If you don’t associate music theory with creativity, then it’s possible that you’ve been learning the wrong theory. There is a common misperception out there that theory just stifles creativity, and holds players back from reaching their full potential. If learning theory hasn’t been working for you, then this guide will tell you why.
People seem to believe that music theory is no more than music notation. It’s often confused with memorizing and reciting scales and arpeggios. While memorization can be important, it’s not really what theory is about, and spending too much time on these won’t necessarily make you a good player.
Music theory is actually about learning how to make music emotionally impactful. It may seem a bit odd, but then how often have you listened to music and noticed that it has a profound ability to alter your mood? Some sounds and patterns are euphonious (they sound 'good') while others are cacophonous (they sound 'bad'), and if used correctly, they both have an effect on the listener’s mood. In this vein, studying keys can help you to create a unified song, while using different scales can help you produce certain feelings.
Here are some common beliefs about the definition of music theory, and how these misconceptions serve only as a distraction from the real deal.
Knowing the chords isn’t the same as knowing theoryHave you ever been searching through the forums, only to land on a one of those “what chord is this?” threads? It always seems that the thread dies as soon as a member says “That’s a minor G sharp,” as if the only knowing how to write the chord was more important as knowing when and how to use it.
Music theory cares much more about how that chord will sound on its own or in a progression, where to place it, and how it makes the listener feel, rather than just knowing how to name it. Just knowing the name means nothing if you can’t actually use it to make music. It’s like sitting in front of a chord book without ever picking up a guitar - even if you know every chord in that book, will you actually be able to put them together?
Music notation isn’t everything in music theoryBelieving that theory is comprised of knowing music notation is one of the things that actually harms a player’s ability to learn an instrument. Learning notation is helpful and a necessary part of some theory, but it is just a small part of the big picture.
There are actually a lot of players out there who are well-versed in music theory, but don’t actually know the standard notation all that well. Understanding how chord progressions work together, as well as understanding rhythm and musical form are truly independent from the standard notation.
One famous example of a player who does not use music notation is Hans Zimmer, the movie composer who wrote the music for The Dark Knight and Gladiator — all of his writing is done on a computerized piano roll rather than a score. He doesn’t use notation, but he is using music theory as a composition guide.
Music theory isn’t just about knowing the termsIt can certainly be easier to pass ideas around the jam space if everyone knows the difference between Dorian and Aeolian modes in the key of C, and yes, it might be easier to teach them the names for communication purposes. But the issue is when people mistake knowing the name for knowing how and when to use it.
Just because you know a word doesn’t mean you know how to use it in a conversation. And really, it doesn’t matter to the audience that you know the name of the mode you’re playing in... and if you know how to use it, it probably doesn’t matter to you either.
There are plenty of composers who don’t know the name of mode they’re using, and in fact they don’t need to know the names to intuitively use it. Even just a couple of days ago, I spoke to a musician who said she tends to go back to a few usual chord progressions when she’s ending a song. After talking for a couple minutes, it was obvious that she was actually using perfect and plagal cadences. But even if she had known that, would she have been a better player?
Knowing a set of scales is not the same as knowing music theory
Tommaso Zillio: Hitchhiker’s guide to finding the right music theory
There’s a common belief that learning music theory involves simply knowing a number of scales on the fretboard. I’ve gone into detail about the problem of using the CAGED system in other articles, so I will keep this one quick. Just because a player knows how to play the major scale in 5 different patterns, doesn’t mean that they can play Jazz music - it’s just adding another layer of difficulty.
In fact, teaching these scales can actually holds you back: if you think all you need to do is learn a couple of scales, how will you experiment, or put them together in a song? The easiest way to tell if a you are on the right path is if you can potentially use what you learn on a different instrument. For instance, there is no way to play an "D shape" scale pattern on a keyboard, but the A major scale will work perfectly. The A major scale is something that actually exist in music, the "D shape" is just jargon from a patter system that will not help you make music. Focusing on the theory is far more valuable than focusing on the fretboard.
How can I find out if the theory I'm learning is fake?Look at how you are learning the theory. Music theory must be an experience: to actually learn how theory works, you have to listen to the way a note changes a progression, and hear it in every concept you are taught. This also applies for every scale and every musical device that you learn. The best part is that it’s two birds with one stone, because this is also the way ear training is supposed to be done.
There’s also a simple test: when you learn something new, can you use it to compose a simple song? If you don’t know how to, then you haven’t actually learned the concept.
When you begin to learn a new piece of theory, the best questions to ask are “How can I use this” and “what does it do in a different context” rather than “What is it called”.