Not Everyone Needs Music Theory

Straight talk on the importance and usefulness

Not everyone needs theory. There are so many preconceptions and misconceptions about theory, and nearly all of them are deserved.

People are scared of theory, its presented as a dry set of facts with austere looking musical symbols and heiraglyphs, and it looks about as appealing as moldy bread.  I get it.

There are others who think that it “changes” your playing and constrains you into rules…I get that too.

In my opinion it’s been made overcomplicated because it’s not “taught”. Instead, its presented as facts, and its up to you to work it out.  Many times it also has a nice sight reading component thats forced upon you, and expressed over a piece of music that we have little care or interest in.  It’s like a different language on a different planet.

With respect to anyone that’s ever wrote a book on it, I have never read or found a good book on theory. They all plunge into academia, and do not meet the user where that user is at.  Worse, they fail in helping the user apply it in their own way. Now that said I would LOVE to find a BOOK that I CAN recommend to others (sincere seekers).

It’s been my personally held belief that theory has been demonized, rightly so, and has everything to do with how its been presented, and nothing to do with how it can help someone understand the big picture.  This is where its received its biggest injustice, due in large part to how its handlers have presented it.

It’s been my calling to show people a different side, one that makes someone not only into more than a functional guitarist, but a knowledgeable one as well.  There is a difference.  When you understand the big picture, then you truly have more freedom, and you don’t have to sightread or roll through broken glass to get it.  Theory explains whats going on, and it helps you understand your options.
For example, did you know that If I play  C, Am  F and G  I could also play a Bb, and an Fm, and an Ab and an Am7  D and G and have changed keys?  Did you know that it was possible, and that it works?

I can take every day ideas and turn them into something different. A theory guy could tell you what I did.  Why?  Because he can see what I did, he knows what I applied to get there.

This isn’t hard, and I don’t HAVE to do it this way, but I can if I want, and I know it works and why it works.  Theory just opens more doors.

Not everyone needs theory. There are many people who just love playing songs and jamming and that comprises their set of motivations.  There are others who want to understand.  And see where things came from.  While you see Santana’s lick as Dorian, I see the rest of where I can go with it, and I can continue doing so.  While one person sees a lick as “cool and neat”, I see a series of outside and inside notes that allowed for tension and release, and I know, then next time I want to apply the same principle, I can do so.

Theory doesnt have to be hard, but more times than not its incredibly abstract and the person learning has little idea where to go with it or how to apply it or why they should even care.  And I get it,  I really do.  I’m just telling you that it doesnt have to be what its been made to be in the eyes of many.

Theory is a Map.  What I see is this,  I can go to St Louis by following the map, but along the way, the map shows me lots of possibilities…like, I can follow a side road off the main highway and explore a little place that I may have never been before, and then come back to the map and finish towards my destination.

Without theory, its like getting in and driving, following landmarks like hills and mountains and following the roads.  You may end up somewhere outside Colorado Springs in a quaint little town, meeting people that are fascinating.  There’s nothing wrong with that either, but you may not be able to get back the same way you came, you could end up somewhere else.  With a map I can go or not go where I like, and yet I’m not bound by only the big highways.  I can wander off too, but in the end I know where to come back.

Theory is a tool that explains, and anyone that makes it into a rigid set of rules or requirements, completely misses the point.  Theory doesn’t give you a license to be arrogant, it just explains things, so that as you play you know more about the things that are going on, the things you can do to change them, etc.

Again not everyone needs this or wants this.  I teach plenty who love nothing more than playing Jimmy Buffet around a campfire and widdling with the Pentatonic, and for them thats all they need or want.

Each person that plays the guitar does so for a certain set of reasons and motivations.  Theory appeals to only a small percentage of them.  I suspect though, that if theory wasnt made to be so abstract and intimidating, dry and boring, and were easy to understand, more people would choose to understand more about what they play, and they would appreciate new ideas and options for the music that they already play.

Just my .02 and this is by no means anything close to absolute.

An Interview with DiminishedFifth

On the importance theory has played in his compositions

DiminishedFifth (Nick) is a young high school student out of Houston Texas.  He is a well known fixture on a popular guitar forum in which Academy Founder, Sean Christiansen frequently mentors and assists others with their guitar questions.  Nick is quite an accomplished composer and as he prepares to audition for Berklee School of Music, one of the most prestigious music schools in the country, his future looks bright.  He hopes to go into writing soundtracks for video games.

I had a chance to sit down with him to discuss his musical roots, and gain insight into his composition background, and the role his foundations in music theory have played.

Nick, how long have you been playing
I’ve been playing 3 1/2 years.
How did you get started on guitar?
It was actually through my Dad  when I was 9 or 10, he gave me the option to learn either piano or guitar.  I chose piano first and then changed my mind right away, and I switched to Guitar in 2007,  1 lesson that first month then a year went by without me doing much.
It sounds like a guitar teacher has had a fundamental impact as to where you are today, can you tell me about that?
Well actually you’re right, he had a great impact on me.  I started out on the basic 6 chords in open position, and then he showed me tabs and then tabs for scales and I just started playing and practicing playing over the chords.
So when you played these scales, did he show you how to play over them as a whole or did he show you how to play a different scale for every chord as it passed (ala some Jazz chordal scale approaches)?
Actually I didnt even know what keys were or what I was doing, I just played what he gave me.
So at some point you started to learn more, how did that come across as far as mucic and theory and composition etc?
Well in school I took a theory class, and learned the basics of chord construction and then I was in a class where we did 4 part chorale writing, and got into species counterpoint, and I read Walter Pistons Orchestration book.
A ha, now we are getting somewhere, so you went from learning a few chords and tabbed scales to theory, counterpoint and chorale writing!  That must have been quite a stretch!
Yeah but its where I got all of what I use today, like now, the way I write is free counterpoint, I guess you would say.
Let’s get back to chorale writing for 4 parts.  For those who are in theory now, what did they show you, was it like 4 part harmony?  Like Roots 3rds 5ths and 7ths?
Well initially it was just 3 note writing.
So, you would double a part, like two 3rds or something?
Yeah, well I learned the basic rules of chorale writing and voicing.
So tell us some of these rules, for those of our students who understand theory and have all of that down solid.
OK Sure, well in the first Root position, you can double the Root, or the 3rd but never the 5th
Right, and what about 1st Inversion?
In the 1nd inversion the rule is, you can double any tone you want!
And how about the 2nd inversion?
You can double any tone, Especially the bass note.
I see, that’s interesting.  Many might have expected it was the same rule transposed 2 times, but you said in 1st inversion you can double anything.
Yeah, and I thought the same thing, but here’s why – if you double certain ways while you have a certain bass note, it actually sounds like it erases or cancels out the overall sound, so you want a seperation in certain ways, like the bass note to the middle, and so on, thats why you hear things about no parallel 5ths etc.
When you go to approach your own writing, how do you do it, is it melody or progression based?
Actually when I go to write for a Video game sound track, I go for atmosphere first.
So in doing so do you have a well that you draw from, that comes from your knowledge of music theory, to create that atmosphere?
Yes, I have played enough with these, so I see modes as actual kinds of vibes or atmospheres, for examplis if I want a haunting sound, I use Phrygian a lot.  If I want a sad or melancholy atmosphere I’ll use Aeolian, and build from there, and develop from a progression.
And then superimpose the melody over that?
You acknowledge the role music theory has had in your development, what are your plans now?  What does the future hold for you?
Well I’m planning on going to music school.  I want to try to get in Berklee, in fact I’m working on my application now.  I want to get into film scoring and arrangement and theory, and hopefully break into video game music scoring and go from there.  Maybe work starting from one point and eventually make my way all the way to video game music.
It sounds like you have a very strong future ahead of you.  I heard your stuff and it’s very good.  Thank you for taking the time today to meet with us and give some insights into where theory can take a person.
Thanks a lot, its been an honor to talk with you about this for your school.
Any parting thoughts for those who are already students or those who would dream of going a long ways with music?
Yes, keep trying.  Apply what you know as you learn it on that day.  Don’t wait until the next day to do it.  Anything you learn start apply it right away, it helps so much.
So if one of our students wants to take all they’ve learned with theory to the next level, and do the kinds of things that you are doing, what do you suggest?
Definitely study counterpoint!  Theory lead to understanding that, its its pretty much what I do now in my video game music writing.

Note:  Nick wasn’t aware of this at the time we spoke, but ironically we are actually developing an Online Guitar Counterpoint course to be launched sometime in 2011.

Also an Update – Since this interview, Nick HAS been accepted as a student at Berklee. Congratulations Nick!

Our Mission Statement at the Rock N Blues Guitar Academy is:

To create Self-sufficient Guitarists, with a strong foundation in Music Theory, Lead Guitar, Chord Construction, Fretboard Navigation, and Composition, using our one-of a kind teaching techniques, AND to make the learning process easier than any other guitar teaching method in the world.