Music theory is the study of the practices and possibilities of music. It generally derives from observation. […] The term describes the academic study and analysis of fundamental elements of music… but also refers to descriptions.”
[wikipedia, emphasis mine]
I want to start by clearly stating what I mean when I say the words “music theory,” then explore some of the implications of that idea.
Along the way, we’ll answer age-old questions like
- “do I need to learn music theory?”
- “what’s the best way to learn music theory?”
- “did the Beatles know music theory?”
- “is there even such a thing as guitar theory (or is it all simply music theory)?” and
- “can music theory be wrong?”
My Definition Of Music Theory
Music theory is any set of terms widely used to describe commonly occurring musical phenomena.
That’s a dense sentence. Let’s parse it.
Music theory is any…
Notice I didn’t say “the.”
I said “any.”
Why? Because there’s more than one music theory.
…set of terms…
We’re talking about language here––the names we use for things.
If you and I decide to call something the “beer scale,” but fail to convince anyone else to call it that… then sorry, it’s not used widely enough to qualify as music theory.
Music theory is descriptive long before it’s prescriptive, and rarely is it proscriptive. More on this in a moment.
…commonly occurring musical phenomena.
Like those spots on the periodic table of elements where we’ve posited the existence of something we have yet to observe, we can also use music theory to describe theoretical possibilities.
But most of the time, we’re describing things that come up often. How often? Often enough that our lives are easier when those things have names––notes, keys, chords, progressions, song forms…
Carpenters don’t ask their apprentices for “the wacking thing and some of those pointy doodads about yay big”–– they ask for a framing hammer and some 16D nails.
In the same way, good musicians use names for things. When necessary, they invent new names.
Music theory is any set of terms widely used to describe commonly occurring musical phenomena.
So Wait, There’s More Than One Music Theory?
Two of the most common are classical theory and jazz theory. Remember, music theory is a set of terms. A language. Often times different theories use different language to describe the same phenomenon.
In classical theory, this is called an Authentic Cadence.
But in jazz theory, you’d call it V-I.
So Which One Is Right?
In Medellin, Columbia this is called un gato.
But in Fargo, North Dakota it’s called a cat.
Which one is right?
They both are, in their own way. It depends on whom you’re trying to communicate with.
So What’s More “Widely Used”?
Maybe it’s just the view from where I’m standing, but none of the professional musicians I know uses classical theory to talk about music––even when they’re fluent in it.
I know a lot of people who learned classical theory in music school, but who would never say “supertonic, dominant, tonic” to describe the über-common chordal movement ii-V-I (even though both are technically correct).
Wait… Can Music Theory Be Wrong?
Sort of. Classical theory isn’t wrong wrong, but it’s often the wrong tool for the job.
Think about it like you think about the English language.
Proper English is technically correct, but it makes for lousy movie dialogue, stilted conversation over drinks, and (presumably) unlistenable hiphop albums.
Shakespearean English is fucking delightful, but it’s a crappy tool for telling someone how to get back on the highway.
The best IT guy in your office is the one who’s a master of moderating the esoteric language of his craft so that you can understand him.
As many bookish children have discovered, using proper English on the playground can get your ass kicked.
It can go the other way too––you can be too informal for the setting. Using the word fuck is just fine when hanging out with your friends, but as your attorney, I advise you not to use it in front of the judge, lest you spend the night in jail for contempt of court.
Descriptive? Prescriptive? Proscriptive? WTF?
Should we give a name to something cool?
Yes, we should. If we all call it the same thing, it gives us a nice shorthand that lets us talk about it easily.
Should we use that name to tell someone what they might play?
Knowing what other people did in this musical situation tends to be helpful, because it might sound good here too.
Writing “funky wah guitar” on your chart is cool. Asking the drummer “can you try something else? Something like Cold Sweat?” is totally fine.
Your doctor might prescribe more rest, but that doesn’t mean you have to listen to her (and notice she didn’t say “get exactly eight and a half hours of sleep per night.”)
Can music theory tell someone what they’re not allowed to play?
Well, exercise caution with that.
On a macro level, the history of Western music is the history of our ears getting comfortable with what was once taboo. If we still followed the music theory of the 18th century, we’d all be avoiding the “diabolic intervals” inherent in dominant chords––hope you weren’t planning to play the blues.
On a micro level, it’s totally fine to proscriptively ask your bandmate to leave the 7 out of her voicing and just play the triad.
How Common Does Something Need To Be?
Ask me again later. First let’s talk about the Beatles.
Ok, Did The Beatles Know Music Theory?
Of course they did.
Creative geniuses Lennon & McCartney knew enough about the names of chords to express their ideas to Harrison, who knew enough about progressions to suggest hipper chord substitutions. Starr knew enough about odd meters and bizarre song forms to play exactly the right thing for the song, without trying to squeeze it into a predefined box.
Was it classical music theory?
No––but it was music theory. A set of terms used to describe musical phenomena.
(And as for classical theory? That’s what they had George Martin for.)
Do I Need To Learn Music Theory?
That’s a silly question. You’ve already learned some music theory.
You call chords by their names. You know how a 12-bar blues goes. You can sing the major scale. You can tell the difference between a verse and a chorus. You know the note names of your open strings.
The real question is: would it be helpful for you to learn more music theory?
My answer is a qualified Yes. “Qualified” for a couple of reasons.
If your highest aspiration is to woo girls at a keg party by playing Wonderwall, feel free to skip learning more theory––it’s not going to pay off for you.
On the other extreme, unless you’re intent on being a composer, studying classical music theory isn’t going to be that useful to you either. So much of classical theory describes things that aren’t that common in the music you probably listen to.
Are There Other Forms Of Theory?
Yes! Let’s look at a few.
Jazz Theory we mentioned already. Like classical theory, it comes with a pretty steep learning curve. Unlike classical theory, most of what you learn studying jazz is applicable to a wide range of styles.
Idioms aren’t what we usually think of when we talk about music theory, but they absolutely are––things like
- Travis picking,
- train beat,
- blues ending,
- Purdy shuffle,
- Hendrix chord, and
- Freddie Green comping.
These are all indispensable pieces of shorthand that allow us to communicate more easily.
“We’re gonna play Folsom but with a Dixie Chicken groove––in F” is a short little sentence that replaces an awful lot of discussion… but only if we’re all familiar with these cultural points of reference.
Slang––there’s a metric butt-ton of slang that I won’t try to include here, but anytime you hit the woodshed to work on your chops so you sound killing and don’t trainwreck, you’re using music theory.
When you take it from the second system, use a trashcan ending with a button, direct seg to the next tune, play the head, blow over two choruses, take the head out to the A Train ending, you’re using music theory.
Is There Such A Thing As Guitar Theory?
There is… and I’m not exactly thrilled about it.
By sheer force of numbers, we guitarists have created an insular little world where we speak a language of our own.
To some degree, this is to be expected and even embraced. Horn players are going to talk about embouchure, drummers will debate the merits of Zildjians vs Sabians, and we guitarists can have endless discussions about different ways to hold a pick.
The part of guitar theory that irks me is that we’ve decided that music theory––using the same language as everyone else who plays music––is too hard, so we should abandon it.
Der… It’s stupid that we should have to keep track of whether to call this chord Bb or A#, can’t we just write x1333x and be done with it? Why bother learning to read charts when I can get piss-poor TAB for free? Why spend all that time training my ear? I can watch a guy on YouTube explain that Crazy Train goes 2-2-4-2-5-2-4-2…
It’s bad enough when we opt out of the language used by everyone else, but it’s even worse when we co-opt the terms of music theory to explain guitar theory.
Witness the needless confusion surrounding modes.
In music theory, they’re a harmonic device, a way to re-contextualize a scale around a new tonal center, superimpose an outside sound over a static vamp, or temporarily change keys (the “modal interchange”).
But in guitar theory, “modes” is also the name of the handy 3-notes-per-string (and to a lesser extent, CAGED) fretboard shapes.
People take to the interwebs with alarming regularity to attempt to explain and make sense of these. Should you attempt to chime in to say that these things are only difficult to understand because we’re calling two different things by the same name, expect to be angrily shouted down.
Tell them these things are easy if you first learn some incredibly basic bits of regular music theory, and you’ll be accused of undermining the progress of anyone foolish enough to listen to you.
It’s like the Friends episode where Phoebe teaches Joey to play guitar. She doesn’t know the actual names of chords, so she gives names to her chords like Bear Claw, Turkey Leg, & Old Lady.
Except here in Guitarlandia, there are exponentially more adherents to the Turkey Leg School of Guitar Theory than there are to the way the rest of the musical world does it.
So… Should I Learn More Theory Or Not?
Somewhere in the middle of all this is a music theory that is massively beneficial to your ability to think about, talk about, and understand music.
It’s the language being casually thrown around by pro musicians.
But not just any pro musicians––only the sort who are making their living writing, recording, & performing.
Ironically, most teachers aren’t privy to it, because they’re not exposed to it often enough. They’re like the parents of teenagers, struggling to make sense of texting acronyms.
What’s It Called?
As far as I know, it doesn’t have a name. I don’t know what to call it. Let’s call it Pop Theory for the rest of this article, but I’m open to suggestions.
What’s The Best Way To Learn Theory?
From where I’m standing, it seems like there are two popular-but-insane paths to learning theory.
There’s the music school path, which (with a few notable exceptions like Berklee) looks like:
1. Learn classical theory in a stuffy academic setting. Get a degree.
2a. [An infinitesimally small number of people]:
Become a professional classical musician in one of the world’s remaining orchestras.
2b. [Roughly half of the people, more common among vocalists and horn & string players]:
Become a music teacher at a grammar school/high school/community college/university. Gig occasionally.
2c. [The other roughly-half, more common among drummers, bassists, pianist, & guitarists]:
Become a sideman, deriving most of your income from gigs. Learn genre-specific idioms out of personal interest or sheer necessity, adopt pop theory as your default language, and discard much of the classical theory you learned in school.
3. Perpetuate classical theory (and subtly-but-interestingly, the belief that theory is unimportant).
- If you land a chair in the orchestra, you (quite rightly) perpetuate the idea that classical theory is a necessity for your job.
- If you teach (but don’t gig all that often), you perpetuate classical theory by teaching it your students.
- If you become a sideman, you perpetuate it by not being a teacher (or not teaching much), and by the simple fact of being less visible than the (typically unschooled) front man.
The other path, common among the but-the-Beatles-didn’t-know-theory crowd, looks like:
1. Unconsciously equate all music theory with classical theory.
2. Skip learning music theory in favor of guitar theory, on the completely valid assumption (either yours or your teacher’s) that the vast majority of people don’t need to know classical theory to enjoy themselves.
3a. [Most people]:
Reach the plateaued-but-enjoying-yourself stage.
- Maybe this is playing Wonderwall to impress girls.
- Maybe it’s joining a midlife crisis blues band.
- Maybe it’s playing gigs on the weekend while keeping your day job.
- Maybe it’s the sad realization that you’d like to continue getting better but the path isn’t clear.
3b. [Some people who show real promise]:
You’re pretty damned good.
Maybe you make a go at fame & stardom, depending on your musical creativity to overcome any music education deficiencies you may have. The examples of people who’ve done this successfully are conspicuous, and the ones who have failed are mostly invisible to us.
3c. [Other people who show real promise]:
Maybe you suck it up, go back to square one and learn classical theory, even though the process of doing so fucking sucks, and you discard as much theory as you keep. If you’re lucky, you might fall in with some pros and learn pop theory.
3d. [Still other people who show real promise]:
Maybe you get crazy good at guitar (but not music). You either keep guitar as a hobby, or you become a guitar teacher who doesn’t really gig.
4. Perpetuate guitar theory.
- If you’re the plateaued hobbyist, you perpetuate guitar theory because it’s the language that describes what you know.
- If you’re the outlier who makes a career as a guitarist despite not studying formally, you perpetuate our shared mythology that theory is unnecessary (or maybe even harmful).
- If you’re the outlier who re-learns the instrument in the language of music, you perpetuate guitar theory by opting out of teaching (who wants to teach four hours of lessons for a hundred bucks when you can make a grand every Saturday?)
- If you’re the guitar teacher who doesn’t gig, you perpetuate guitar theory by using that language to teach your own students, either because you don’t know better or because the method books that teach classical theory demotivate your students.
Again, from where I’m standing, these two paths (and their sub-paths) are both popular-but-insane. Both have blinders on to the reality on the ground, and both of them involve a shit-ton of wasted effort.
Wait… It Sounds Like You’re Telling Me Not To Learn Theory
It’s not that, exactly. It’s that there appears to be two camps: the people who don’t know there’s another way, and the people who are too busy using the other way to teach it.
But I see a third path here.
I Suppose This Is Where You Try To Sell Me Your $79 eBook With “Three Killer Guitar Secrets.”
Oh internet… you’re so jaded, and with good reason.
How about we make a deal: I won’t mention anything that I sell, if you’ll agree to direct your jadedness toward a target more worthy of your ire––the ass backwards way theory is taught here in Guitarlandia.
In general, I think the only shortcuts available to us are of the avoid-wasting-time sort.
There’s no shortcut to having great technique, but we can easily name a dozen things that––though many assume will lead to better technique––are actually a distraction.
I think the only secrets are the ones buried under a mountain of well-intentioned bullshit.
You can Google the answer to any theory question, but it’s tough to know whether or not you’re getting a technically-correct-but-needlessly-complicated-and-wonkish answer.
Again, in the Venn diagram between “enjoys weighing in on thorny music theory questions on the interwebs” and “has a gig tonight,” the overlap is tiny.
Ok, Ok: So How Do I Learn This Music Theory?
I think the best way to learn music theory is to NOT learn classical theory (or at least not until it’s directly relevant to you).
If you were to put the four theories we’ve discussed on a continuum from least formal to most formal, I think they’d go something like this:
guitar – pop – jazz – classical
By the time most of us get the inkling that we ought to be paying attention to any sort of theory, we’re already well-versed in guitar theory. We try to go from there directly to the only theory we’ve ever really heard of: classical.
Is it any wonder that we fail?
(And if we succeed, who will we speak this new language with?)
Let’s assume that you are plenty fluent in guitar theory. You probably even have some bits and pieces of jazz and classical theory floating around your brain from the times you’ve googled your way to an answer to some question you had.
How do you learn to speak the language of working musicians?
By studying with, hanging out with, and working with working musicians.
Um… And How Do I Do That?
- Start with what it is you personally want to do with music.
- Find multiple people who have done that.
- Look for the common denominators between them.
- Emulate those things.
Don’t just listen to their words. Watch their feet.
If they say one thing but do another, take note.
If what you want to do is grow your hair out, teach kids how to shred, and live in your mom’s basement, you should have no difficulty finding someone to emulate––just walk down to the local guitar shop and sign up for lessons with that guy.
But if you want to play with musicians better than yourself, get hired as a sideman, get hired to play on other people’s albums, go on tour, and make a pile of money playing private parties & corporate events… then you’re going to need to be a little more selective in finding people to emulate.
And if your aim is somewhere else––say, “continue to get better”––I still think you’re better served emulating someone who gets paid to do more than just teach.
Wait, Why? What’s Wrong With Teachers Who Don’t Gig?
Because well-intentioned and talented players who teach but don’t gig are out of touch with the reality on the ground.
They’re the reason why we continue to perpetuate the type of music theory that is no longer practiced in the circles that you want to swim in.
Even if you’re not trying to make money playing music, you ought to seek out instruction from someone who’s out there doing it.
[In her final lesson at university, my friend was asked by her classical voice professor what she planned to do after graduation. She replied that she already had a burgeoning pop career in the works. His response? “Well, you don’t sound like Ethel Merman to me!” What in the actual fuck? What millennia is it again?]
What If This “Pop Theory” You’re So Hot About Isn’t Enough For Me?
It’s cool, it’s cool. Maybe you’re going to keep going onward to study jazz or classical. Kudos to you.
The language of jazz theory is the same as the language of pop theory, it’s simply a continuation––a deeper exploration.
The language of classical theory isn’t more difficult to learn once you’ve learned pop theory––it’s just different.
But the order in which you learn them is important.
If you learn classical theory first, it fills your brain with a bunch of cruft––outdated ways of processing that have to be cleared out and discarded before you can get elegantly lucid about what’s going on in the music of the last hundred years.
Remember, a carpet knife isn’t wrong, it just doesn’t help you change a tire. Putting a pat of butter on top of your scrambled eggs is probably delicious, but putting that same pat of butter in the pan before you cook them makes the whole operation go smoother. Reading your toddler Hop On Pop before she tackles A Brief History Of Time is a smart move.
Wait, Did You Just Say That Jazz Theory And Pop Theory Are The Same?
Kind of. The language used to describe it is mostly the same; the things being described are a somewhat different.
Careers playing nothing but jazz are as rare as careers playing nothing but classical. Jazz musicians are a pragmatic lot, though, and their training prepares them to play almost any style of music.
It’s interesting to note the influence of classical theory on the way that jazz is taught in music school. What grew organically almost completely from transcription and a person-to-person showing-of-the-ropes is often taught in more of a the-Phrygian-mode-is-usually-played-over-susb9-chords way these days.
Or put more simply, the influence of classical theory has subtly made jazz pedagogy more prescriptive, where it was once mostly descriptive.
You Never Answered My Earlier Question: How Common Does Something Need To Be To Be Considered Theory?
To paraphrase a judge’s ruling on what constitutes porn: you’ll know it when you see it.
But by now I hope that when you see theory in the wild, you keep going to ask the more important follow-up questions:
- Which music theory?
- Is this the theory spoken by the people who are doing what I want to do?
There are more than twice as many native Mandarin speakers as there are native English speakers, yet English is still the language of international business.
Don’t mistake the visibility and overall popularity of a particular theory for its prevalence among the people who are doing what you seek to do.
- Music theory is the language we use to describe music.
- Different groups of people use different language.
- So music theory isn’t one thing––it’s several things.
- When you say “music theory” you probably mean “classical theory” or possibly “guitar theory.”
- But those probably aren’t all that useful to you.
- There’s another sort of theory (which we call “pop theory” in this article) that’s in common use on stages, studios, & rehearsal spaces by working pro musicians.
- You should learn pop theory––it’s fucking valuable.
- Most people have to learn it from spending time with pro musicians––resources like GuitarOS are few and far between.
- When I say “pro” musician I’m excluding people who make their money teaching-but-not-gigging.
- If you move on to classical or jazz theory later, having learned pop theory won’t interfere.
- That’s not exactly true in reverse––learning classical theory before pop theory is counterproductive.
- Learn the theory used by the people who are doing what you’re seeking to do.
Yep, this is just, like, my opinion, man. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Please be cool when you do.
See you out there,