Hey Musicians! Do You Need to Learn Music Theory?
If you are happy with where you are as a player, happy with the music that you play, and fine with what you can figure out by ear alone, then you probably don’t need to know much—or any—music theory. I mean, let’s face it: of the all the instruments out there, guitar and bass are some of the easier ones to get something going on. I often tell my guitar students that I could get them to a pretty proficient playing level without ever talking about theory.
There would be problems, however. Situations would inevitably arise where I would really wish I could reference theory. Instead of a lengthy explanation, I could just use a musical term to teach a concept.
Because really, that’s what music theory is: a way to communicate about music. Music theory describes the how and why of what we hear when we play or listen to music. Theory examines the relationships, functions, and tendencies of music and puts those seemingly abstract ideas into words that we can use as shorthand.
“Well, that takes all the fun out of it, right?” “Music is about emotion and sound—I don’t need to know how it works.”
I hear you, and, believe me, I get that sentiment. For example, I’ve been an amateur runner for years, but I don’t really ever think about it. I never do anything you are supposed to do: no warmup, no post-workout stretches. I don’t really ever try to get faster or think about what I need to eat to optimize my workout. I wear my running shoes way too long. I love running because I can just do it, and I don’t have to obsess over it. ... Well maybe I obsess a little about how many miles I get in a week, but other than that, it’s a relatively carefree activity for me.
But if I did want to get better, it would probably behoove me to learn a little about it. To find out what kind of training would help me move faster, what stretches would improve recovery time.
With the guitar however, I knew from my earliest days as a player that I wanted to continuously improve; I wanted to play many genres of music, and I wanted to know everything I could about them. When I started teaching guitar, I realized I absolutely needed to know lots of things about the guitar, and to know things about music. For me, the knowledge of theory was absolutely necessary.
Your response may be, “I don’t want to do all that. I just want to understand a little more about what I’m doing and be better at what I play already. Why do I need to know about modes, chromaticism, hexatonic scales, or any of that complicated stuff?”
Again, you don’t. Like any other technical field, theory can definitely be over-complicated by well-meaning—or self-important—friends or teachers. The level of theory that I think every musician who wants to improve ought to know (and that working musicians absolutely should know), is actually very basic. In fact, I learned most of what I consider fundamental theory in high school band.
So, what’s basic?
- Learn how the musical alphabet works (remember Every Good Boy Does Fine and FACE?).
- Learn about half and whole steps.
- Learn how a major scale is constructed.
- Learn about keys.
- Learn what chords are in the various keys.
- Learn what notes are in those chords.
- Learn about basic chord progressions and how musicians describe those progressions.
Basic stuff. Stuff you can find with a couple of clicks on the internet, or that a knowledgeable friend or teacher could show you. Is there a little brainwork and memory involved? Of course, but it won’t kill you.
I promise you, learning a little theory won’t suck the joy out of your playing, and it won’t stifle your creativity. It will—along with practice—put you on the path to better playing.
Author - Barry "Po" Hannah
Po is a professional guitarist and instructor living in Knoxville.