I get asked this from time to time so I thought it might make an interesting topic to look at here. Here are some typical questions that people have: Do I need to learn theory to be a good guitar player/musician? Paul McCartney/Jimmy Page/Angus Young/David Gilmour/Someone Else doesn’t know any theory and they’re my favourite player ever, so how can it really be that important? And won’t learning theory make me less creative?
Okay – here’s my short answer as to whether you have to learn music theory to create some great music:
The slightly longer answer is that depending on your goals and situation it might be the exact thing you need to take your playing and writing to the next level.
For my even longer answer you’ll have to keep reading…
How about using theory AND your ears? I don’t think they have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, they usually support each other. Learning music theory simply for the sake of knowing some theory is not usually what I would recommend (unless that’s your thing). Using theory to play, write, teach and communicate music, though? Now, THAT’S something I can get behind. But, I recommend as much ear training and development as you can get. Play whatever sounds good, listen to lots of great music and use theory to support your ‘ear’.
Think of theory as a language. Having a greater vocabulary can give you more tools that you can use to more accurately express what you’re trying to express. Knowing a couple of sentences like “Excuse me, where is the train station?” and “Thank You Sir” can come in useful when traveling to places where you don’t speak the language, but if you want to articulate your deep inner feelings or write your life story, you might need a few more words. And I deliberately said ‘might need’ because you might not. Some things can be better communicated with a simple word or phrase than it could ever be with 50 longer, more-elaborate words. The simple words are often more universal and can usually be understood by more people.
Other things may be more effectively expressed with NO words. Maybe all you need is a visceral sound; perhaps a groan, cry, yelp, giggle to express excitement, frustration, anger or something else.
How many words you need is really up to you and what you are trying to say. I think the same is true in music. Sometimes you may need a lot of notes, sometimes only a few, other times you may just want to plug in a guitar, turn it up really loud and hit a whole lot of open strings and not even care what notes you’re playing. It’s all music to me
My own personal approach is that the more you know, the better you are. Remember: Just because you’ve got a lot of tools in your toolbox doesn’t mean you have to use every one of them on every job you do – or that you even have to consider using each one on every job. That’s the way I think of music theory. It can open many new avenues and ideas that you may never have considered otherwise. Theory can tell us, for example, that in the key of C, Dm and Em could be substituted with Dm11 and Em11, as they are just extensions of the same diatonic chords. They have the same root note, minor 3rd, and minor 7th. They just have some extra ‘colour’ tones added – which may be just what I’m looking for.
So far, this might sound like a whole lot of boring knowledge…or not. Knowing this means I have one more thing up my sleeve if I have a minor chord and want to spice it up. Here’s the thing to keep in mind: If it sounds great – Awesome! My song sounds a little better than it did 3 seconds ago! If not, I don’t use it.
Just because I can explain it on paper with fancy-sounding words doesn’t mean I have to use that chord. If my original Dm sounded great in the first place, I don’t even need to try it. I’m always ‘using my ears’, even when talking about theory. That, to me, makes the most sense. Could someone come to this same conclusion without knowing any theory? Of course. You could play those same Dm11 and Em11 chords just by playing around and finding something that sounds cool. Like I said before though – it’s another tool in the toolbox to help unlock those ideas.
WON’T ALL THIS THEORY MAKE ME FORMULAIC AND LESS CREATIVE?
Well, not if you don’t let it. Mozart, Bach or Frank Zappa knew loads about theory and they never had much trouble with creative output. Think of theory as guidelines – something to help explain how many great songs throughout history are constructed. It can help you understand the things you love in your favourite songs and be better able to incorporate some of those elements in your own music in some way. It can give you more confidence and help you feel more in control – having more tools to be able to work through any ‘writer’s block’ you may experience.
It can make it easier to communicate your ideas to other musicians you’re working with which in turn helps you realize your musical visions and, as I said above, it might give you a lot of different ideas that you hadn’t considered. So, a pretty good case can be made for it helping you be more creative. But – If you’re in the key of C Major, and want to play F♯ Major chords all over the place – go for it. Who cares if you can find any theory supports this notion? It’s your song. Do it often enough, make it sound awesome and someone will probably devise some theory around it and name it after you. 🙂
Think about this. Imagine if I showed you a plastic spoon and explained its theory.
OKAY, SO CAN YOU MAKE A CASE FOR NOT LEARNING ANY THEORY?
Let’s look at the flip side here – because this isn’t a ‘theory or bust’ blog post. I don’t think it will make you ‘less creative’ at all, but it will probably change the way you think – to at least some extent. If we took the first KISS album (which I love love love) and somehow created an alternate universe where those exact same 4 guys were instead Julliard-trained musicians when they recorded it – would the album sound the same? My guess is almost certainly not. Whether or not the result would be ‘better’ or ‘worse’ is impossible to say – and would differ for each person – but I think it would at least be different. To me, it’s just fine the way it is.
‘Different’ may or may not be what you want. If you’re frustrated, feel stuck in a rut and not producing work to the level you wish you were – then ‘different’ sounds pretty good. If you’re already enjoying yourself and your music is awesome – then why change? Some people will say: “But, all this thinking, rationalizing, intellectualizing and analyzing music takes away from the pure enjoyment, beauty and mystery of it.” Well, it’s not how I feel about it but I guess that if not really understanding it is part of what you love about music, then that’s fine by me. I’m not going to force people to learn theory if they don’t want to. Play music and enjoy it. Life’s short!
Imagine a child learning to speak. You don’t take a 1 year old kid and sit them in front of a whiteboard and say, “This is a pronoun and that’s a compound adjective…” They learn by watching and listening to the people around them. Music is the same, most of us start out learning how to communicate by imitating others and when I’m teaching, I keep this in mind. There’s a place for just learning to play a song you love or some cool some chords and riffs that sound great even if you don’t understand the theory behind it yet.
OKAY, SO WHAT ELSE MIGHT MUSIC THEORY HELP ME WITH?
Speaking The Language
Music theory can help you explain music, arrangement and techniques to other musicians. This might be especially a concern when dealing with non-guitar players. Saying ‘and then you play this note on the 13th fret…’ probably doesn’t mean anything to a flute-player. You can save time – and potentially money – by speaking a common language. Being able to write out a chart and hand it to someone at a recording session can be invaluable. This chart could be anything from a chord chart using Nashville numbering or a full orchestral score but being able to communicate – to whomever you are trying to communicate with – is obviously a benefit.
This may or may not apply to you but you can gain some respect from other musicians if you can speak to them on in their language – and this kind of steps out of just being ‘music theory’. I’m talking about knowing the range of someone’s particular instrument, which keys might be more challenging for them to work in, how long they can typically play before needing a break, certain markings they may prefer to see on a chart etc. It really depends on what your situation and goals are. If you’re a producer or musical director this type of respect may ultimately create a higher standard from everybody involved.
All of these points really depend on you, but knowing some theory can help you feel confident around other musicians and in different scenarios. If you’re doing a session, a producer might well just say ‘Just play something cool”, or they might give you a chord chart – this could have actual chord names or even numbers/roman numerals. Depending on the type of session, they may even have some sheet music. Often you get these charts in advance, but occasionally you may not, or there might be changes/alterations to the version you were given. They may say “The singer’s having little trouble, so let’s try it in the key of B instead. Cool?” The quicker you can process this information and deliver what they’re looking for could make you more employable and in-demand.
If I was teaching and someone was to to say to me, “It’s so frustrating. I wish I could write a catchier melody but everything I try just sounds boring. Can you help?” I could say, “Sure, just use your ears. Think of a really catchy melody, and then you’ll have one!” And while this might be ultimately true, it’s not necessarily helpful to someone trying to learn. Presumably the reason someone would even ask that question is because they can’t do it already. This is where theory can help. It can give us some words and terms to describe things to ultimately join those dots.
Knowledge of keys, harmony, chord construction, chord substitutions and arrangement ideas can give you a lot more things to work with when writing. It gives you tools and knowledge to just get to work creating some great music instead of just noodling around or ‘waiting for an idea’. It can also help you understand what is going on with other music that you love, so you can incorporate elements of it into your own music.
I’ll be honest. I have a hard time drawing a line between playing by ear and using theory anyway. If a teacher, friend, professor or magazine tells me “Now, check out this new thing called Mixolydian….”. I might get a little theory about it and then start playing it up and down a few times. Then play a few licks, try it in a solo or write a melody with it…and at a certain point I’m going to get used to it and internalize that particular sound. It will just become something I like the sound of and will play when ‘using my ear’ and not thinking consciously about theory at all. In this way, theory can help develop your ear.
Sure, it’s perfectly feasible that you might stumble across those same notes just because they sound good and not have any idea that it’s called Mixolydian. It’s just another way of getting from A to B.
SO – WHAT’S THE ANSWER??
It really depends on you. If you feel like you’re in a rut, seemingly not making progress, not sure how to go about jumping to the next level as a musician – gaining some theory knowledge could be something that kick starts your forward momentum. If you’re already having a blast playing music and are completely happy without any theory and feel you can do everything you really want to do – then it’s really not necessary. Truthfully, I’m more interested in people enjoying music, whether that involves a lot of theory or not.
Here’s one important thing to keep in mind though: it’s common to not realize how useful (and actually enjoyable) theory is until after you’ve learned it.
So, if you’re on the fence thinking that maybe this could help you – then I would say it’s worth dipping your toe in the water. You don’t need a degree – start with Major scales and understanding major key harmony and the basics of chord construction. Give it a real shot – then you can more accurately gauge how helpful to you it is. If it’s working you can take it further.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
Here’s my advice that will hopefully help you navigate this path should you choose to take it. When you learn some new piece of theory – use it. Find songs that use it and listen to them – hear how it works in practice as actual music. How does it make you feel? What imagery does it bring to mind? Write a few bars of music with it, play a solo, improvise.
Actually. Do. Something.
Try and connect whatever concept it is to a sound, or a feeling, or a genre – things that you can actually use one day. Describe things in your own words, ‘This sounds mysterious’, ‘This makes me think of a circus’, ‘This chord is really tense”. One day you may just need something to really convey some tension – and you can use that chord! If you keep it practical, it will seem less like gathering knowledge for no reason and more like becoming a better musician. You might even find you actually enjoy it!
Thanks for reading and if you have any questions, opinions or personal experiences to share please post them below!