Four Reasons Why Music Theory Is The Key To Learning Guitar

How often do you hear that you need to practice music theory to become a better musician? Do you believe that learning all the chords and scales that someone else came up with will be detrimental to your playing? Do you think theory just stifles a musician's creativity?

This is a very common belief, as theory, at a glance, doesn't look like it offers any real reward when learning how to play guitar. Of course, if you spend any amount of time reading articles and tutorials about playing online, then you've certainly come across one of two posts saying it will only hold you back when learning the basic composition skills.

I felt this way when I first started as well, but what I found out is that most people who hold this belief don't know how to study music theory. The worst part about this though, is that when people spread this message, it reaffirms the false belief that theory doesn't actually help students learn to become great musicians, when in reality, the opposite is true.

That said, it isn't difficult to learn to study theory the correct way. It can actually be easier and more fun than you expect — and once you start to get the hang of it, it's usefulness and practicality becomes immediately clear for every type of musician, whether just for improvising, learning songs, and especially composition.

While going over the best approaches to music theory in their entirety is beyond a simple article, here are a few good places to start off:

0.1 Learning Theory Is Like Working Out

Those who have set foot in a gym know what it's like to repeatedly work every muscle, regardless of it's real-life usefulness: push ups, squats, dead lifts — to somebody who doesn't live that life, these movements are all superficial. Yet, those who do these tasks regularly are better at performing tasks in everyday life, while noticing many health benefits.

Sure, at the gym you may not be climbing an actual mountain. But when you do the training that is recommended for you, you gain strength. And when you do go and do go on a road trip with friends and family and want to have a remarkable experience, you'll have a much easier time. It just makes sense.

I'm often asked what value there is in learning theory such as chords and scales. The obvious answer is that you can use them to compose, but the actual reason why we practice this, is because it makes us stronger musicians — you won't use it everywhere, but you will know how to adapt it to your style.

Chords and scales can be applied to your playing as soon as you learn them. And the more you know how certain sounds are created, the better you will be at creating the sounds that you hear in your head.

0.2 Playing Using The Subconscious Mind

Some people don't want to be burdened by thinking about the music they are creating. The believe that by thinking about different tones, modalities, and scales will slow down their playing — they just want to think about the music. I, for one, completely agree with that.

Think about when you're behind the wheel of a car. Are you concentrating on all of the rules of the road? Most definitely not. But even if you're not consciously thinking about it, you're still following the laws, because you memorized and internalized the rules when you got your license. At this point, you don't need to recall these memories every time you see a road sign, you just intuitively follow them.

This is exactly the same for guitar players, and I guarantee if you're reading this, you already know something about that. When you switch from an E chord to an A chord, you don't think about lifting each finger and placing it on the right part of the fretboard. Unless you've never made that movement before, then you have most likely already memorized the movements and don't consciously have to think about each finger placement.

And if you can do that without thinking about it, then with practice, you will see exactly the same results when you're learning theory. When I go into a sweet blues solo, I'm not thinking about which mode I'm moving into when the turn around hits, but I intuitively know which one is going to sound best, and how I can move there in time so that it feels right. I'm not a wizard, this is just a result of climbing all those mountains.

0.3 Music Theory Doesn't Have Any Rules

Although many people disagree, music theory doesn't actually have any rules. Not even one. This idea comes from the kind of people that don't ever finish a book or a course: they read through for a couple minutes and discover that the book wants them to do a couple things to a tee. After that, they don't usually open it again, and are under the impression that that's all music theory is — a way to limit the composer to a few different musical progressions.

This isn't true. Music theory lessons are not a book of rules, but more like a training manual. The point of these lessons is to give you an understanding of different musical concepts, and while each of those lessons have rules, the rules are only in place to help you learn a single concept. You'll quickly learn how those "rules" were made to be broken later on.

Sometimes, two similar concepts will have completely different rules, which is a cause for confusion for people who aren't willing to stick with it. The people who aren't willing to keep working on the theory, won't ever learn how to have fun with it, and how it could truly benefit their playing. Remember that next time you are told that learning guitar theory doesn't work.

0.4 In Conclusion

Music Theory isn't as awful as many guitarists will have you believe; in fact, it's actually one of the greatest tricks up every musician's sleeve, so long as they had the right teacher.

If you need a hand finding the best way to approach the topic, then feel free to navigate to my website using the link below, where you can find a free map of music theory. Using this map, you'll be able to figure out where you are and how to get to where you want to be.

Tommaso Zillio is a professional prog rock/metal guitarist and composer based in Edmonton, AB, Canada.

Tommaso is currently working on an instrumental CD, and an instructional series on fretboard visualization and exotic scales. He is your go-to guy for any and all music theory-related questions.

Tommaso Zillio