The Dirty Truth About Music Theory

Tommaso Zillio

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Do you believe in any of the following myths?

  1. music theory is hard to understand
  2. music theory is made of rules that you have to follow
  3. many great guitar player does not know anything about music theory

If you answered yes to at least one of them don't feel bad. I also used to believe the very same myths when I was learning how to play the guitar, and with so much misinformation on the Internet, I'm not surprised the vast majority of non-professional guitar players believes one or more of those.

And in fact, many professional guitar players are interested in keeping things this way: the more people believe in those, the less competition there is for them.

(One day I am going to write an article about all the lies that professional musicians say to their audience in order to keep their competitive edge...)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. After all I haven't convinced you yet that the three sentences that I've wrote above are actually false. And yet, if for a moment you follow me and accept that three sentences are just myths, then you will see clearly that they seem to be designed to prevent you from improving.

Coincidence? I think not.

Well let's examine them one by one so I can show you how utterly false they are.

Music Theory Is Hard To Understand

Actually, contrary to common knowledge, music theory is remarkably easy to learn. It seems foreign at first due to the fact that all the terminology (that is, the names of things) in music theory was invented by dudes living hundreds of years ago and wearing ridiculous wigs. But the fact that the names are hard to write or pronounce does not mean that the concepts behind them are hard.

I mean, come on; music theory was invented, taught, and learned by people who could not make an iPhone work (because it was not invented yet). How hard can it be?

The reason why most people find music theory hard (besides the goofy names) is because they keep studying music theory from books or Internet articles while they should study music theory on their instruments. If you are a guitar player you should always have a guitar on you when you're studying music theory. You should play every single example that you encounter. You should write a short piece for every concept that you learn. Just reading the book will not help you.

It also helps to find a good teacher that knows that music theory is easy. (Quick test. Ask your teacher: "is music theory easy?" If they say no or give you a long and vague answer then change teacher.)

Music Theory Is Made Of Rules

I maintain that there is not a single rule in the whole music theory. What people think as rules of music theory are in fact just guidelines that are set in order to resolve exercises. The old masters (the guys who wrote the early books on music theory) knew perfectly that the only way to learn their craft was to do it in practice, not just read about it.

Indeed the most important part of their books are the exercises at the end of every chapter, and what comes before are just suggestions and guidelines so that you can avoid the biggest mistakes when you resolve the exercises.

This is what today's students get completely wrong: they've read the book chapter by chapter but they don't do all the exercises. They are missing the best part and so it's not a surprise that they have so many misconceptions about theory.

You don't necessarily need to read the books to learn music theory: today there are many media that are better for that. The important part is that you apply everything you learn in practice as soon as possible. Don't just read: do it!

Many Great Players Do Not Know Theory

This statement is so ridiculous that should not deserve any comment in a sane world. But since old lies die hard, let's take it down once and for all.

One thing is to have inspirations and ideas for a song, and a completely different thing is to be able to put a song together. Indeed, to have inspiration you do not need music theory (though music theory can and will give you more ideas). When people say "this person can write songs without knowing music theory" what they mean is actually "this person has ideas and inspiration without knowing music theory".

But to put a song together you do need to know some music theory, even if you may have learned it by ear, in an informal way, and without knowing the names. This is more common than you think: have you ever talked about the verse or the chorus of a song? What do you think "verse" and "chorus" are if not music theory concepts? :-)

In fact it is very common for inspiration-but-not-theory songwriters to use the help of one or more professional musicians to go from that spark of inspiration to an actual song. So yeah, it COULD be that some "famous" musicians do not know music theory... but they are not the only ones responsible for the music you listen to.

And the first one who comments that Jimi Hendrix did not know a theory, will be given a fatherly pat on the head and a lollipop :-)

In The End

So here it is. Theory is the best tool you need to know and master if you want to make music. Don't listen to defeatists that tell you it's useless or hard: it's neither. Set your aims high and start studying.

If you want the best help in the world with studying the theory and application of scales and modes on guitar, then click here now to see the Master of the Modes Guitar Course and finally make sense of how to compose and improvise over any chord progression!

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