6 Misconceptions Guitarists Have About Music Theory

 Tommaso Zillio


Do you think you can learn music theory by yourself? Do you think that learning theory will damp your creativity? Do you think that you can find all the information you need on the net? Well, I used to think the same, but I was wrong. If you want to see why, keep reading.

When I was just a beginner at guitar I was sure I could learn everything I needed by myself. After all, there is a wealth of information online, and I owned many books and DVDs, and my friends could help me, and… and each of these sources contradicts the others! In my naivete I thought I could separate the good from the bad. After years of effort, I had to conclude that no, I could not really do it without help of someone who was really knowledgeable in the matter.

I am here to share some of the things I learned in the process.

The first thing to keep in mind is that music theory is not “hard”. It is definitely “complex” i.e. made of many little concepts that work all together, but each and every one of these concepts is simple to understand. This means that if you are introduced to them in the right order, then music theory as a whole is easy to understand. If, on the other hand, you try to learn these concepts in the wrong order, then it is going to be really hard to understand. The problem, as we will see below, is that not all the approaches to music theory that are today popularized through the net follow a meaningful order, in fact most of them are simply plain confusing.

Let’s have now a look at the major roadblocks that can stop or delay your progress in music theory, and what to do about them. This list is of course not complete, but it is a good starting point:

I Can Learn By Myself

Sure. You can also potentially learn how to drive a car by yourself just by trial and error. I do see some downsides to the idea, though. Especially the fact that it is difficult to learn from an error and survive at the same time. Of course, i am over dramatizing here. After all, you can not harm yourself or others if you try to learn music theory by yourself. Or could you?

There are some musicians out there who can compose songs alright even if they do not know any music theory. I can’t help but think that it is a real pity. What could they do if they actually did study music theory? How much more could they do? What songs they could have written but we will never hear? These musicians had to start from scratch and reinvent the wheel by themselves… what could such amount of raw talent do if it was properly cultivated?

The person in history that had the greatest amount of natural talent in music is probably Mozart. And still, he had to dedicate ten years of his life to study composition in order to write what he did. My advice is that, unless you think you are more talented than Mozart, you should not try to learn theory alone.

I Don’t Need Theory: I Can Play By Ear

I wish I had a dollar for every person I heard saying that so I could retire on a private island and not work for the rest of my life. And while sipping my Mohito, I would reflect on the fact that this “play by ear” excuse is just that: an excuse. In fact most of the people that use it have never done any ear training worth mentioning: they can’t transcribe the songs they like, they can’t play the musical ideas that pop in their minds. Ultimately for them “playing by ear” means adopting the “Hail Mary” strategy: playing something random while hoping that something good will come out of it. Most of the time, it doesn’t.

We musicians need to know theory as writers need to know grammar. It is not the ONLY thing we need to know (far from it), but it is absolutely necessary. While it is a common occurrence for many famous musicians (or their fans) to boast that they do not know any theory, once you go and actually check the facts you will find that this is never the truth (the first one to post in the comments that “Hendrix never studied theory” will get a pat on their head and a lollipop before being sent back to music pre-school).

So, now that we have established that there ain’t such a thing as a free lunch and we need to actually put some effort in if we want to be great or at least good, let’s see what not to do.

I Don’t Need To Train My Ear

Since someone is bound to misunderstand the previous point: what I wrote before should not be construed to mean that ear training is useless. Obvious, no?

There is no way to learn music theory without training your ear at the same time. This is because all music theory is essentially made by statements such as: “if you do X, it sounds this way”. For instance: “If you play the interval of a third is sounds this way”, or “If you play a diminished fifth is sounds this way”. The problem, as you can see immediately, is that if you do not know what “this way” means sonically, then you are not learning anything!

This in fact explains why there are so many people that complain that music theory is useless: they learned only the “formal” part of music theory, and never connected it properly with the actual sound.

The solution for this problem is rather simple: just PLAY every concept you learn, and be sure to have 3-4 examples for each of them. If you cannot find a good example, then compose it!

Creativity And Theory Do Not Go Well Together

This is another harmful notion that you can find repeated everywhere. Following the proponents of the “theory harms creativity” camp, one is led to believe that no good music has ever came from musicians who know any theory. You know, people like 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).

It is a fact that if you study music theory in the correct way, then your creativity is not harmed but enhanced. What is the wrong way to learn? The wrong way is to think of theory as a fixed set of “rules” that you have to follow. The correct way is to think of music theory as the sum of the experiences of other composers that have handed down to us a set of procedures that worked for them to go from a raw musical idea to a complete piece. These procedures will help you, not limit you, and you can always decide to not follow them if they don’t apply to what you are writing at the moment.

Clearly even if you do not know any music theory you may still have some original musical ideas. But it’s going to be tough for you to actually compose a complete song based on it.

The Information is All Available On The Net

The net is a great resource, and there is definitely a lot available just one click away. And yet all this information can work against you rather than helping you. How? Well, in order to be useful to you, the information you come across needs to be relevant to what you want to do. You see, you will need to study different things if you want to compose music for film than what you should stud if you want to improvise on a Blues. It’s not that one is “better” or “more difficult”: they are just different and require a different skillset.

For this reason — and I realize I’m not the first to say that — you need to know what your goals are and have a plan in place in order to reach them. Without a plan you are simply going to end wherever chance will take you, and in most cases this is not what you wanted at all!

In order to help you find what your goals are and how to arrive there, I have written for you a “map” of music theory that you can download and will show you where you are and what you need to study next. You can find a link to it at the end of this article.

I Can Get Help From My Friend Joe

Ok, but who was helping your friend Joe? His friend Moe. And who was helping Moe? It was Jack. And who… you got the idea. After that many passages, it is very likely that the information that your friend Joe is giving you is not the original info anymore. There is a good chance it is in fact wrong. Now, if this happened only to your friends this would not be a great problem. What makes it more …problematic is that many authors of articles, or instructional books, or DVDs, both online and offline are doing the same: copying each other and propagating information they only half understand.

You would be surprised at how many factual errors I found in instructional products I PAID to have. And don’t get me started to the free stuff available out there — that is even worse. How can you protect yourself from being sold the wrong information? Simple. Ask yourself this question: “the author of this article/book/DVD is able to do the things I want to do?” If the answer is “no”, then don’t buy/read it!

In particular, watch out to people who say that they are “teachers but not performers/composers/writers”. If they are not practicing musicians, then they have no first-hand knowledge of the matter. They are just repeating what they have heard.

Note: the wrong way to decide if someone is competent is to ask him if he has a music degree. While nice to have, there are also a lot of great teachers out there who have no “official” degree but are really competent in what they do. Again, check what they do, not what pieces of paper they have on the wall.


What Should I Do?

Stop immediately reading random books and watching DVDs. Instead follow these three steps: 1) think about what are your goals on the instrument. 2) decide on a plan that will take you from where you are now to where you want to be. If you need some help with that, I have prepared for you a music theory map that will help you orient yourself and decide what will be your next step. 3) Use this plan to decide what you need to read and what not, or (even better) take your plan to a competent teacher that can help you implement it faster. Life is too short to waste time!

About the Author

A professional guitarist, teacher, and composer, Tommaso Zillio enjoys particularly writing about music theory and its application to guitar playing

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