Why “How Much Music Theory Should I Learn” is not the Best Question to Ask (and what to ask instead)

In 7 myths about music theory, I explain what music theory is not, what it is, and have hopefully convinced you that you need it if you’re learning a musical instrument.

But how much music theory do you need?

In this lesson, I will show you that this question isn’t an ideal question to ask. That there are more important questions to be asked, and answered, than “how much music theory do I need?”

As you’ll see, the reason I know this isn’t the best question you should be asking is that it’s a question I used to ask as well. For a very long time. 

And it may have been one of the right questions to ask, but only for a while.

I started learning music theory the traditional way – by doing graded exams.

Thus, in my mind back then, one knew a little theory if he had a Grade 2, was pretty good at it if he had a Grade 5, and was a music theory expert if he had a Grade 8.

Until I got to Grade 5, this made sense.

I had been playing guitar for a while, and I could see the significance of music theory to what I was doing on my instrument.

I was learning the building blocks of music, one at a time.

I loved it.

However, when I got to Grade 6, I started finding music theory rather tedious, and the only reason I kept studying until Grade 7 was to get the certificate – something which I have since never used.

Worse still, I didn’t consider the stuff I was learning as adding much to my wealth of musical knowledge, as every Grade from 1 – 5 had done before.

I didn’t even bother applying for the Grade 8 music theory exam.

So what happened after I finished my Grade 5?

Was the music school I was studying at good at teaching the basic stuff, but mediocre when it came to more advanced stuff?

Or else, was it me?

Could my mind handle basic stuff but wabeoo lazy to work out more complex music theory?

It was nothing of this sort. The school wasn’t mediocre. And I hadn’t become dumb.

What happened was tthis:

The building blocks of music, things like reading notes and note durations on the staff, time signatures, intervals, scales, the circle of fifths, building chords, chord progressions, and cadences are the same whether you play the oboe, a piano, a Classical guitar, or a heavily distorted electric guitar. 

However, as music theory (through graded exams) gets more advanced, it will also start getting more specific to different instruments, composing styles, or eras in musichistory,y among other things.

Things you may, or may not, need to reach your musical goals.

For instance, a chunk of my music theory syllabus involved figuring out figured bass on the staff.

Figured bass is a music notation system for instruments like the harpsichord, that was used extensively during the Baroque era. There is no reason on earth a Rock guitar player is going to ever need figured bass!

And even when I delve away from Rock guitar and take a dig at composing on online software like Guitarpro, figured bass isn’t something related to what I do: writing melodies and harmonizing them.

Not only that, but so much time has passed since I last worked on a figured bass exercise, that I’ve since forgotten this form of music notation nearly completely.

Thus, even in the extremely rare possibility that I will ever need it, I would still have to start learning figured bass all over again.

In hindsight, I realize that towards achieving my musical goals, learning figured bass was as useful as playing Sudoku. Yes, it gave my mind a challenge, and that in itself has benefits, but the benefits stopped there.

It didn’t add anything to my wealth of musical knowledge in any way that mattered.

It would have, had I been a harpsichord player studying the Baroque era, but what I needed to reach my goals, was something I could use in my songwriting and guitar improvisation.

Not only that. Since it was completely unrelated to any real-life musical situation, it wasn’t any fun.

The harpsichord player may have the time of his life playing around with those notes and numbers on music notation and making them real on his instrument.

But for me, it was like a Math class! Not music.

Needless to say, not everything in the syllabus was as irrelevant to my musical progress as figured bass was, but I did learn a lot of things I didn’t need while focusing less on what was necessary.

Above all, I was leaving out the most important aspect of music theory, which also happens to be the “fun” aspect if: Applying music theory knowledge to create music.

If you play guitar, this lesson on how to improvise is an example of how to turn the knowledge that comes from music theory, into actual music.

In all fairness, the exams did require that we create our own melodies.

However, the emphasis was way more on following every music theory rule in the book than creating a beautiful melody and harmonizing it with chords

Using your music theory knowledge creatively to compose music, write songs, or improvise is the real deal.

Instead, I was trying to write a series of notes that were in the right key, belonged to a chord tone in the right places, were not too wide a leap, not too dissonant, were within the range of the given instrument, and at the right time.

It was like choosing the last note that remained after I would have excluded all the notes I shouldn’t play.

I’m exaggerating a bit here, but the point is, I was aiming for “not breaking the rules” rather than creating beautiful melodies.

And while music theory rules are important to learn, because they explain what has worked in music history so far, while you are writing music, you need to set free your creative aspect.

In real life, by tweaking or even downright breaking those rules, you may end up with a completely original melody.

What this really means is that how much music theory you should learn is hardly the right question you should be asking.

Because quantity doesn’t matter until you set musical goals.

I didn’t stop learning music theory after I got my Grade 7.

What I did, was stop thinking in terms of quantity and started asking a better question:

What music theory topics do I need to learn to be able to reach my goals, and from where am I going to get the right information?

You may get the information from a teacher, online or offline, through the Internet, by reading books (my preferred way of learning music theory), or, if it does happen to suit your needs – through doing graded music theory exams.

You see, the issue isn’t that doing graded exams in itself is the wrong way of learning advanced music theory, but that I was asking the wrong questions, or rather, asking no relevant questions at all and doing what everybody else was doing.

It was only when I started asking the right questions that I started to focus on the right things.

As opposed to figured bass, things like harmonizing the major and the minor scale in triads or in 7th chords, chord progressions, and chord substitutions among others, became valuable musical assets.

Ones that I’m not going to forget easily since I’m using them regularly to write songs and improvise on guitar.

Thus, instead of trying to find out how much music theory would be enough for you, you should focus on what it is that you need.

The following is a four-step plan that will help you discover, rather than how much music theory you need, what specific music theory items you should learn in order to reach your goals.

Step 1: Set specific musical goals

What is the reason you’re studying music theory? What do you want to achieve?

To give you an idea, here are a few examples of different goals one may have:

  • I want to write Pop songs
  • I want to write melodies
  • I want to compose music for orchestras
  • I want to join an orchestra
  • I want to become a music theory professor
  • I just want to understand how music works
  • I want to learn how music evolved through history
  • I want to understand the music of the Beatles
  • I want to become a more complete musician
  • I want to teach music
  • I want to study the baroque era
  • I want to know what I’m doing when I’m improvising on the guitar
  • I want to add more depth to my songwriting
  • I want to become a Jazz player
  • I want to become a producer 

Step 2: List what music theory items you would need to know to reach that goal/s

Now you need to start figuring out the steps it takes to reach your musical goals and start building a plan, based on the best of your knowledge.

What I mean here is that you should not wait until you have a perfect plan to start executing it.

An imperfect plan is way better than no plan at all.

Since you may not know what you need to know, you may even add topics just because everyone in your genre and instrument keeps talking about them – which is different from using the same learning system that everyone else around you is using.

Let me give you an example.

The initial reason why I started reading about the modes was that they were featured on the guitar magazines I was buying, in the theory for guitar websites, I was visiting and used and taught by my favorite guitar players.

Even though I had no clue how something with a name coming from ancient Greece like Dorian, Phrygian or Locrian could have anything to do with music theory and guitar playing, if great guitar players were using it, it must have value.

Even though I rarely ever use modes in my playing, (the reason being is that either the major scale or one of these minor scales, satisfy my musical needs), understanding the modes sorted a lot of things in my head. 

Also, though I’m not using the modes now, they’re still something on my palette of musical choices I may want to revert to any time I want to expand my horizons.

I was right that learning the modes suited my musical needs, but I still faced a problem I would like you to avoid.

Step 3: Put the different music theory topics in the right order

Though I’m glad it has finally clicked on how the modes work, it was a topic I really struggled with at the time.

When in reality understanding modes is not that hard.

I found them hard because there were steps related to scale and chord theory that I hadn’t fully grasped yet.

Before you start learning a new topic, make sure that you have walked all the steps leading to it.

And for this, you need to have an idea of what comes before what.

To help me with this I usually find help from books’ table of contents.

If your goal is to write songs, the table of contents of a book that teaches music theory for songwriting will give you a general idea of which topics you should learn after which.

However, though you may like the book and want to study all of it, you don’t necessarily have to stick to the content of one book.

The table of contents is just a guideline and as you go along you may find there are, either things you need but aren’t in the book or things that are in the book but you don’t really need. Possibly both.

You will start getting a better idea as to what topics you may need to add while you implement the next step, which is not a step you take once but should be an ongoing process.

Something you should do every time you digest a new music theory item.

After you have the list of topics that you need to cover, and have more or less an idea on the order in which you’re learning them, it’s time to start putting in the time in absorbing the stuff.

Which will be much easier and more enjoyable if you implement Step 4 earlier on in your learning process.

You don’t need to wait until you learn a lot of music theory before you start applying it.

Step 4: Apply music theory knowledge to real musical situations

While it is important to know that the notes G, A, B, C, D, E, and F# make up the scale of G major, you will get a lot more if you play that sequence of notes on your instrument (or music notation software) as well as make up a melody using notes from that scale.

If your first melodies sound very simple, it doesn’t matter at all. Writing the next hit is not the goal here.

What matters is that you’re taking those notes from a sheet of paper and putting them in a real musical context.

You’re giving them a sound.

It is at this point that you will appreciate the real beauty of music theory. You will slowly start seeing the dots connecting, and everything will start making sense.

And when you reach that point, quantity won’t matter anymore.

You will start seeing music theory as a stepping stone towards your musical goals.

And the number of stepping stones doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that those stepping stones lead you to the desired destination.

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