I began studying music theory alongside the guitar because it seemed like the right thing to do. That if you want to become a musician, you should also learn the theory behind it.
I’m glad I studied music theory, but as you’ll see in the music theory tips for guitar players below, I didn’t learn it in the most efficient way possible.
The following music theory tips are aimed at correcting misconceptions I had, and ineffective methods I used when I started playing 28 years ago, as well as those I frequently notice in new students.
- Music theory is not reading standard music notation.
“Why should I learn to read notes when I can use guitar tabs?” I’m sometimes asked when introducing music theory to guitar students.
While the answer to this question deserves its own discussion, many students ask it because they believe that learning to read sheet music and studying music theory are the same.
Reading the notes, also known as reading standard music notation, is the ability to identify the name of each note on a sheet of music, where it should be played on the guitar fretboard, and playing it on time.
Knowing the names of the notes is important to learn music theory, but identifying where they are on a music sheet and playing them on time on the guitar (the difficult part) is not required.
So, apart from learning the names of the notes, what exactly is music theory? Is it a set of rules that I must obey when I play the guitar?
This will be clarified in the next tip.
- Rules are for fools. Music theory is a set of guidelines and tools.
Music theory is the study of what makes music work.
Things like scales, intervals, arpeggios, and chords were discovered by mathematicians and composers and used by others in countless different melodies, compositions and songs.
Learning them will not start determining what you should play. Rather, it shows you all the options that composers and songwriters before you have tried, and have worked.
Thus, you can easily use them to replicate what has worked to create great music in order to create new music.
- Learn what applies to your guitar playing needs.
The study of music theory includes topics that will be of little use to you as a guitarist.
A few of these are:
- The instruments of the orchestra
- Figured bass
- Transposing music for wind instruments
- The alto/tenor clef
- Memorizing a ton of words in Italian, French and German
- How to arrange music for the piano
- Classical musical form
Some of these items are interesting and learning them will help with your overall musicianship, but they are not required to learn or compose guitar music.
Another distinction is required here:
Is your primary goal as a guitarist to play other people’s music or to create your own guitar riffs, licks, and solos?
While I believe that in order to learn the guitar thoroughly, one should be able to do both, some people are content with just learning songs.
If that’s the case, you probably don’t need as much theory as someone who wants to improvise or compose on the guitar.
Having said that, understanding the fundamentals of music theory will help you make sense of the music you’re learning.
- What you don’t understand is not wrong
When you start learning music theory, you will start realizing that most of the songs you’re learning keep breaking the rules.
You start asking questions like: “Why is there an F# note if we’re in the key of C major? There is no F# in C major!”
Sometimes the answer to such a question lies in the fact that music theory is not a set of rules and the composer may have been experimenting with things that haven’t yet been studied.
However, most of the time, the reason would be that you don’t have the answer because you don’t know enough music theory yet.
For instance if you know that the notes of the C major scale are C, D, E, F, G, A and B, but you don’t know what chromatic notes (notes that are not in key) are and that they can sound good if they don’t disturb the tonality, an F# in the key of C major doesn’t make sense.
In short, if something sounds good but seems to defy the guidelines provided by music theory, it’s probably because concepts you haven’t yet understood are taking place.
- Apply everything.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from a guitar teacher was: “to really learn a new chord, write a song that uses it”.
When applied, music theory becomes both fun, and useful.
If you learn how the major scale is constructed, you should learn a major scale pattern on the guitar, sequence it, and then play around with it, creating guitar licks, riffs and solos that explore the sound of the major scale.
Then repeat the process over different chord progressions or backing tracks in a specific major key.
This way, by learning the major scale you wouldn’t have just gained a piece of information but also something you can use in your playing.
It will also help you practice guitar technique and, most importantly, develop a good ear.
- Don’t study for exams (unless you need the certificate)
If you’re considering taking music theory examinations, first ask yourself the question:
Do I need the certificate? Is it likely that I will need it in the future?
If the answer to both questions is no, then getting graded is not a good idea.
I did music theory exams until Grade 6. Then I realized I was learning a lot of things I did not need (including some of the above mentioned) to get a grade that will only give me satisfaction. (The real reason I was taking the exams was to prove to myself that I was on my way to becoming a musician. Imposer syndrome, insecurity).
I stopped studying music theory formally while in the middle of Grade 7 and have learned much more theory that I can use in real life situations since then.
If you’re thinking about taking grades so that you have a music theory syllabus to work on, I recommend this book as a resource. Rather than giving you a grade, it explains in detail how music really works, as the title promises.
Only if you need music theory certificates to attend music schools or take courses that require them will sitting for exams be worth your time and money.
- Your ear is the ultimate judge
When you start training your ear to recognize different intervals, scales, chords etc, you will be increasing your ability to create music on the guitar, as well as developing your general musicianship.
However, even a non-musician, with an untrained ear, can recognize that a note doesn’t fit, that a melody is boring or that the rhythm makes no sense.
Likewise, an untrained ear can recognize a good tune, or an exciting rhythm.
What this means is that what determines whether the music is good or bad is judged by the sound that you hear even if your ear is still untrained.
In music theory tip 4 I explain how likely it is that if you’re studying a song (or guitar riff, solo etc) and music theory rules seem to be broken, things you don’t yet understand are taking place.
This applies equally to what you come up with on the guitar.
If you’re improvising or songwriting, and the “wrong” note or chord sounds good, use it.
Even better, analyze what’s going on with music theory, because understanding why a note that should be wrong, sounds good, will teach you new concepts that you can apply to different situations.
Conclusion: Have fun and don’t be overwhelmed
Music theory is in a way like peeling an onion.
After removing a few layers, you discover that there are even more layers than you were previously aware of.
After 28 years of formally and informally studying music theory, I’m not only learning new things, but also discovering new layers I barely knew existed.
Your focus should not be on how much you don’t know (since what you can learn is close to infinite), but on how much you can use what you do.
It’s better to learn how to improvise guitar licks and solos using pentatonic scales, than to understand how modes work, but are unable to improvise on neither scales nor modes.
On the other hand, if the moment you learn something new from theory, you begin using it to create music (regardless of how simple it is or how limited your guitar techniques are so far), you will understand the true value of music theory.
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