What is Music Theory?
Well, it’s basically the study of all things musical. This includes the bread and butter stuff like pitch, rhythm, scales, intervals and chord construction. But it’s also the study of how it all works together and how you can use it! Building your knowledge of music theory is probably the biggest investment you could make when learning any instrument, and…it doesn’t have to be slow or tedious.
How it Started
When I started learning guitar, all I wanted to do was play! I don’t think I’d even heard of the term “music theory”. My first teacher just showed me some chords to strum and I was off to a flying start playing guitar. This worked great for a few years. I would just learn more chord shapes, pick a song I wanted to play and then play it over and over till I memorised it. I learned a scale or two and then dabbled in improvising – which is making up guitar solos while someone else plays chords. This was so addictive! I could not believe how good I sounded (well… how good I thought I sounded…). And my friends thought I sounded good too. Which was great, except that before long I hit a wall.
Light Bulb Moment
I realised that my skills were “shallow”. I discovered this most clearly when I started with a new guitar teacher. The way he played was fantastic. When I jammed with him, his solos were amazing!!! So much richer with musical ideas. Even the way his fingers moved on the fretboard was so different to how I played. And when we played a song together and he was playing chords, he would spontaneously throw in chords I had never seen before – but it sounded awesome! It’s like he had some sort of super musical power.
It was like he was playing the guitar, not that the guitar was playing him. He had complete freedom and could do what ever he felt would suit the moment. I was absolutely hooked.
How did he do it? What was his secret? Answer: music theory. After seeing that, I knew I needed to learn theory, but here is the key factor that made it so attractive to me: I saw theory being used!
It was theory in action, which meant I could see the reason for it and the benefit of it and why I should bother with it. From then on, my lessons became a mix of learning songs and techniques, but also learning about how music worked and how it could be manipulated. Every time I learnt some new kernel of musical wisdom I would experiment with it and become so inspired by all the possibilities I could discover. I have never looked back or regretted learning theory, and it has opened so many doors in my musical career, that would never have been possible otherwise. Many of my own students would say the same.
Why Why Why?
I’d like to give 5 key reasons why learning theory will build your musical mind and make you a greater guitarist and musician.
- 1. It will make learning guitar (or any other instrument) way easier. I remember a student who started having lessons with me. She had been learning piano and decided to have a go at guitar. I asked her “Do you know what a semitone is?” she said yes. So, I said “on the guitar, each fret is the equivalent of 1 semitone”. She said “oh, ok…” She then demonstrated that she could name every note on the fretboard, of which there are over 100. For most people that takes a long time to do. She did it in 5 minutes. How did she do it? She understood my question and answer. She knew the theory.
- 2. You’ll have freedom and choices on the guitar. The same note can appear in more than just one spot. This means that when you play the guitar you have options. Now generally, most players I come across don’t know the notes all over the fretboard. Because of this they’re really limited in what they can play on the guitar, particularly in a jamming situation, where everyone is kind of improvising and making it up as they go. It’s also helpful if you’re learning a song, and you come across a tricky passage. Often you can find the notes in other places and create a simplified way of playing something. Knowing how to work out the notes on the fretboard is pretty straight forward if you know what the chromatic scale is. That one piece of theory will totally open the guitar up to you. I’ve written a post about it here.
- 3. You’ll be able to communicate with other musicians in a profound way. Music is a language! When you can speak it in the same way other musicians can it’s way more efficient. Say you are in a band, and you ask the drummer to try playing semiquavers (16th’s) on the Hi Hats. He is not going to do a very good job if he has no idea what Semiquavers are. Which will mean you will need to walk over to the drum kit and try and show him, or explain it some other way. But, if he had learned basic rhythm theory, he’d be like: “yeah, sure, I can do that. Let’s run the song again and I’ll try it out”. Much better!
- 4. You’ll be more than just a guitar player, but a musician! I think in our world today, if you can strum some chords and make it sound good, people will call you a “guitar player”. But, if you can manipulate the chords and add variation, or write your own music all together, you move from being just a “guitar player” to being a musician. By that, I mean someone who understands music and can create it.
- 5. It’s really good for your brain. More and more research is coming out that suggests that learning a second language is really good for your brain. Well, music is a language, not just a physical activity. There is a vocabulary to it, and rules which you can follow or break. Learning the “academic” part of music will put your brain in the position of learning something new and the need to use your memory. A learning brain is a healthy brain and a healthy brain is good!
If your playing skills are ahead of your theory, you’ll be limited. If your theory is ahead of your playing skills, you’ll always be moving forward.
How to Become a Theory Wizard
At every point you learn something – do something with it. For example, If you’re learning notes, play it smart and get yourself a note training app like Tenuto, or check out a website called Music Theory. Or, you could get a manuscript pad and write out notes. In fact, the physical act of writing out notes will massively increase the speed of your learning.
Well…hopefully I’ve managed to get the idea across that music theory matters. hopefully you’re about to embark on a very interesting journey of musical discovery, which is a very exciting journey indeed. Just make sure you use it.
Do you see a need for theory? How could it help you become a greater musician?
If you found this post helpful, I’d really appreciate it if you could share it with other like minded souls who seek to become more than just a guitarist!