music theory - sheet music
Music theory all a bit of mystery? Our expert explains why it shouldn't be feared and how it can improve your playing exponentially...

Applying the theory to the practical

Music theory, depending on who you believe, is either the cornerstone of all musical knowledge or a cavalcade of overly complex and ultimately pointless waffle.

Plenty of high profile musicians consider themselves to be self-taught and claim not to understand the conventions that make up traditional music theory. Yet by making music which uses chords, scales, rhythm and melody, players are by default using some form of theory. Maybe, they just don’t realise it.

As an aside, we should probably make a gentle disclaimer that this article doesn’t intend to teach you music theory for beginners in 800+ words. As a subject, it’s far too wide and far-reaching to even scratch the surface. Instead, we’ll offer you some thoughts, and hopefully, some inspiration, as to why biting the bullet and accepting music theory might just be the best decision you ever make as a musician.

1. Forget technique (for now…)

Ask most guitar players what they rate above anything else and you’ll probably find ‘speed’ at, or indeed near, the top of the list. When we were starting out, we’d see the guy at the local guitar shop busting out all that sick hyperspeed shredding and think that’s what we wanted to do.

Or, we’d hear the guy noodling away over a blues standard, or the jazz player with his fingers contorted all over the fretboard, and wonder how they are able to do this. Witchcraft?! Actually, no. Two very simple things a player does, usually early in the journey, unlock these impressive skills; practice and theory.

music theory for guitar

It’s all very well playing like your fingers have servo motors installed at the knuckles, moving around the fretboard with effortless dexterity. But if you don’t know where you’re going, or why, it’ll sound like a terrible racket. So the wise players take speed and technical ability and apply it on top of a base of theory. Spend as much time on the ‘why’ as you do on the ‘how’, and your playing will come along twice as quickly.

2. Learn the lingo

As with any new skill, the world of music theory is subject to a whole heap of its own idiosyncratic words and phrases. That in itself is enough to confuse the hind legs off a mixed metaphor. It doesn’t help that large swathes of it are lifted from Italian, so there isn’t always an obvious or easy answer.

Don’t let it put you off though. The truth is that you don’t need to know the entire dictionary in one go. The same as you wouldn’t if you were learning a foreign language. Identify what the common terminology is and swot up on that. Then you can gradually add to this as you progress. Here’s a decent resource to start you off.

3. Unlock the secrets

Have you ever been improvising, and found that certain patterns of notes just work. Or embedded into your head – subconsciously or otherwise – where the duff notes are that you want to avoid after certain notes or chords? This, my friend, is exactly what music theory can help with.

You see, it’s no accident the way a fretboard, or a keyboard, is laid out. Hidden within those things lies the keys to your innermost creative thoughts, just waiting to be teased out. People who don’t have a solid grounding in theory can access the same notes. However, they’ll take far, far longer to piece together something than a theory-trained musician can.

Another way to think about it concerns song writing; how often have you had a basic tune or melody in your head, yet struggled to ‘download’ it from your head and onto the instrument? At least with a working knowledge of theory, you can quickly get yourself into the right areas. Consider it a musical headstart.

4. Keep learning

Like with anything worthwhile, there isn’t a shortened version of music theory you can bluff your way into. If you want to truly enjoy the benefits, you have to put the graft in. There is no TLDR version of music theory. Well, actually there is here, but even that will confuse you to start with.

You have to play the long game. Accept that it will take you ages. Allow yourself the fact that you’ll be rubbish to start with. You’ll keep forgetting things, and question the pointlessness of it all. But stick with it and slowly you’ll find ways in which music theory will help improve your playing exponentially.

5. Eyes on the prize

We’ll end with a cautionary tale; many a learner has been put off by what they see as hard work. Particularly when a lot of that hard work doesn’t involve learning to play the songs you like. Going too hard on the theory, and forgetting why you started in the first place, is an easy way to get into a rut.

Remember what it is about playing your instrument that you like, and ring-fence that feeling. All those times that you’re getting fed up with theory, remember back to how good it feels when you nail a riff or write something catchy. Remember as well that musical theory is only ever going to make you a better, more well-rounded player in the future.