Why Not All Music Theory Is Equal, And How To Spot A Hack

Do you believe that music isn't something that can be taught from a book of theory? If that's you, then I have just one question: have you been taught the right music theory? If it hasn't been working the way you thought it would, then you might be a victim of bad theory. Here's how you can tell.

Everybody has a different idea of what music theory is or isn't. Once common misunderstanding is that music theory is no more than music notation, or learning and knowing all of the notes and scales. While having that knowledge is beneficial to your playing, music theory goes much deeper than that. If this is all you practice, then it's easy to lose track of the real meaning.

Music theory, at its essence, is actually all about knowing and utilizing the impact of music emotionally. Every sound, every progression, whether it be consonant or dissonant has the ability to affect the audience in an emotional way. Knowing the chords and the musical keys allow a musician to write a cohesive song. And different scales, by definition, are used to compose and play songs with a certain feeling to them.

Whether this whole concept is new to you or you already have some ex- perience, this guide will teach you how to avoid getting away from the big picture.

0.1 Learning music jargon is not the same as learning theory

It may be faster if you simply know that a mixolydian scale uses a minor 7th note, where a lydian scale has an augmented 4th. But that knowledge should never be mistaken for actually understanding why and when this knowledge works.

Knowing the name of a mode in a scale means nothing more than that. The listener doesn't know or care that you are using a "C mixolydian" scale - and the name shouldn't really matter to you either, so long as you are using it correctly.

There are many composers out there who will admit they don't know what mode they're using, or even if they're using a mode at all - but they're still using even though they don't know the name of it. I recently had a spoke to a local composer who admitted to ending her songs with a few different standard chord progressions. It didn't take long to figure out that she was actually using the standard 5-1 authentic cadence and 4-1 Plagal cadence. If she had known the names of this before, would it have actually helped her be a better player?

0.2 Finding the name of a chord isn't knowing how to use it

When was the last time you stumbled upon a forum thread where the author is looking for the name of some obscure chord? Have you noticed that as soon as the chord is named, the thread is never touched again? It's as if the forum users care more about showing it off to their friends than actually using it right in a song.

A music theorist doesn't care about writing the chord down, but instead we look at how the chord sounds, how it works in a progression, how it will interact with other chords, and the way it feels. It doesn't matter if we know its name or not, because that doesn't actually mean that we know what it does. In another sense, what use is a word to a writer if they don't know what it means and how it changes a sentence?

0.3 Music theory is different from musical notation

The idea that music notation is the basis of music theory is an exception- ally damaging idea. Knowing the notation has value in the context of many theoretical teachings, but it is not a requirement for all of theory.

Many amazing players who know theory don't really know all that much musical notation. The truth is, knowing notation doesn't mean that you know how a chord progression works, how rhythm can be used, or how to create musical form.

There are plenty of examples out there of people who don't use notation, like the famous movie composer Hans Zimmer, the man behind the soundtracks from Inception and The Lion King, who uses a piano on a computer for his arrangements instead of a score. Music theory is an aid to his composing even though he does not use notation.

0.4 Knowing a set of scales is not the same as knowing music theory

There's a common belief that learning music theory involves simply knowing a number of scales on the fretboard. I've gone into detail about the problem of using the CAGED system in other articles, so I will keep this one quick. Just because a player knows how to play the major scale in five different patterns, doesn't mean that they can play Jazz music - it's just adding another layer of difficulty.

In fact, teaching these scales can actually holds you back: if you think all you need to do is learn a couple of scales, how will you experiment, or put them together in a song? The easiest way to tell if a you are on the right path is if you can potentially use what you learn on a different instrument. For instance, there is no way to play an "D shape" scale pattern on a keyboard, but the A major scale will work perfectly. The A major scale is something that actually exist in music, the "D shape" is just jargon from a patter system that will not help you make music. Focusing on the theory is far more valuable than focusing on the fretboard.

0.5 How to tell if it's real or fake theory?

The answer comes down to a simple question: How is the "theory" being taught? Lessons should be experienced and not abstract: are the students hearing the affect of their practice in each concept that they study? When they learn a new scale, or a new cadence, are they also learning the different ways it can be used and how it changes the feel? This is also a major part of ear training.

So here's the test: you should be able to compose something with the example you were taught. If you aren't able to make a short composition with it, then you have not learned any new theory.

When you're learning theory, try changing the question to "how does this work, and what does it do?" instead of "what is this called?".

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