What is the value of learning and knowing music theory?

Tri-tone Substitutions. Upper Structure Triads. Secondary Dominants.

These terms go beyond basic music theory. If you’re familiar with them, I trust they’ve helped you to more easily and effectively express whatever music it is that you play.

Myth: Theory & “Feel” Cannot Co-Exist

For the second installment of this series, Music of the Mind, I will address another mindset often encountered. It is the mindset that if one has a deep, working knowledge of music theory, it will take away from their creativity and “feel” as a musician.

I believe this to be totally ridiculous. I do, however, understand the sentiment behind the statement. “I just want to play. I don’t want to be bound by a bunch of rules.” Point made – and I agree.

My goal is to convince you that knowing music theory could actually help you to “just play” better.

Theory Helps You Play What’s In Your Head

Let’s say that you have a song idea in mind – a slow, sad ballad with an eerie quality to it. If all you know is a few chord shapes, but have no knowledge of how the chords are constructed, you could possibly spend a couple of hours fishing around for the chord you hear in your head.

But if you have a firm grasp on the theory of chord construction and how they sound, you will immediately know that a Minor chord with an added 9th, or a Minor chord with an added 13, would fit the bill even before you play them. (There are many choices other than these two, but I hope you get the point.)

Noodle or fish around for an hour or so, or get to “just playing” the idea in your head right away because you have a working knowledge of how the little black dots interact with one another.

Is “Noodling” or “Fishing” Really The Best Way?

Many guitarists have said that they “just want to play” – not be bound by a bunch of theoretical rules. Then why are they so willing to waste “playing” time on fishing for the idea in their head?

One might argue that, even though you are fishing for the idea, you are at least getting practice time out of it. Really? I know guitar players who have spent a lifetime “just playing” or noodling and still play at a beginner level – even 20 or 30 years later. I strongly believe that a half hour of focused practice or study is more beneficial than two hours of noodling.

Theory Leads To Proficiency of Expression

Having the ability to know what it is that you hear in your head, even before you play it, is an invaluable skill to have. It requires not only the development of a good ear, but also an understanding of music theory. It is the skill that enables you to jump right to the chord progression or scale or motif that you hear, rather than fumbling around, hoping to find the sound you are trying to achieve.

A lot of great ideas do come from “just playing.” It is also necessary to “just play” as a musician if only for one’s sanity.

The Ability To Clearly Communicate Your Music

But I strongly believe that having a good handle on music theory will increase your skill as a player, taking your musicianship to a much higher level so that when you do pick up the guitar to “just play”, jam with friends, or compose, there will be a stronger sense of direction in your note choice and chord progressions. I like to see Music Theory as simply the categorization of sounds and a means to communicate these sound descriptions to other musicians.


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