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Do You Really Need Music Theory?


Do you really need music theory?

Many musicians believe that you don’t need music theory to play your instrument. Among those, the guitarists are most notorious for such thinking. They usually say that obeying rules will kill your creativity or murder your soul.

So in order to answer the original question we have to look way back before the theory actually existed. People started playing music before they understood what they played. Fast forward to the baroque era, Johann Sebastian Bach composed more than 1000 pieces of music. »That’s a lot of chords,« you might think. Well actually no. As much as he used harmony, he didn’t know he was actually using chords in many of his pieces. But he did compose many different melodies and made them work together as polyphonic music. Chords were invented after people tried to describe ceratin sounds in music.

And that is exactly what music theory is. A description of sounds in music and the feelings they produce. Is it really that bad to know how things will sound before you actually play them? I think not. To me, this is actually a very useful tool.

Do you really need to know music theory to play your instrument?

Not necessarily, if your goal is only learning other people’s music or composing yours without guidance or direction. You don’t need to know it if you don’t want to understand why what you are playing sounds the way it does. Or you don’t need it if you want to be ripping off other people’s music to produce certain emotions when composing.

As much as it seems like a set of rules you »have to follow«, it really is a set of tools you can use in your own music.

One good quote to spice this philosophy up: »Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist« – Pablo Picasso.

Learn and follow rules? Yes, they are, indeed, everywhere in music. Want to write a punk song? Well, you’re not gonna sound »punk«, if you use a 9-string guitar on a clean channel of your amp. While the lyrics might be anarchistic and rebellious, the music is just not going to sound that way. This is not exactly a theoretical example, but it is a very real example of making music.

When learning musical concepts like improvisation or composition, you will meet a lot of rules and limitations. And that’s because they help us learn easier and apply the concepts better.

So learn the rules, so you can break them later!

Music theory helps you understand what you play. It will help you know how to use what you learn in your own music, either when improvising or creating new music. So it is definitely wise to accept the fact that learning a few theoretical concepts won’t hurt. It will actually enhance your learning experience and help you grow a better musician than you were before.

What can you do with all this information?

Hopefully, you are now encouraged to do some studying, because this will help you get a lot better at your art. You will even become more creative and productive as a composer. Maybe you’ll even catch the thirst for more knowledge and find a great deal of satisfaction in exploring the concepts of music theory, as did many of us.

When you start to learn music theory there is something very important to remember. When you learn a music theory concept, learn how to apply it immediately.

A good guitar teacher will guide you through this process, making it easier and a lot more fun. Wouldn’t it feel great, if you could actually see how you can apply the things you learn in your craft? Don’t you remember every time a math teacher tried to persuade you, that you’re going to need math later in life? You have to wait until college to actually see yourself applying some of the mathematical concepts in real life. Well we don’t want to wait 10 years to apply things we learn in music as beginners, do we?

Get a good guitar teacher, who understands you and your goals, and learn with him. The path of learning to be a better musician will be much easier for you.

About the Author

Janez Janežič is a dedicaded musician and guitar teacher from Slovenia. He is putting all his efforts into writing music for his bands and becoming the best guitar teacher in Novo Mesto, Slovenia.