Editorial: 'Why learn music theory?'


In this special feature, got-djent.com moderator blckravn01 discusses the merits of learning music theory.


I remember how shocked I was when I watched the LXD interview in London with Periphery, Chimp Spanner, Monuments, TesseracT, and The Safety Fire and they all admitted that none of them knew music theory! I'm not saying anything to the quality of their music, I love all of those bands (That's why I watched the interview). But as a musician, I've found that musical training has helped me in immeasurable amounts; it’s made everything easier. Listening to music became more interesting, I was learning songs much quicker, band practice ran more smoothly, and my compositions not only improved but much of the guesswork of the process dissipated completely.

If you're wondering, I'm not going to hold my nose in the air. Art should not be measured by the prowess of its creator. I believe the talent of these musicians is incredible, musical training or not, but a battle between education and inspiration is futile. Every artist is inspired and everything between that initial inspiration and the final creation is merely a means to an end. It is by those means in which the artist works through the process of creation; and it is that process that contributes, in part, to each artist’s unique style. One’s lack of education could allow him to explore new realms, while another’s expertise could help him bring out the full scale of his ideas. To each his own and is there anything wrong with that? So let the artists express themselves in their own way and not belittle their talents over their education. There are plenty of musicians, bands, and composers that have done great things without any formal training. If you believe you’re making great music and your process works for you, go right ahead. If you feel stuck, are looking for something new, and/or questioning what theory may do for you, please continue reading…

Of course, everything I’m about to say does not apply universally nor as a compendium of unbreakable rules, but before we can continue we have to ask what is music theory? One definition is as follows:

Music theory is the field of study that deals with how music works. It examines the language and notation of music. It seeks to identify patterns and structures found in composers' techniques, across or within genres, styles, or historical periods. In a grand sense, music theory distills and analyzes the fundamental parameters or elements of music—rhythm, harmony, melody, structure, form, texture, etc.

I’ll be using music theory as a general overarching term to cover all disciplines and principles involved in traditional Western music. There are no lessons in this article as I’m not going to explain any aspects of music in too much detail and I will also try to avoid as much jargon as necessary.

As a Listener
A basic understanding of music theory can help even as just a listener. Though no one learns theory just to listen to music, the listening experience is vastly different when you understand what you’re hearing. You appreciate the craftsmanship more profoundly if you comprehend the practice, which leads to more attentive listening. As you learn theory, you naturally begin to memorize how certain musical devices sound, thus you’ll be able to recognize their implementation in music. You can hear the difference between the major and minor chords in the chorus, recognize the raised 4th of a Lydian run in a solo, or appreciate the difficulty of a highly syncopated polyrhythm. You begin to “see” how the music you’re listening to is played because your ears recognize for what you would need your eyes and hands before.

As a Musician
The most beneficial aspect of music to understand is reading standard notation, as sheet music is the blueprint of performance. Rhythm is the more difficult facet to grasp because its accuracy is across time while pitches are the placement across said time (though neither should be treated more important than the other). Almost all Western music follows the same principles of rhythm whether or not the composers or performers know theory. Western rhythm is based on mathematical subdivisions. The notes are called whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, etc. for a reason. Learning songs becomes much easier when you can clap the rhythm alone back to yourself. The following example is subdivided into even 16th notes. Read it out loud and clap with the bold stresses: (Use a metronome set to at least 60 bpm on the quarter note to feel the difficulty)

1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a 1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a repeat

It’s much more accurate to count the subdivisions of a beat and anticipate exactly where your next move is over guessing and practicing over and over how long to “feel” the length and placement of each note. I’m not suggesting you should be able to accurately sight-read on your instrument, but being able to learn a song you’ve never heard from reading it off a piece of paper goes a long way.

As a Band
Music has its own vocabulary, its own language, and band practice runs much more smoothly when you can communicate musical directions with musical terminology. Again, I’m not suggesting that all members should accurately sight-read on their respective instrument, but to understand and be able to express musical ideas clearly and concisely. Conveying musical directions in non-musical terms is as difficult and ambiguous as having a conversation in a language no one, including you, knows how to speak. Much of the clarity will be lost because each person is trying to express their thoughts through their own vocabulary and understanding of the concepts. Which is more direct?

“Play four notes after the cymbal, pause, play four more”
“Play four 16th notes starting on the e of 1, 8th note rest, four more 16th notes.”

The vagueness of the former leads to little definitively communicated to the rest of the band. Where exactly do they start? How long are the notes? Are they the same length? How long is the pause? This ambiguity, in turn, leaves much to be interpreted by the other members through their own understanding of the same concepts; they then have to guess just by listening and recreating, which leads to more practice, as opposed to knowing and anticipating. By understanding the concepts in their appropriate vocabulary a standardized language can now be spoken between all members of the band.

As a Composer
A strong foundation of music theory is most beneficial to the composer for it simplifies most of the guessing involved in writing. Without any knowledge of theory, the composer is bound to his instrument, hunting and pecking for the notes in his head and having to memorize, record, or invent his own notation to catalog his ideas. This leaves a lot of room for the idea to be lost or reinterpreted upon return; memories can fade, he forgets how he played the recording, or the notation system isn’t accurate enough. Some would argue this allows for the idea to expand, but wouldn’t it be better to have the complete idea to base from before changing it? If the composer knew how to read notation, he could write down his ideas with all of the appropriate pitches and rhythms. If he knew how to dictate, he would be able to know (or get a good idea of) what the music in his head looks like on paper before touching a pen or an instrument. If he knew theory, he would have the knowledge of “where to start looking” for his ideas and even expand further with much greater ease.

Just like with listening to music, you begin to memorize how certain devices sound and you’ll recognize them when they pop into your head as an awesome idea. The music appears in your ears and instantly you know the chord progression, the mode the melody moves through, and/or the time signature. You may not know the exact pitches (if you don’t have perfect pitch) but you know the relationships of the structures they’re based. Ever have an idea that was identical in shape and sound to another song you wrote only with different pitches/frets? An overused chord progression like C D Em (VI VII i) is identical to F G Am (VI VII i) in their respective keys. Musical keys have that kind of relationship; though each key may contain different pitches, the arrangement of those pitches relate to each other identically harmonically and melodically. No longer must you search for the same basic ideas with each new song because you already know where to start looking. With a little training, you’ll be able to know the chord progression is [VI VII i] in some key, the solo is Lydian in said mystery key, and it’s over some polyrhythm against 4/4 without ever touching an instrument. Now that less time is spent on searching for your ideas, more time may be spent on expanding them.

Here’s a great example:

Though a fictional film loosely based in fact, this clip depicts Salieri at his piano slowly hunting and pecking for notes while Mozart uses his knowledge of music to guide his improvisation and expand on the same idea. Mozart takes Salieri’s music, which he was able to dictate in his own head, and play through his own ideas about it without mistake. He stays in key, leads his own melody over the chord changes, and even takes the music to new chords while still keeping it recognizable. Of course, Mozart was a child prodigy and masterful composer (and this film is historical fiction), so how about a modern real-life example:

With just the original melody scribbled on the paper and a style to play in, Grayson improvises an entire song in the same manner. Playing like him obviously requires far more than an understanding of music theory, but for the average musician having such skills even on a beginning level is greatly beneficial to anyone aspiring to write music.

Of course there are those who are wholly against the idea of musical education and I’ve heard a plethora of arguments in opposition to learning music theory:

Theory is not applicable to the performing musician or my genre.” If you play Western music, then all its theory applies. Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it's nonexistent in your musical world. While you’re playing your solo over the song that your band wrote entirely by “feel” and “whatever sounds good,” theory permeates. You may be ignorant to its presence but any academic will be able to look at your music and analyze all the aspects of theory in your music, simple to advanced. All genres of Western music are built on the same basic principles; Hip-Hop, Reggae, Rock, Jazz, Metal, and Classical all have rhythms, melodies, and harmonies. Your solos have theory, beats have it, harmonies, melodies, chord progressions all are a part of it. “Feeling it” is just accurately guessing.

Theory dilutes creativity.” They say having a childish naivety leaves the inspirational universe unrestricted. Does a chemist mix chemicals at random or does he know all the properties of every one before he attempts to create something new? Obviously with music the risk factor is far lower, but knowledge of how music works within itself leads to more accurate and sometimes profound experiments. The musical universe is vast and you can still try out “random” new ideas and may make new discoveries, but your knowledge gives you a light in the dark rather than tripping and fumbling with your arms outstretched.

Learning theory locks you in.” They say you become a slave to it, only thinking in terms of “the rules.” This is not a result; it is a pitfall (one I once fell into myself). Those who fall into it begin to think with their books before their own imagination, which is a backwards thought process. If you have a melody you want to harmonize, you can much more quickly fill out the remaining notes because you understand note relationships and voice leading. You can even use much more advanced harmony if you want! Just because you know theory does not mean you must use the full extent of your knowledge at all times. Music education does not teach you how to write music, it teaches you how to use tools to implement at your discretion. Like a carpenter with a just hammer compared to one with an entire tool belt. All of the tools on his belt may not see equal use but he is sure glad that he is trained and has them readily at his disposal.

In Conclusion
I’m not trying to draw a line in the sand about what is music based on the education of its creator. These kinds of arguments are exactly that: arbitrarily drawn lines that can be swept away. No one needs theory to make great music; just the existence of great songs created in such a manner is proof enough. Knowledge of music removes the veil of its mystery and everything becomes more clear and easy to understand. I over-generalized much of the content of the article for the sake of clarity and length; if I went into more detail, this article would evolve into a dissertation. If you are writing music you love and don’t have a desire to learn about theory, no one’s stopping or criticizing you. But if you’re curious to learn about the depth of the musical universe, give it shot and see what you might discover.

tl;dr: Learning music theory makes music easier.


What's your take on this? Everyone is welcome to join the discussion in the comments, but please keep it civilised.

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Good points! Specially for the listeners -- I wasn't expecting that. As a hardcore music fan, you get to appreciate songs more when you know how it's "technically creative." As for musicians, it may not be necessary, but it's a powerful "tool" nonetheless. If I may, I'd like to share another article about music theory for rock musicians.

Great article! Hopefully it will inspire more to learn theory and help them progress as musicians.

Excellent article, I like it a lot. Great way of illustrating the benefits of knowledge of theory while maintaining that it's not absolutely necessary.

This is one of more eyeopening articles I've read in a long while. And even though I play in a band with members with different musical backgrounds, from the self-learned to the professional & we've discussed this very topic numerous times, reading this well structured article just made my day. I have seen many of the points mentioned above in action in myself and in others. As an aspiring musician myself, who knows if it's my place to advise, but here you go: pace yourselves, but don't hold back too much.

I feel as though the structure of your argument should be reversed. Rather than asking what the merits of knowledge of music theory are, why not investigate the benefits of not having any background in music theory? (you actually did address this in part; I just feel that was probably the most important part of your essay). A lot of what you're arguing is pretty self explanatory and your argument doesn't really need to be persuasive at all mostly due to the fact that no musician worth their salt will disagree with you!

It's like asking if a chef should have a background in chemistry or nutritional sciences. "Should" they? I don't know if it's entirely necessary, but on thing is for sure: it could only help!

You are spot on the money my friend.
i'd just like to add a personal experience here,

I'm a drummer, been drumming for about 7 years now but i'm not nearly as good as other drummers who have been drumming for less than that. The reason, is simple. I picked up drums on my own, and did not see the need for learning basic theory such as paradiddles. As a result, my drumming progress stagnated for a long time and i felt like i was stuck and couldn't go any further. After i started focusing on theory, it felt like a whole new world opened up to me and having that base skill allowed me to play and create stuff i never thought i'd hear myself play as that naive teenager.

Moral of the story,

I wish i had learnt drums the proper way and not have wasted a whole chunk of my life.

Great article. Smile

All the basic points apply to theory in general. Theories are models of systematic understanding. And in being this make you able to acquire an ordered picture of certain masses of events much faster.
It is a huge misunderstanding that theories limit possibilities of thinking. Most theories are open ended when it comes to describing any grade of complexity, as they are constructed modular, consisting of elements and relations that can be combined at will.
When a canon is built that limits those combinations, that's not a problem caused by the theory but by its use ("a pitfall").

In the end, musicians that are not learned in western music theory still apply systematic models to their music. They remember the relations of grips, timings, sounds and so on. They construct their own less elaborated theoretic basics to build upon.
If you understand music by an established well formulated theory or a theory assembled by yourself, you still always have to systemize what you percieve.
So, doing this can never limit your possibilities, it opens them up. If you wouldn't understand what you hear, couldn't put it into any order, you wouldn't be able to do anything with it.

Relying on a theory that has been elaborated over hundreds of years simply has the benefit of having a very complete theory at hand that can describe a broad spectrum of phenomena.
Only thing to remember is to see the possibilities a theory gives you and never concentrate on stiff limitations that are applied to it afterwards by 'second layer' theories or movements that canonize parts of it.

Nice article man Smile

Completely agree with what you're saying, at the end of the day if you like the music you write and are happy with how you get there then that's all that matters.

Although Bulb and co. might not have studied theory they sure as hell have a lot of experience so when they perceive certain chords and progressions they KNOW which note is gonna really bring it out in the melody, even if they don't recognise it as the V chord in a Harmonic Minor key and think "oh I can let rip with some Phrygian Dominant here".

My teacher told me to learn as much theory as I can, internalise it, and then forget it all and just play what I hear. That's why I learnt (and am still learning) music theory. It's a damn sight quicker than trial and error.

Agreed completely with every word. I love music theory. The fact that I know scale and chord structure means that if I have a melody or progression in my head, as long as I have some kind of writing materials nearby, I can quickly get it down and prevent it from ever escaping - this is one of the greatest reliefs a composer can have.

Also, knowing a thing or two about structure and the genre you're writing in makes writing a complete piece (whether it's a brief ambient interlude, a three-minute tech death onslaught, an extended smooth jazz session or a half-hour multifaceted prog-rock epic) as opposed to just individual riffs a much easier and more natural process. Theory to me is like an endless set of useful tools and fun toys; it provides both convenient methods of accomplishing one's existing musical goals and new concepts to play around and experiment with.

This was such a great article. I'm almost done with my Music Composition degree here at the University of South Florida and I must admit, you hit the nail on every detail. For me, without music theory, I honestly don't know where I would be musically. I find it amazing that guys like Misha Mansoor, the rest of Periphery, Monuments, and more of the like create this amazing music based off of feeling alone. It's awesome! Once again, great article.

Vinny Svoboda

A big massive +1

Playing is playing, music theory is just a way of describing accurately what you're playing to other musicians. My knowledge of theory isn't the best, I'll be the first to say, but what I do know has helped immense amounts.

I advise people sitting on the fence to go for it Wink

Great article.

Musical theory is exactly what it entails, a theory. A hypothetical interpretation of frequencies, defined by the human mind.

In a way, I feel that theory can generalize the expressive tonality of the individual, causing them to conform to a pre-existing construct. (Highly anticipated music..) Yet, with experimentation, this construct has the ability to morph into something truly unique, becoming a highly effective tool.

Music these days is slowly detaching itself from traditional roots (with the rise of 'djent', 'math rock', etc.) Breaking barriers, exploring rhythms, not constricting one-self to a certain scale or time signature all the time. This is what's "fresh."

Therefore I feel that a bit of theory (more or less, doesn't really matter) in conjunction with EXPERIMENTATION, and soul = a unique sound.

Experiment. Experiment. Experiment.

AWESOME ARTICLE! I'm definitely taking up some music theory now.

"Knowledge of music removes the veil of its mystery"

and i need that mistery

i remember, i really hated when i was in a bands for a while and i started to hear phasers, flangers, octaves, etc. instead of just enjoying music only with my soul, and not my brain.

in an aspect it can be fun and interesting, but originally i don't want to listen/write music cuz it is interesting, but to charge/feed up my soul.

its like your beginnin to see the "matrix" as it is, "010101"

and its cool for a while. but not cool overall.

sometimes dreaming is better.

and the same thing goes with drawing too, and in extreme cases with life-reality itself too if you are on some crazy drugs. (dont do drugs!)

so i've never learned theory, but with tabs and while being in bands with musicians who knew theory, i've gained a basic knowledge.. and yes im saying that sometimes i would be happy to shut that off, and just listening music for what it is -> wave of emotions/stories/feelings (luckily i often can. haha)


i really suffered from the lack of music theory when i wanted to write down my drum beat ideas for my songs.. it is still a fuckin pain in the ass for me, and im kinda hate it. thou i always could figure it out sooner or later (usually later) and it would be cool to tab out my ideas too, cuz as you've mentioned, the trouble with messed up memory is a real danger, for me it is in usually with chord progressions.

so for communication (inbetween band mates etc), and to write down stuff it is kinda vital. i agree on that.

Silhouettesband wrote:

Which leaves me to think that although music theory is useful to know when arranging songs but it can be detrimental and limit you especially when your learning it as your mind tends to conform to it when writing.

"This is not a result; it is a pitfall."

I have a Degree in music theory and i 100% agree that compositions get so much better and make so much more sense when you learn theory. it's one thing to know how to play but it's a totally different realm than knowing WHAT you play.

We should have more articles like this on here. I have a pretty basic knowledge of theory, and it definitely helps for composing my ideas in tabs in Guitar Pro. However I still don't know about a lot of things, and I think knowing them could definitely help in the long run. If you haven't seen the Guitarmessenger video with Ever Forthright, go watch it. His musical training as a jazz musician makes him understand everything he's doing. While someone like Bulb is inspired by pure creative genius, someone else could construct a cool progression from musical principles.

@Jonathan, check out the original then Smile

Awesome article Smile it is insane though they can write some of the best music on this planet without theory...

On a side note, "Inflate the circus clowns" made me lol. Quite possible the best frontpage picture ever.

Nice article, up until last year I was obsessed with learning music theory to the point where I was just running scales all day and I would freak out if a note in a riff was non-diatonic i.e not from the scale which I was writing around. However upon listening more closely to bands such as Sikth that the most important aspect of theory was the rhythm, whilst their compositions are extremely technical the note choice within riffs is often chromatic which allows for a more interesting listen once your ear adjusts to the 'alien' notes. This can also be seen in bands such as The Arusha Accord, I am friends with one of the guitarists and I know he has an incredible knowledge of all aspects of theory but he is able to disregard it during the writing process. Which leaves me to think that although music theory is useful to know when arranging songs but it can be detrimental and limit you especially when your learning it as your mind tends to conform to it when writing. My way around this was to switch over to seven and eight string guitars as my mind wasn't set up to understand where the notes were so I could guide myself using theory if I became stuck but I would stick to scales.