How Good Do I Need To Be To Get Started In Music Theory?

5 minutes read, by Tommaso Zillio

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When is the right moment to start studying music theory? Should you wait to become a proficient guitarist - and how proficient should you be? Or is it better to get started as soon as you can even if you can't play anything?

Some people tell me: "I am not ready to start studying music theory. I will learn a few chords/scales first and then maybe I will start working on some theory". At first sight this seems like a good plan --- That's exactly what I did when I started learning guitar --- but is it really a good plan?

Before we get into the answer to this last question, let's remember that music theory is NOT music reading. This article is not about if you have to learn to read music or when you have to do it: it's about music THEORY.

Also, it goes without saying that if you ALREADY know how to play a few scales/chords, then it's DEFINITELY the moment to start studying theory (unless you have started already, that is)

A Good Plan?

Let's now examine the feasibility of the plan "I will learn a few chords first, then study theory". This situation applies of course to people who just started to learn guitar, but even if you have years of experience reading thought this example you will learn something valuable.

Again, this plan sounds like a good idea, but ask yourself these questions:

  • What are you going to do with these chords? If you do not know any theory the only thing you can do is to read a few chord charts and play some songs --- which is great! Until...

  • ... you want to play a song in an uncomfortable key. Wait, you do not know what a key is yet! See, that's why you need theory! So let me explain this in another way?

  • If the chords in a song are too hard for you to play (they are all bar chords, for instance) or if the song is too high or too low for the singer's voice, then what would you do? If you know music theory there is a procedure called "transposition" that allows you to either change the chords of a song or to use a capo so that the song fits better the singer's voice and it's easier on your hands.

  • And what else can you do with the chords you learn? Well you can write songs for instance! Again, knowing even just the basics of theory will help you greatly here.

But Isn't Theory Hard?

Many beginners/intermediate people are simply scared to learn music theory because they heard that it's difficult, confusing, and useless in general. I can see why they think this way: the way that music theory is taught traditionally it definitely looks complex and without immediate applications.

But originally music theory was developed to make things EASIER for musicians. And if taught the right way, that's exactly how you will feel too: it is nothing less than illuminating.

Again, I can see why you would be skeptical about this at this stage. If you need help in getting started I have a free eBook for people who want to get started in music theory from the very beginning. Go and grab it and see if things do not get a bit clearer.

It Can Be Inspiring

Another problem that beginners face is "motivation erosion": what happens after you have learned a few chords or scales and you have no idea what to do with them? You lose motivation.

This happens especially when you see other people that can make good music with the same things you know: they play the same chords you know, they use the same scales you know, but THEIR music sounds good. Of course these people got to learn some theory (sometimes without even knowing that they were studying theory...), and if you study a little bit of theory yourself, then you could play as well as them if not better.

But is this the conclusion you are going to take? In my experience most people in that situation simply decide that they "have no talent for the instrument".

What would have happened if you started studying theory from the very beginning instead? You would have never run out of ideas to try and concepts to experiment with. Rather than 'just learning a few chords', you would have started to put them together to make music (and you would have trained your ear too in the meantime, just by playing them).

So When Do I Need To Start?

At this point you should guess that my recommendation is to start studying theory immediately. I'm not saying that you should become a master of Chromatic Mediant Modulations in the first week, but getting a basic knowledge of keys and chords and transpositions is something that anybody can do in a short time.

If you are afraid that you are going to become "all theory and no practice", keep in mind that if you practice correctly then your physical ability will improve fast enough to keep pace with your theory study.

So, when you start training the physical technique for something --- anything: scales, chords, sweep picking, 8-fingers tapping --- that is definitely the time to start studying that topic in theory too.

Also, if you want to know what is the best way to learn your chords all over the guitar fretboard and be able to write great chord progressions and songs, then at this link I will show you how you can achieve Complete Chord Mastery and finally SEE and HEAR the chords on your guitar the way that the pros do.

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