By Aldo Chircop
This is a question that frequently pops up in the mind of people who wish to learn to play guitar:
“Should I learn music theory? Is it worth the effort?”
The world of guitar playing has one very curious feature: it’s the only craft where people often brag about the fact that they have no idea of what they are doing! “I never needed to learn theory / learn to read or write music. I just play by feel, man.” Somehow, they think that being uneducated and clueless is something to be proud of.
This might be a knee jerk rebellion against the classical exam based education format, combined with the natural talent “I’m so gifted I don’t need to learn anything” myth. This is wrong on at least two levels. One, the proponents of this philosophy are usually far less ‘gifted’ than they think they are, and two, this approach ends up throwing away the baby with the bath water.
Here are some typical misconceptions people have about learning music theory:
“It’s too hard and complicated”.
Answer: only when approached incorrectly. The concepts themselves in music theory are not hard. The whole of music theory is indeed complex since it contains a lot of inter related concepts, but when correctly approached bit by bit and in the right order, learning music theory concepts is not hard when you have the right guidance.
“Music theory is too abstract and only for book worms who want to learn lots of fancy names to impress people.”
Answer: It’s too abstract only if you learn it as an abstract subject without applying it in creative ways. Music theory was never meant to be abstract. It is not a set of arbitrary rules dreamt up in an abstract world, which somehow you are expected to apply in the real world. Actual music came first. People started to experiment with instruments and created music by following what sounded and felt right to them. After a significant body of great music had been created in the classical period, many people set down to figure out why that music sounded awesome.
Essentially, music theory is the study of how music creates specific emotions in the listener, so that you can recreate whatever emotions you want at will in your own music. Music theory teaches you why and how music works and gives you the tools to create the music you want.
Too abstract? I don’t think so. That sounds like what every musician wants, in fact.😊
“Music theory is a set of restrictive rules, and thus can only stifle your creativity.”
See above. Music theory was conceived with the goal of making musicians more creative, not less. As an analogy, would a writer become less or more creative if he increased his vocabulary and his mastery of language? Would knowing more and better ways of expressing his thoughts make his writing worse, or would it make it more effective? The answer should be extremely obvious.
“A lot of successful musicians never learned music theory, so clearly you can become very good even without it.”
First of all don’t believe all the hype you hear in the music business world. The “natural talent” myth is a huge part of the industry, with many musicians bragging that they never needed to ‘learn’ and that it all came naturally to them, thinking that this will inspire more awe in the general public, and make them seem more ‘special’ or ‘authentic’. However, many musicians who say this did have some formal music and music theory training or had at least someone teach them some concepts.
Secondly, the idea that having no education makes you better or more “authentic”, is just ridiculously absurd. Would you trust a civil engineer with no training to design you a house, or a surgeon who never studied surgery to operate on you? Surely not! So why think more of a musician with less knowledge? It makes no sense.
Thirdly, even those who genuinely had no formal music theory training will still have stumbled upon their own ‘theory’ by trial and error, and by gaining bits of information here and there. After lots of experimentation and copying ideas from other musicians, they developed a set of tricks that basically consists of “when I do this, it sounds like this”. They might not know the proper name for ‘this’, but they will have observed the cause and effect relationship by stumbling upon it.
If you refer to the previous paragraphs, this is in fact the same process by which the whole of music theory was developed. The problem with the blind trial and error approach is that the bulk of this work has already be done for you by other people for the last couple of centuries, and by trying to do it on your own and disregarding the huge body of knowledge already there, you just make the process far more limited, much longer, and much more confusing and frustrating!
Finally, even if it’s true that some musicians became quite good without formal training in music theory, guess what…they would have become even better, and done so more quickly and with less struggle had they taken the trouble to learn music theory properly. As with the writer analogy, improving your tool-box can only make you better, more versatile and more creative. It allows you to reach your desired results much more quickly and reliably than with the ‘hit and miss’ approach.
Any way you look at it, learning music theory properly can only help you become a better musician, and make your musical journey much more satisfying. It’s definitely well worth the effort, and I would strongly urge you to do so!
About the author:
Aldo Chircop is a guitarist, composer, producer and guitar teacher based in Malta. He is president and chief instructor of Malta Rock Academy, home of the best blues, metal and rock guitar lessons in Malta.