Episode 19 of the Bite-Size Guitar Podcast looks at how different guitarists think about music theory and whether you should learn it or not.
You’ve probably read people say online that music theory kills creativity. This episode will look at this topic and why a lot of guitarists think about music theory in the wrong way.
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Here are some handy resources related to this episode:
- Intervals Explained Simple – a good starting point for learning the building blocks of music
- Guitar Scales Explained Simple – explains scales and basic music theory in a simple way
The above two guides are an excellent way to ease into music theory. My goal with the above guides is to explain theory topics in the easiest way possible, then give you a way to immediately apply that theory to your playing.
If you read the above two guides, you’ll learn enough about music theory to see how it might help you. How far you take your music theory knowledge past this point is up to you, but I suggest at least learning about intervals and scales as a minimum.
Podcast Episode 19 Transcript
Hi, I’m Aaron from guitargearfinder.com and this is episode 19 of the Bite-Size Guitar podcast.
In the last episode, I shared a story of two sisters who weren’t able to come up with a basic solo despite having a wall full of framed certificates and musical accomplishments. If you haven’t heard that episode yet, have a listen to it to understand how something like that can happen to anybody.
A listener messaged me asking whether there was any point in learning music theory if those sisters couldn’t even use their music theory knowledge to create music. Did the music theory they were studying kill their creativity? He also asked whether there’s any music theory worth learning at all.
These are common questions and thoughts a lot of guitarists have about music theory. So in this episode, let’s take a closer look at whether music theory is useful at all and whether it kills creativity.
What I’ll say about those two sisters is that their inability to improvise had nothing to do with their music theory knowledge. The point of that story was that those sisters didn’t actually learn the things they got certificates for. I learned French at school and I passed that exam, but I forgot everything as soon as school finished. It was the same with those sisters. They may have framed certificates for advanced music theory, but they never applied it. Their music theory knowledge was as good as my French.
So the first point to keep in mind about music theory is that like anything else, it’s useless unless you actually apply it to your playing.
Now let’s start by looking at how different guitarists think about music theory.
The big problem with music theory is in how some guitarists see it. Some guitarists see music theory as a set of rules you have to follow. If music theory was a set of rules you have to follow, then yes, music theory would definitely kill creativity.
But music theory isn’t a set of rules and you definitely don’t need to follow anything. Music theory doesn’t tell you what you should be playing or what not to play. All music theory does is give you insights into why some notes, chords, or scales work better than other notes, chords, or scales.
Some guitarists think of music theory as a set of guidelines. If you analyze a chord progression so you can improvise over, music theory can give you suggestions on what scales will sound good over those chords and what scales may not sound good.
Thinking of music theory as a set of guidelines is a helpful way to think about it. If you think about it in this way, music theory doesn’t kill creativity because you still have the choice of not following those guidelines. You can still play the so-called wrong notes and quite often some of those wrong notes lead you in interesting directions.
The way I like to think of music theory is that it’s a set of tools you can use whenever you want. If you want to cover a song but the vocals don’t fit your range, you can use music theory to change the song to fit your vocal range.
If you’ve written a four-chord progression for a song but the chords sound bland, music theory can give you ways to spice those chords up.
If you’re jamming with other musicians and they say let’s jam in the key of E, music theory gives you different ideas and ways you can jam in that key.
So the second point to take away about music theory is that it’s just a set of guidelines or tools you can choose to use at any time as you like.
Imagine a builder with a tool belt filled with different tools. He has a hammer, drill, screwdriver, chisels, files, a handsaw, and other bits and pieces.
If he wants to push a nail into a board, he’ll go straight for his hammer. He doesn’t need to fumble around trying to use the screwdriver, then trying to use the drill, before landing on the hammer and realizing that works. He knows ahead of time that the hammer is the right tool for the job.
It’s the same with music theory and creativity. When you don’t know music theory, you need to fumble around until you figure out which tool fits your needs. You may not even know what the name of the tool is or why it works, but you’ll still end up using the same tool.
With music theory, it tells you ahead of time which tool to go for.
For anybody who already understands music theory, this will be obvious. But for anybody who has been avoiding music theory or believes it kills creativity, this won’t be obvious.
As a different example, imagine a guitarist didn’t know what the pentatonic scale was. He listens to a lot of blues and rock and loves to play lead. Even if that guitarist is never told what the pentatonic scale is, he will eventually figure out that those five notes sound great together. Over time, he’ll learn to play pentatonic based licks and solos because those notes work so well together.
People who don’t know music theory use stories like these as examples for why you don’t need music theory. And that’s true, this guitarist is doing fine without it.
But music theory would have given this guitarist a quick shortcut he could use to get to the same place. If somebody told him in the beginning about the pentatonic scale, he’d learn the scale faster and start recognizing it in other music sooner.
This is the third point to take away about music theory. You can do everything you want without music theory, but music theory gives you a faster path to the same results.
When somebody says you don’t need to learn music theory because Jimi Hendrix or some other guitarist never learned it, that misses the point. Whether you learn music theory or not, we’re all using the same set of tools. The difference is music theory clearly gives each tool a name and explains what they do.
The guitarist jamming without knowing what key he’s playing in is still following music theory – he just doesn’t know what the tools are called.
Keep this in mind whenever somebody says that they never learned music theory and that they don’t need it. They’re still using the same tools – they just gradually learned them over time instead of studying music theory.
So the big point I want to leave you with when it comes to music theory is that we’re all using the same tools whether we know the names of those tools or not. Everybody who plays music is using music theory whether they realize it or not.
Even the guitarists who claim they can play everything without music theory. They may not be able to tell you what scales, intervals, chords, or modes they’re playing, but it’s all the same tools. Music theory is just a way to describe how notes work together.
So if you’ve been avoiding learning music theory because you’re worried it will kill your creativity, you don’t need to worry about that anymore. You can’t ruin your creativity by adding tools to your belt or learning the name of a tool you already use.
Hopefully, this episode has cleared up why so many guitarists have different views on music theory. We all use music theory, but we all use it and think about it in different ways.
I’ve listed a few guides and lessons related to music theory on the page for this episode.
If you’re interested in getting started with music theory, I have some links to point you in the right direction. Let me know on that page what aspects of music theory you’d like me to cover in future episodes.
I know music theory can seem intimidating at first, but it really can give you a handy set of tools you can use in any way you like. You can do everything you want to on guitar without knowing what those tools are called, but it definitely makes things easier.
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I hope you’ve found this episode useful and I’ll talk to you next time.