The Top 6 Things That Guitar Players Often Don't Understand About Music Theory & How This Hurts Them

9 minutes read, by Tommaso Zillio

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Music Theory is hard. Music Theory is useless. Music Theory harms your creativity. If you believe one of these three things, then either somebody told you a lie, or you are confused by the tons of contradictory information available online. Welcome to the club: I was there with you few years ago. The bad news is that this confusion will actually prevent you to become a good musician.

In my younger years (not that I'm that old...) I was a firm believer in "learning by myself", searching information wherever I could find it: internet, journal articles, books, my friends, etc. Needless to say, I heard everything and its opposite handed down as if it was the absolute truth. It took me years before I realized that I was being handed bad information, that I did not have the ability to distinguish between good and bad information by myself (how could I?), and so I actually needed some help in understanding music theory if I really wanted to do something with it.

So let me pass you something I have learned in the process that can help you finding your own way.

First of all, despite what everybody says, music theory is not "hard". It is certainly "complex" i.e. there are many things that you need to understand, but each single one of these things is easy, and you do not need to understand the whole thing before you can use it. You can learn it one piece at a time. Or at least that's the ideal situation: as we will see in a moment, there are many approaches to music theory and ideas about it that have been propagated through the net that can simply stop your progress if you try to follow them.

So, let's have a look at some of the major roadblocks that can delay or completely stop your understanding of music theory, together with some suggestion on how to get rid of them. This list is not exhaustive, but it covers at least some of the major problems:

1. Theory Is Useless: I Can Play By Ear

The first and most important problem we need to solve is if you believe that you don't need to learn music theory at all. If I had a penny for every person I heard that say that they do not want to learn theory because they are more a "by-ear type of musicians" then I will be VERY rich. Probably not Bill-Gates-rich but rich enough to retire to a private tropical island.

While I dream of my early retirement, I can't help to notice that all these people have in common one thing: this "ear" thing is just an excuse for them. Without exception, they never did any ear training worth mentioning. They can't transcribe what they hear, they can't play what they imagine, and for them playing "by ear" is simply adopting the "Hail Mary" strategy of playing blindly and desperately hoping that something good will come out of the instrument. A bit like all these monkeys with typewriters trying to write Shakespeare works - not a plan you want to rely on in any situation.

I never heard any writer say "I know how to write, I don't need grammar". Because, of course, they need to understand their grammar (and not only that) in order to write in a comprehensible way. It is now common for famous musicians to boast their ignorance of music theory, but of course this is only a move to add mystique to their image. If you go and check the facts, these musicians often have years of studies under their belts. (Yes, this is true for Hendrix too...)

And now that we know that we actually need to work in order to become good, let's see what not to do.

2. I Do Not Need Ear Training

Of course, the previous point should not be read as "you do not need to train your ear", or that playing by ear is wrong. Duh.

The truth is that learning music theory and training your ear should ALWAYS go together. If you try to do one without the other then it is like riding a motorcycle with only one wheel: it is difficult, pointless, and you won't last long before hurting yourself.

In fact, I take the radical position that music theory IS ear training. If you notice, all music theory concepts can be rephrased as "if you do X, it sounds this way". For instance, "if you play a chord tone, it sounds this way", "if you play a chord progression in key it sounds this way", etc...

The problem is, as you can see for yourself, that if you don't know what "this way" means for every single concept you learn, then you are not really learning anything. This is why many people say that music theory is useless: they are learning only the "formal" aspect of music theory, and never

My suggestion here is simply: "put more music in your music theory": PLAY all the concepts you are learning, and make sure that for every concept you have 3-4 examples in songs you know or compose yourself.

3. Theory Will Destroy My Creativity

Another dangerous notion that I found widespread all over the net is that knowing theory will harm your creativity. As we all know, no musicians who knew any theory produced anything worth listening to. That is why nobody's listening to anything written by Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Tchaikovskij, Coltrane, Parker, Django Reinhardt, Hendrix, Satriani, Vai, Jason Becker --- all musicians with a VERY solid background in music theory (again, despite what you may have been told about Hendrix).

What actually happens is that your creativity flourishes only if you study theory the right way i.e. not as a set of "rules" to be followed, but as a set of procedures that you can use to go from an idea to a complete song. If you do not study music theory at all you may still have some occasional flash of musical genius, but you will have no idea what to do with it.

This is what happens to artists that write the same song over and over: they have nothing else left in their trick bag, and they don't know how to invent new tricks either. On the other hand, if you are fluent in your theory skill then you will know how to develop and polish every idea you might have, and in fact you can have even more ideas as a result of that. Creativity and longevity as an artists are a direct result of your familiarity with music theory.

4. I Can Teach Myself (by Trial and Error)

Would you consider learning how to drive a car by trial and error, completely by yourself? Let's start that engine and go on the highway. After all, what could go wrong? :-)

Of course nobody in his sane mind would even consider doing something like that without help, and for a good reason: there is an high chance that you are going to get hurt. You might wonder were I'm going here, it's not that if you don't learn music theory somebody is going to get hurt, with the possible exception of some bystander's eardrums. But there is a danger, even if more subtle: you might simply never realize your potential as a composer and songwriter.

Yes, I know you can cite few composers who "did not need to study music theory in order to create their music". But what I see in these people is that they rediscovered the wheel by trial and error, and so they have in fact learned a very tiny amount of music theory. And I can't help to think that if these guys were so massively talented to do this with just the little knowledge they had... what they could have possibly written if they knew the full theory? What kind of wonderful songs we will never hear because they never studied music theory?

Probably the most naturally talented individual ever in music was Mozart. Even him, incredibly gifted as he was, had to study music theory and composition under many tutors for more than ten years. Unless you feel you are better than Mozart, don't try to do it alone.

5. I Can find All The Information On the Net

Another problem with searching your lessons on the Internet is that you will find these lesson in a random order. There will be no plan, no clear direction, no relevance to your goals. As with everything else, the music theory you will learn will be very different if you want to learn to improvise a Blues progression, as opposed to write a fugue in the style of Bach. Both are fun and worthwhile, but if your goal is the former, you don't want to spend years on the latter by accident or because you can't find the correct resources out there.

I know you might have heard it already, I am not the first online author saying that, but you really do need to have a plan if you want to go somewhere at all. If you do not have definite goals and a plan to get there, then were you are going to end up is only a matter of chance. The net is a wonderful resource, but its vastness will work against you unless you have at least a solid basis on music theory.

To help you find what you need to need to know in order to do the things you want, I have prepared a "map" of music theory that you can use to see what is the next thing you should learn. You will find below the link to download it.

6. My Friend Joe Can Help Me

And where your friend Joe got his information? Are you familiar with that child game called "telephone"? It's the one in which one child whispers a message to the next one until it is passed through a line of of people, and then the last one announces the message to the group. The fun in this game is to hear how the message got changed by the accumulation of errors in each retelling. It is less fun when you actually depend on the accuracy of the message, as when you are learning music theory.

Now, I know I am saying something that may appear obvious, but many "internet authors" (and "regular" authors too!) are in fact just (badly) copying each other, and simply repeat concepts they have not understood. It is no wonder that if you are reading all the articles you find on the net than you are getting confused. You would be surprised at the amount of inaccuracies, misconceptions and just plain errors that I found in

So, what is the solution? Trust people who can actually write songs! If somebody tells you "well, I am just a teacher, not a composer/performer/writer" then DO NOT study with him! Trust only people who are actually doing what you want to be able to do. While it is false that all teachers are just failed musicians, as I have heard once, it is still prudent to not trust blindly anyone.

Note: with "qualified" information I do not mean that the author must have a music degree. There are many musicians that are not only competent in music theory but also great communicators and teachers, and who do not have an "official" music degree. Again, you should ask yourself the question: is this person able to do what you want to do? Look at the facts --- not at a piece of paper.

So, what can I do now?

My suggestion at this point is that you do few things: 1) Put away all the self-study books, stop the random internet browsing. 2) Think about what kind of musician you really want to be, and what skills you need to get there. To help you in this I have prepared a "music theory map" that will show you what do you need to study next in order to become the type of musician YOU want to be. You can download your copy of the music theory map by clicking on the button below. Finally 3) either set up a written plan for yourself and then follow it, or enlist the help of somebody qualified to help you. Life is to short to waste it reinventing the wheel.

FREE Music Theory Map
Map of Music Theory
Download the FREE Map of Music Theory that will tell you what is the next topic you need to study

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Your email is kept 100% private and confidential and will NOT be shared, rented or sold. There's no obligation to buy anything.
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