Do you really need theory as a guitarist?

Do you really need theory as a guitarist?

Seriously, how important is it?  People say you can do fine without it, is that true?  Let’s take a look.

Now, as I’m writing this, there is no way for me to know if you are someone with a vast knowledge of theory, someone who has a powerful aversion to learning theory or if you’re somewhere in between.  Regardless of where you stand, something that has been taken for granted like music theory is worth reexamining from time to time.

There are a ridiculous amount of myths and misconceptions regarding music theory among the guitar community.  To really understand how theory should or shouldn’t be playing a role in your pursuit of the guitar, it’s important to dispel a few of these misconceptions.

For the Rock or Metal guitarist, hearing about music theory can conjure up a variety of images.  Those images could be of something like sitting in a classroom, bored to death and waiting for class to end.  They might also be reminiscent of a miserable young violin student being forced to practice something they have learned to hate for many hours a day.

Music theory might also remind you of some know-it-all musician you once knew who would spout off terms that they knew you’d never heard before just to let you know how “smart” they were – to set the record straight, that person probably had a tenuous grasp on the meanings of those terms at best.

At the very least, among guitarists with this aversion, music theory seems to represent the antithesis to all that is good about music.  It’s the thing that tries to put rigid restrictions on something that should be boundless.  It tries to make a science out of an art form.

I’m not here to say you’re wrong if you can relate to any of those things.  I can personally relate to all of them.  But the misconception that’s most important to clear up is that these things only reflect how music theory is sometimes taught or used and have nothing to do with what music theory actually is.

We don’t learn music theory to lord it over people as if it’s some kind of special achievement.  We don’t learn music theory to get good grades.   We don’t learn music theory because someone tells us we have to.  We don’t learn music theory because it’s the end-all-be-all of musical knowledge.

We learn music theory because it serves us in our purposes.

As I’ve said before, in one sense, music theory is a low-resolution map of something that already existed.  In the same way that Astronomy maps out and measures the movements of celestial bodies, music theory maps out and measures the patterns found in music and labels them based on how they relate to each other and how they impact us.

As mysterious as music really is, it can be (imperfectly) defined as the relationship between artistically organized sound and the human brain.  Theory doesn’t attempt to explain this relationship and it doesn’t attempt to explain the mystery, it simply maps and labels patterns.  Your subjective experience is required for the music to have any meaning at all.

The key to the importance of music theory is in the “maps and labels.”  By finding recurring patterns and giving them names, this allows us to think and talk about more and more complex ideas in more and more simple ways.

Music theory gives you the ability to group ideas together and build on what has been done in the past.  It’s the product of all the music that came before and gives you more tools to express yourself with than you could possibly imagine.

However, it should never be seen as a rule book.

The greatest composers who ever lived proved this by pushing music forward through finding the beauty that exists in between the “rules.”  Each time they did, more music theory was born to explain what they did.

In a way you could look at music theory as the study of what we like about music, what we consider good.  Mediocre and poor composers are quickly forgotten while great composers are remembered for generations.  Very little, if any, time is spent studying poor compositions while great compositions are sometimes studied for centuries.

As long as people are creating music and using music theory as a foundation, that process will continue.  There is no limit to it because the potential variations of sound are infinite.  This constantly pushes music forward, making it more and more expressive and relatable as time goes by.

For those that avoid music theory as a means of following their own path, it’s important to point out that originality does not come from ignoring music theory.  It’s quite the opposite actually.  If you’ve never learned any music theory and you pick up an instrument and start writing something, there is a 99% chance that you are coming up with something that countless other people have already come up with.  Under those conditions, the music you’ve heard throughout your life and the layout of the instrument basically guarantee it.

In the case of something as refined as music theory: you need to know the “rules” to break the rules.

If you weren’t a great student and the idea of learning something like music theory is intimidating to you, put that right out of your mind.

I was a terrible student in school.  Just the worst.  I didn’t learn music theory because a teacher told me to, and I didn’t learn it because I thought I had to.  I learned music theory simply as a byproduct of pursuing what I was naturally passionate about.

Every time I heard something in a song that I really liked, I wanted to know how it was done so I could replicate it myself.  I’ve read a lot about music theory in my life but pretty much every time it was simply to answer a specific question about a musical concept I wanted to absorb.

If you follow a similar path, instead of learning a great deal about theory that you will never need to know or use, you can learn the precise things that you want and need to know.  This stacks over time and, after awhile, it all starts to come together in a way that you couldn’t imagine beforehand.

If you’re learning a new scale, wouldn’t you like to know what a scale is?  Take a little bit of time to research it.  It doesn’t take much.  Once you’ve accumulated enough information over a little bit of time, you will be able to find or build whatever scale you need.  It takes a lot less energy than having to memorize so many similar and redundant patterns.

You don’t need to go out and buy a textbook and you don’t need to read a treatise on it.  Simply find the answers to the little questions you have, whenever you have them.  Nothing could be easier with the internet at your fingertips.  Not only is this an easier way to learn theory, you will also retain that information and fully understand it because you will be applying it all in real time and continuously.

If you have an aversion to learning theory, chances are it’s because a variety of other people instilled it in you over time.  You may have played with other musicians who told you their own excuses of why they never learned theory and made the idea of learning theory seem “nerdy” or “uncool.”  You may have had a know-it-all friend like we talked about earlier.  Your school system may have lied to you and made you feel less intelligent than those students who were really good at memorizing things.  You may have had an overly strict and clinical music teacher who inadvertently taught you to hate or even fear music theory.

The source of the aversion doesn’t matter too much.  In the end, simply don’t let other people’s insecurities influence how you approach something that you’re passionate about.  They don’t get to have a say in it.  It’s your passion.  Music theory belongs just as much to you as anyone else who has ever lived.

Dan Mumm

Dan Mumm is a Metal Method instructor and shred master.  Check out Dan’s lessons here.