Music theory ... d'oh!

I have this book on music theory but every time I try to go through it, I get so FRUSTRATED by the whole concept of chords and 16th notes and which notes you can’t play because it then becomes another chord.

Do you need music theory to make it in music-making? It seems so … strict and regulated. I make music from my gut/instinct and any theory just has no place in it.

Thanks for this, I’ll surely check it out but this doesn’t really answer my question: do you need music theory to “make it”?

It all seems so … mechanical. :frowning:

Music theory is only a theory, you don’t need extensive theory to play or even write sophisticated music. But if you want to understand Western music, like be able to listen to a song and figure out the chord changes, scales, etc., you need to know it. Knowing it will also help with structure, key modulations (if any), finding better chord progressions, understanding voice leading for multi-part sections, etc.

That said, lots of great musicians never touched formal theory, but – here’s the upshot – they also never did a thing musically that couldn’t be fully described and accounted for by music theory in some way. So it’s not like it’s somehow curbing people’s genius or limiting them, it’s just attempting to describe what’s going on in Western music in an organized way, so people can understand and play together.

So theory’s not a prison, nobody cares if you do or don’t exclude the 3rd from every 9 chord or whatever, unless you’re writing in a particular theoretical tradition (like Coltrane changs in jazz) where it’s expected; it’s the key to understanding Western music and also goes well beyond. It’s almost never proscriptive, only descriptive, but again, that depends on genre.

Keep in mind, for most popular forms of music today, you don’t need to know much at all. Popular music today is dead simple.

My day job is teaching music theory, though, so I’m biased, but I teach jazz theory, a genre in which it’s extremely rare for anyone to get away with not learning it and playing competently with other players.

I don’t know a lot of theory, but I’m grateful for what I do know.

Whatever you like to do, it can be described usefully in theory. Like, you might find that you don’t like music that follows 18th century harmonic conventions. Neither do I! But it turns out that I really like pentatonic major scales like you find in a lot of Asian and African music, and harmonic minor scales, and harmonies that use unusual intervals. All that stuff can be described, and knowing how to describe it doesn’t make it sound less cool.

When it really becomes useful is switching between instruments I think.

The gaping hole in Western music is the lack of microtones/familiarity with other tuning systems, but there’s still a hell of a lot to play with.

Thanks for your views! I’m a bit surprised by your answers in that I thought it’s imperative to know music theory. The only reason I’d want to know about it is so I can break its rules. :slight_smile:

I like to think that I make music from the gut/instinct and that music theory has no place here. But knowing a little could help me in producing movie-type music. Lots of one-shot sounds and stuff, which is really hard when your favorite genre is techno.

Keep stumbling in the dark and see how far you get. Every boxer skips rope and practices on the speed bag, does it have direct application in a real fight - no.

However learning your scales and modes then understanding how chords are constructed from those is immensley empowering and leads to a Daniel-Son / Mr Myagi experience when you suddenly realise there is more to wax-on, wax-off.

The ultimate goal is creative intuition and being able to compose melodies, harmonies and rhythms by anticipating one note to the next and there is no better way of doing that than familiarising yourself with intervals and their emotional conotations. Theory is all about setting mood and understanding your craft, music is as much a science as it is an art so when you build something intricate with moving parts it obviously help to understand the basic components.

Electronic musicians often seem threatened by music theory but will jump at the chance to offer tech tips on DSP or automation but that isn’t where the music lives.

I’m a self-taught musician. After some time playing guitar I decided to learn some music theory.

I went through a phase where I started looking at what I was doing as wrong; chord sequences and melodies I used didn’t map well (i.e. “correctly”) to theory as I understood it.

After a short time I realized that I was wrong abut the theory, not about my music. I had passed through that realm of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”.

I find knowing some theory to be helpful in guiding some choices when I think I’m creating something too mundane. It provides an optional framework in which to view things.

Knowing at least some music terminology and such can be handy when reading about music. If someone talks about the use of a major 7th chord it’s nice to at least know more or less what’s being discussed. Or even to know enough to Google for more details.

Paul McCartney has said that he deliberately resists learning music theory because he fears it will somehow tamper with how he writes.

I’m sympathetic to that opinion, but believe that in the end talent and instinct will win out even if you know all the theory.

(Sorry, no ref for the McCartney thing. Heard him say it in some interview video I saw.)

Music can come in different flavours after all.

Some music has its roots purely from theory games - can be very interesting stuff. But it is not so much science as rather games of rules and perception.

Other music has its root from a musicians fellings and phantasy - not always theory involved, sometimes just intuition and experience, and having heard lots of others and own music to teach the phantasy what sounds good. This can have soul that you could describe, but would most probably fail trying to make theory that won’t just describe the surface, but enable you to recreate the same in the same quality just by the rules.

People grown up with music theory seem to seldom be able to understand this - that music is so deep in the human soul, for some people there doesn’t have to be theory to be able to make really great musical things. A gifted phantasy can sing pieces similar to bach’s style after hearing some pieces by him, without knowing a shit about progressions and counterpoint. But has to be gifted, and not everyone is.

But most stuff happens in between I guess, and theory makes a very good steroid boost for inspiration to come. It is not like it is the math of a ball’s trajectory vs. throwing it at something. It is more of a give and take, each side can enrichen the other, none has to be dominant but can.

It does boost creativity to know theory. It is up to the point, when your ideas are failing, you can still mock some theory to get a song together. Not that it will have the same soul as really inspired work.

So do learn, it is for benefit. Your phantasy will pick up the knowledge, and sing new songs incorporating the ideas.

Don’t get square at the beginning, when you are starting to understand rules and the world of music you’re used to seems to fall together. This can happen and block your creativity a while. It will probably most happily fold back together, and then rather enrichen your own style instead of spoiling it or blasting it onto a wall.

And theory will not replace practical training, and training by trying to apply it a lot until it works for you.

Have tried a number of times to understand Music theory but still don’t feel like it clicks… however for the kind of music I like to make Timbre/Tonal quality is more important.

I have found the way music theory is described to be an issue, however the following three videos use a pictorial view which I found very useful:


Its not strict and regulated. Just choose a scale you like the feeling of, work out what chords you can make out of that scale, what progressions you can make out of those chords. Then change key by transposing the scale, or change to anothr scale, or both…you can change key and scale as much as you want in one song…no limits

I really recommend this app for quick chord progression ideas in normal Major and minor. Its so useful

My personal opinion is that you don’t need music theory at all and it will probably not even make you into a better musician knowing it. IMO people who thinks too much about music theory while creating music, usually makes sterile sounding music. It’s like the difference between naturalistic and expressionistic art, while one looks very nice, the other one brings out the feelings.

For instance, i don’t think David Bowie or John Lennon knew much abuot music theory, they just went for what sounded good.

It’s probably very useful for everything else related to music though. It probably makes it much easier to communicate about it and it probably helps you understand music a lot better.

I think it would be useful for me to know some basics… So, I started last week to learn it from an online course - still 15 or 20 hours to go. And I watched some lessons twice. It seems to be easier for me to understand it, if I learn from a video instead of a book, and if the teacher explains it in the first lessons on a piano roll instead of using the musical notation. In small chunks. But maybe it will be even more useful combined with learning about the instruments that I intend to play/program. I guess it cannot sound very natural if I do not even know what is “articulation” and such things and never held a real instrument in my hands, when I still want to use instruments like the strings. Fortunately I found one online course that explains it in very small chunks, after I felt totally overwhelmed by other courses who explain it in a too dense format…

Edit: I believe everybody has his or her personal learning preferences, and not every teacher can present the theory in a way that everybody can understand it. But if the chunks are small enough, maybe every brain can swallow it. Personally I decided for a teacher Jason Allan on Udemy. He explains in two or three hours, what another teacher on Groove3 explains in 15 minutes. I found it is much better for me. It is not about learning disability, but about personal preferences - hopefully. After I felt comfortable with the first few lessons I bought the rest on a day when they offered them for a discount price.

Additionally, I also found this site. It looks not bad and it is free. Maybe helpful for you, but I must admit I did not give it a try as I am already confident with the Udemy course:

Long story, short summary: You will be able to learn everything, by working on the learning strategy. It must match your preferences. If you change the teacher, sometimes it can be a workaround to force you into another strategy. Maybe that could help already.

David bowie , lennon …I assumethey knew about chord progressions and the mighty circle of fifths …

Relative minors , parallel keys …changing scales etc…

Sure they did …it just sounds rock N roll to state otherwise

Friedemann sums it up, like usually…

I think a bit of music theory is essential if you consistently want to do stuff that doesn’t sound either banal or chaotic. If you’re using a scale, you’re in essence putting music theory into practice. It’s a given that more knowledge will widen your options further.

David bowie , lennon …I assumethey knew about chord progressions and the mighty circle of fifths …

Relative minors , parallel keys …changing scales etc…

Sure they did …it just sounds rock N roll to state otherwise

Shure they did, but i think they were mostly self taught and started from knowing little, not music theory experts. Everyone who plays music for a while snaps up things, it doesn’t mean they need to know music theory as a whole.

There is no correct ways to make music, but music theory might help you make your music more appealing. If you know too much you may fall into the trap of forgetting to experiment, it’s just school work all the way and ends up lacking soul and sounds way less interesting.

All has their own taste of course and if you are serious going into the music industry you’re probably should know a bit of music theory.