know will say he is playing something in G and I can come up with something or use the root note? I think if I at least had a basic knowledge of the pattern of the fret board I would be able to understand
    HimitsuUK
    Okay for G, the first link or image that shows up is for G Major.  This one is for G Minor.  Note these are both in G. So if you moved everything up two frets (for both image/links) it would be in A. Down two frets would be F. So, if the guitarist is playing G Major chord (or a progression in G Major) or a G Minor chord (or progression, again), if you pick the corresponding scale it will sound good (in theory .. !) I hope this helps. It took me a long time to work some of this out, but learning the Major scale (in any or all keys you want: G, A, E) like this is the starting point for everything.
    Widmer
    I know people who avoid learning theory, but if you really enjoy music it doesn't feel like work at all.
    sean_getchapu
    Number one is hands down the biggest load of shit excuse, and is one I have heard from loads of people. Go tell that excuse to Beethoven or ANY classical composer. 
    Funnyname99
    I assume 5 is because people are intimidated by the insane amount of unending rabbit hole theory, when what they should be focusing on is their fluid strumming. I would definitely tell a beginner to ignore theory until they can play simple songs...
    Bodley_Shart
    I don't want to hear music from nerds.  The best songs by the best songwriters are SIMPLE and LACK complexity, that any junkie on the street can crank out.
    the_bi99man
    And most of your favorite songs that fit that description were written by people with a deep understanding of what they were doing. Not sure why you associate the very idea of knowing music theory with necessary "complexity".
    franciscoaguerre
    It's all excuses made by people who wouldnt wanna bother to learn theory. Like some people mentioned, theory is not the laws of music. Creative people will still be creative no matter how much they know. Theory can bring a big bag of tricks to the table. And the excuse of "fave guitarist doesnt know theory"... well, to begin with you probably will never be as good as him/her, so you need all the help you can get. Theory is a plus and the groundwork is actually not that hard to grasp, like intervals, how chords at formed/named and progressions, which you will find out you use it unknowingly all the time.
    Monkedelic
    A good ear allows you to intuit a lot of music theory instinctively through listening to music and writing and improvising, etc. You may not know the terminology, but you can pick up many of the core concepts without opening a textbook.
    Candlewolf
    This. I've never studied theory but I'm sure I know a bunch of scales and shit just by learning songs and learning what patterns and shapes work together. 
    Candlewolf
    I remember once a long time ago I was showing a friend a riff I'd written and he stopped me and said "you should be using that note there instead of the one you're using. it's the wrong note". It annoyed the shit out of me. That definitely coloured my perception of how theory affects your creative outlook. And having a black metal background definitely influences note choices that sound wrong for that specific purpose.  It's not like anything he's saying is wrong: it just doesn't apply to everyone.
    Jimjambanx
    Your friend's perception is wrong, there is no such thing as a "wrong note". Don't let one ignorant claim colour your perception of what music theory is or isn't.
    Candlewolf
    Yeah, I know that. I guess I just don't care. I'm not trying to write music that is technically correct or sonically coherent. I just write things that make me feel a little bit less shitty about having to exist in this body.
    Jimjambanx
    Again, no such thing as "technically correct" music, you're still confused as to what music theory is about. If there's a sound or emotion in your head, even just a basic understanding of music will greatly enhance your ability to express those emotions. It may seems like a bunch of rules at first, but once you get past the basics and understand that you can do absolutely anything you want, you'll thank yourself for learning it. Even black metal can be explained in theory, and can help you break down the genre so you can rebuild it in your own image, creating your own sound.
    Cazman
    "The huge majority of successful musicians - famous or not - has spent a lot of time on both technique and music theory." Sounds like it was pulled straight from his ass.
    Jimjambanx
    No, he's right. Think about it, not every successful musician is some world known rockstar who gets paid shitloads for playing stadiums. Most musicians are just normal people making a living doing everything they can to get a gig. For every famous musician, there's probably a thousand blue collar musicians, and if you're working as a freelance musician and don't know any theory, can't read notation, or at the least read a chord chart effectively, you're not gonna cut the mustard and probably won't be successful.  And even famous musicians know more than they let on. Take slash, he may say he knows no theory, but he knows his scales, he knows basic chords, he knows where all his pentatonic shapes are, he knows what does and doesn't work and how to get there. He might not know the names of these things, but that doesn't change the fact that he knows how to use them.
    Cazman
    "He might not know the names of these things, but that doesn't change the fact that he knows how to use them." Generally I don't equate this with "he knows how theory works". He just knows it works, but may not know why. It comes from playing for thousands of hours, not studying theory (now I'm the one pulling stuff out of my ass, but that's just my opinion).  My original point stands, though, as pedantic as it may be. I doubt there are any studies about this, so he is just assuming. 
    Jimjambanx
    Well of course it's an assumption, but it's a highly likely assumption based on the fact if you want to make it as a successful musician, you have to be one of the following a) be incredibly versatile, for which knowing theory goes without saying b) be a great instrumentalist, for which having put tons of hours into technique goes without saying, and more than likely you've learnt at least some relevant theory for your instrument eg for guitar you'd know some basic scales and what chords it can fit over, or c) be a great songwriter, for which you probably know a little bit of theory just through trial and error, again you might not know the names, but you know what the tools are and how to use them. Just because you don't know the names doesn't mean you don't know how to use it, you don't need to know why it works, because in music theory there is no "why" only "how", and not knowing how a tool works doesn't mean you don't know how to use it.
    fieryfenderz
    Yeah whenever someone says "This guy didn't learn theory and he was great", I'm just like... well don't you want to know even more than them? It isn't going to teach you how to write great music but it will give you tools to guide you in songwriting, and rules to either abide by or break. It can only help.
    friday.the.13th.jasonx
    Problem is I want to learn it but after a couple of chapters it makes no sense at all.
    metalhead983877
    Music theory is really simple when it's explained well. If it doesn't seem to make sense or seems complicated, it's because your source doesn't do a good job of explaining it. I've had a teacher spend multiple hours trying to explain modes to me and I just couldn't get it, while it took barely 30 minutes before I got it. (Of course, understanding a concept and actually using/applying it to your instrument is a different thing.)
    jonathon.fenton
    Just look at all the successful musicians out there. The Beatles couldn't read music, never claimed to know any theory. Bands like Green Day (who recycles their own material, and copies chord progressions from other bands.) Blink 182- who have reused cliche chord progressions. Tom Delonge was taught one certain guitar line he learned from  Brett Gurewitz. Of course if you want to play anything good like metal, progressive rock, blues, or jazz then yes you have to learn music theory. [h][/h]
    Funnyname99
    For ballance: 6; You can substitute creativity for more theory and playing more technically advanced passages is better than just opening yourself.
    eduardongua
    i think this is what we as musicians should put our effort and divide it properly according to whatever situation or stage were at. its the feel, the execution and the knowledge. in other words; the tone you can get out of the guitar; how it sounds. the physical abilites, your fingers stretch, your arm, breath. and the theory; what you know about how to connect the dots, the theory and how and when to apply it in terms of the necessities of the moment.