Why You Need To Learn Music Theory

Over the years there has been an ongoing argument in some music circles, often most heated among guitar players, that learning music theory destroys and/or interferes with creativity. If you stop for just a moment and recognize that the argument against learning theory is pushed by people who have no qualification to make such a statement, most often because they have not learned any substantive amount of theory to know whether or not that position is true or false, you begin to see how simply foolish the statement really is.

Yes, it is a harsh indictment.

The reason is simple: how can you know learning music theory is bad for creativity if you have not first learned music theory and then suffered a complete breakdown in your creative abilities as evidence and proof of your argument? That's the same as saying learning to read in school will destroy your ability to comprehend and learn new things.

What these naysayers would have you believe is that struggling with ideas in complete darkness is far more productive - even beneficial - than educating yourself in the applications of harmony, melody, scales, chords and more, how it all fits together and why.

There is an old saying: Knowledge is power.

The logic goes like this: When you learn to do something, like ride a bicycle, it gives you the ability to travel greater distances than you can on foot. That means you can go more places and, therefore, do more stuff now that you have access to things once out of reach (without the help of your parents driving you there). It also increases your independence. Likewise, if you learn to use a hammer, nails, a saw and glue, you can build things. You are gaining ability and knowledge. And with knowledge comes understanding. With understanding, even more ability. It's additive, which is to say that you are increasing the likelihood of achieving higher goals.

For example, take the computer you are currently reading this on. How did it come about? Did a bunch of guys get together with a pile of electronic parts and just start throwing things together to see what would happen? That's like the old argument that if you put a group of chimpanzees in a room with paper and typewriters that they will eventually write Shakespeare's plays.

In fact, the birth of computers came about as a result of an accummulation of knowledge that resulted in the ability to envision a machine that could calculate great sums of numbers and also be applied to a problem in need of a solution. The inventors of the modern computer were engineers and mathematicians who had earned degrees in their respective fields. They were highly educated people.

I was reluctant to go to college in pursuit of an Art degree because I feared my emerging personal style (that the people reviewing my application commented was well developed) would suffer for the "imprint" that the teachers would "force" upon me as I went through my education in Art. And, truth be told, for a time the way I approached things did indeed change. But that was only because I was working out the lessons and doing things in a very specific way, directed by my teachers, as a means to understand what I was learning. Once I had absorbed the information, worked through the processes of assimilating it into my knowledge base, my own style slowly began to emerge again.

But a very interesting thing began to happen in the process of rediscovery of my own style. I was now conscious of why things worked and why other things did not work, and how to "fix" those things that did not work. Basically, when I encountered a problem, my understanding of the material helped me to know why an approach or method was not working, that perhaps just one element within the overall design or process was messed up, and so affecting the whole. Fix the one little problem and everything falls into place. Without the learned knowledge, I would have struggled for who knows how long to solve the problem - if ever I came to a solution.

I had learned critical skills in the field of Art precisely because I submitted to their wisdom and knowledge; I had learned about light and shadow, colour and composition, balance and a host of other things I didn't even know were important before stepping into the hallowed halls of higher learning.

Now, back to music. As my knowledge of music theory increased, as I began to understand and apply the concepts I was learning, my ability to envision, to more faithfully express my ideas improved. I was better able to apprehend the ideas in my imagination and get them translated into reality.

The more you want to do with your music, the more you need to know what music is all about, the more you need to understand there are a whole host of things you know nothing about that are important to your musical expression. And that means you have to humble yourself and submit to learning from a teacher or engage in serious, focused self study, using material that is reliably accurate and true, that will give you the education - the knowledge - you are seeking in coming into an understanding of the fundamental principles of why music does what it does and how it does them.

Yes, I understand, you're a "natural". You naturally seem to do things "right". Well, I'm a natural, too. Music is like breathing to me. It has always been something I knew (and know) how to do without even thinking. And as I learned more theory, I saw that I intuitively was doing a fair number of things "right", even though I had zero understanding of why they worked. But I also learned that I was missing opportunities, doing a whole lot of things wrong, that did not work, that I had abandoned as ideas to pursue because I had "failed" to get ideas beyond experimental stages - because I lacked understanding of how to solve the musical problems I had encountered.

And if you're honest with yourself, if you're one of those who think learning theory will ruin your creativity, then you know what I'm talking about. How many ideas have you tried out, only to shelve because you didn't know how to solve problems you encountered? If you are really honest, you know that number is really far greater than you want to admit. For me it was hundreds of song ideas that just petered out due to ignorance.

Now that I have a clear understanding of music theory, I don't encounter these problems so much anymore. Now it's a matter of ideas not meeting expectation rather than throwing them out because I get stuck. And if they don't meet expectation, I know why and can make the adjustments to see if the piece of music can be made to work like I want. Yes, there are occasions where I run into a conundrum I have to struggle with. But I know how to solve the musical ideas if they are worth keeping. Without an education in theory, I would have yet another tune idea to put on the shelf.

So if you really want to know how to write music, how to put ideas together, to understand how melody and harmony interact, and a host of other things, theory is the key that will unlock the knowledge you seek.

But, check this out: the mere act of learning music is an exercise in applied theory. You may not understand what you're doing, why you do it the way you learn it, or why it works. But it's still theory in action, by virtue of application. You can't play music and not apply some aspect of theory. It's impossible.

Unfortunately, knowing theory does not guarantee you will be able to write "good" music (a subjective idea at best). But it does guarantee you will know why a tune sounds a certain way - which means you can create your own version of that kind of music. You know what's going on harmonically and melodically, and that means you can duplicate the 'feel' of the tune, the 'vibe' of the tune.

Here's a great example of what I'm talking about: If you have ever listened to a song and wanted to learn how to play it, you have to recognize certain things that are happening in order to be able to "capture" them and play them. The more complex the song, the harder that becomes, especially if you don't know what you're listening to, in terms of theoretical application.

You will here a chord as minor or major, but you won't necessarily hear the flat 7 or the 9th, or the flat 5 tone(s) that is/are also part of the chord. So you will play what you think you hear and discard the deeper aspects of that chord, the real colour of the chord being played. And unless you look at a reliable TAB or chord chart to the song, or the song writer themselves show you what they played, you probably never will play the song quite right.

Players do it all the time. And it is amazing when I go out and listen to a band and hear the guitar player or keyboard player (often quite good players as a rule) mess up a progression, or play the wrong scale while soloing, because they don't know what's really happening, they can't hear the more subtle tonal harmonic colours of the composition that give the song that unique quality that attracted them in the first place.

If music is going to be your chosen career, take a page from your doctor, dentist, any true professional. They are constantly improving themselves to be better at their chosen career. You may want to click the link below to begin the journey. We will, indeed, start at the beginning. Yes, you will have to study and memorize stuff until it is a part of your thought processes. And, yes, eventually it will begin to show up in the music you create. Everything you learn eventually shows up in the way you approach what you do in life.

Learning never ends. That is the deepest lesson in life - and the greatest joy when you embrace it. May your life be an endless journey of discovery and growth - especially in your musical pursuits.