Articles Music Theory

7 Myths About Music Theory (Guitar Players Tend To Believe)

Music theory explains the things we hear. It’s the language of music, something that should be fun to learn, as well as apply, for every person who plays the guitar.

If you have a negative view of music theory, most probably you’ve had some bad experience with the way you were being taught, or else had friends recount their own bad experiences with music theory teachers.

Sadly, negative experiences have led to the creation of myths that don’t do justice to the study of music theory for guitar.

Hopefully, this article will help you dispel these myths and convince you that if you love music, especially if you play the guitar, music theory will make your experience more enjoyable as you start to understand what’s really going on while you’re playing or listening to music.

1. Learning Music theory is like learning Maths

1+1 = 2, 2 x 4 = 8, and as soon as you know it you’re sweating with algebraic formulas. Which is great for people who love the subject, but for most people, it isn’t exactly a wonderful experience. For sure it wasn’t for me.

While music theory does involve “working things out” (like you’re doing in Maths most of the time), and since most people were taught music theory in a way that focused more on “working things out” than on “how things work”, many people have the impression that music theory is all about making calculations.

In reality, unless you take it to an advanced level, those calculations are pretty easy if you have the right guidance. They are only something you occasionally have to do in order to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, internalize the concepts you learn and actually do something with them on your guitar.

Music theory is much more than mere calculations. Music theory explains to you the reason behind the beauty of the melodies and harmonies you are listening to or playing on the guitar.

2. Music theory involves memorizing a lot of words in Italian

I’ve spent hours on end trying to memorize countless words in Italian (sometimes in German or French), a boring and time-consuming task from which I gained next to nothing.

While it is good to know that piano means you should play the note softly, and forte means you should play it loudly, learning a lot of definitions out of context isn’t really helpful for us guitar players.

A substantial amount of those words are related to specific instruments. They would be essential to know if you either play that instrument or plan to write music for that instrument, but otherwise, they’re not really worth your time.

Other words are no longer in use and the chances that you encounter them are next to zero, once again unless you’re specializing in a specific time and place in music history when such words were in use.

Thus, isn’t it much easier and enjoyable to learn the meaning of those words as you go along and encounter them in your study of music than by memorizing countless lists of definitions?

3. The ultimate goal of learning music theory is to get a certificate

While at times taking exams and getting certificates in music theory may be useful to access some particular opportunities, many make the mistake of making it their primary goal.

In order to pass the exams, I had to study countless things I have never used, never will, and have forgotten anyway. With hindsight, I realize I could have utilized that time much better if I had focused less on learning things I didn’t really need and spent that time internalizing and applying those things I was learning through writing my own melodies and compositions. No matter how simple those melodies were at first (and yes, sometimes you do hit or type notes that sound good together just by accident; that’s not just luck, that’s an opportunity to remember the distance between those notes and be able to use it again, in different contexts, at will), I would have had more fun and started reaping the rewards sooner.

4. You can’t learn music theory if you can’t play guitar yet

If you’re learning the guitar, I do suggest that you spend a lot of time practicing on your instrument.

That being said, learning music theory doesn’t involve any technical skills on any instrument. Music theory explains what is going on while the instrument is being played.

What makes a piece of music sound sad or happy? Why do notes have little value when played on their own but become priceless works of art when Mozart blends them together?

It gets even better.

Thanks to music notation software, some of which is free to download, you can now just input the notes you want to hear and your computer will play them for you. Could it get any easier than that?

In fact, I would suggest, that until you can play the guitar quite fluently, you learn your guitar music theory by seeing it applied on Music Notation software.

5. Music theory is not related to learning the guitar

For a long time, I was learning to play the guitar and studying music theory at the same time, but treated the two as different subjects. I couldn’t connect the dots.

Since I play mostly Rock guitar, and in Rock music the alternative system of guitar tablature is used much more frequently than standard music notation. it was even more difficult to see the relationships since on the theory books I was reading musical notes while on the practice books I was reading numbers.

Nonetheless, even if you’re read music from standard notation if you play the guitar always make sure you’re seeing the relationship between what you’re learning, and what’s actually going on in real life musical situations.

6. Music theory stifles creativity

While I have believed all the five myths mentioned above myself at some point or another during my musical journey, I never held this one. I find it hard to understand how people can even think that music theory can somewhat limit their creativity when playing guitar.

Yet this issue crops up quite often, and I know a few guitar players who are advanced players with high technical ability on their instrument, who are afraid that music theory rules will make them become somewhat “mechanical” in their songwriting.  

They believe that when making music, rather than being led by inspiration, they’ll be following what the book told them they’re supposed to do.

If they did study music theory the right way, they would find that on the contrary, music theory will enhance your creativity. While you can write great songs or develop great technical abilities on your instrument without music theory, by having the pieces of the puzzle sorted out in your mind you will find inspiration more easily accessible.

You may notice, for instance, that if you play the chord G7 followed by the chord C on the guitar, the music sounds very conclusive. You wouldn’t mind if the music continues and another chord follows, but your ear would be satisfied if it stopped there. If you’re playing C followed by E minor, you’re going to expect another chord to follow. It just doesn’t fit that the music stops there. On the other hand, if you play C followed by a C#7, it’s going to sound jarring to the ear. You wouldn’t want to hear it, except in some specific contexts.

There is a reason for all that, and music theory explains it. You will know why a C followed by an E minor sounds less conclusive, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play the two and stop abruptly there; no one is your leader (more about this in the next myth about music theory rules).

Neither does it mean that while you’re improvising you’re making Mathematical calculations in your head rather than going freely where your inspiration takes you.

Music will still always come from the soul. Playing music is all about expressing yourself.

Learning to play an instrument is the vehicle for that self-expression;  the more you learn and practice, the less restricted you are;  thus the more you can express yourself with ease.

Music theory can be thought of like a map. You can still arrive at your destination without it, but you can also bet you’ll arrive sooner if you have it.

People learn to play music for different reasons, but the one goal that all persons who take music seriously have  in common, is that of self-expression. Playing music not only provides you  with a way of giving tangible form to your thoughts and emotions, but also the power to change the thoughts and emotions of others.  

This power is so huge that music has been present nearly every time human beings intended to change the thoughts, feelings and emotions of others, most of the time for noble purposes, but at times, also to do evil.

It has been present in revolutions: a mob is more likely to lynch the king if its emotions are heightened to peak level. It is present in religious services in nearly all religions, to enhance the spiritual experience of the ceremony. It is also present at Rock concerts, where thousands of emotionally charged people are united to the same beat; at a funeral where the mourners need a sombre atmosphere that reflects the sadness and grief they are feeling;  or in a torture chamber to enhance the terror experienced by the victim.

There are numerous reasons why people choose to learn an instrument. We have different goals and aspirations. However, make sure that this particular goal, that of self-expression, is always there. Music is that powerful when used for this reason!

7. Music theory rules cannot be broken

Music composition is constantly evolving, and so is the theory that explains it. What was considered undesirable, or was even downright prohibited during the Baroque period, is the norm today.

If Bach had to listen to Heavy Metal he would be furious. He spent his entire life keeping away from the use of consecutive perfect fifths (a perfect fifth is an interval, which is the distance between two notes. I get into some more detail on how intervals, especially the perfect fifth, work, in The Power of Power chords) and teaching others that it’s a lousy thing playing  that interval twice, without playing another interval in between. Today bands like Metallica blast power chord after power chord while bands like the Ramones have whole songs made exclusively of power chords.

There are rules in music theory, but those rules are only there to guide you, not to order you around. Some of the greatest advancements in music came specifically from bending, or even breaking entirely, those rules. The use of power chords in Blues and Rock music is just one of many examples of how breaking those rules can lead to opening the door to genres of music that wouldn’t have even been dreamed of before.

It’s only once you get rid of these myths that you can really enjoy music theory. As long as it’s just mumbo-jumbo of notes, numbers and difficult words music theory is neither going to be fun nor as useful as it can really be.

If you’re still not convinced that learning music theory can only enhance your music journey, or there is some topic related to music theory, leave a comment below this article.


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4 Comment

  1. You article on the myths of music theory was spot on. I took Guitar lessons from a piano teacher.back in the late sixties. I worked at the music studio and repaired string instruments. Stings like violin, viola, and cellos.. As well as sting basses. The studio belonged to the american guide of music so I payed at a lot of competition, and won a few metals and ribbons.. The problem was he was very strick about theory. I never achieved my goals and soon drooped the guitar. Today I am 66 and retired. One of my daughter is a musician and a music writer. She has 4 songs so far copy written. She never got her mind steered toward the why you are playing it, She just played it. She saw my itch and gave me he old Washburn. I started playing again. But this time I know the theory, but now I play what I feel, and go back to check the theory for my one curiosity, not an instructor bantering. This summer she wants me to play with her band as a local festival. Don’t know if this old guy could do it. but I do know I play what I feel. I am actually enjoying doing it, and look back on some fond memories when I do. Thanks for the article it was very en lighting and informative, and a great perspective on music and the aspect of theory.

    1. There’s no reason at all why “this old guy couldn’t do it”. You have the skills, go for it and have fun!

      If at 66 I banged my head on something and forgot every single musical thing I knew, I would start everything again from scratch. It would still be worth it!

      Thanks for your kind words about my article, and enjoy the coming musical journey with your daughter.

  2. Hi Robert, I totally agree with you, so many of my students had a “complex” about learning music theory and their preconceptions of what it involved held them back from progressing in their playing. I think the biggest breakthrough for my students (I taught bass guitar) was understanding the circle of 5ths and that the strings are tuned in 5ths. That made chord progressions, especially in a jazz context make so much more sense.

    1. What happened when you explained the circle of fifths and shown them that strings are tuned in fifths, was that they were seeing the theory being applied.

      And that’s probably what caused the breakthrough.

      Nowadays I show my students every music theory concept I teach applied on the guitar. If they’re skilled enough I’ll let them play it themselves, if not, I’ll play it for them.

      That way, they will not just love music theory, but as you said, things start making sense.

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