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Music theory. Every self-taught musician's nightmare. If who I am describing sounds like who you are, then this article is exactly what you need.
You've been playing music for a while now. You always love listening to music, going to shows, and coming home and plunking away on whatever instrument you play. But you only know a handful of chords. You only know a handful of voicings. When someone asks you to play something, you pick the two songs you always play out of the selection of five songs you know by memory, but when someone asks you to jam with them, sometimes you feel a little lost. Sometimes you wish you could understand all the crazy scales some people play. Sometimes you wish you just knew a little more about this thing you happen to love so much.
Well... it turns out you can. It's really that easy! You're never at a point where you can't learn new things, and I'm here to tell you five wicked reasons why you should start to dive into the world of music theory.
1. Understanding music helps you to be more musical.
This is a crazy concept, isn't it? Understanding a thing will help you to be better at the thing you are trying to understand. Why is this?
Well...it is important to establish that music theory is exactly what it says it is. THEORY. It is not music. But, what music theory is, is a way of understanding how the people of the past created, performed, and wrote music. This is important for two reasons (although there are many more):
- It is a visual representation of something aural
- It is a way for people to comprehend what is happening musically
This is why music theory can help you become a better musician. It is another medium that can help you to understand what it is you are actually doing!
2. Music theory can help you to become more technical on your instrument of choice.
Learning music theory can help you to become a better instrumentalist. How? Well... it may sound tedious, but being able to read excerpts and passages that are meant to help you learn a certain skill on your instrument is probably a good thing.
There is one thing we must make clear: LEARNING EXCERPTS/TECHNICAL PASSAGES IS NOT MUSIC. Some people might agree with me, some people might not. But, the long story short is, that these method books and exercises are meant to teach you a certain skill on your instrument, they are not meant to teach you music.
For example, running a scale up and down in 16th notes is not music. This is allowing you to learn how to play this specific sequence of notes while using this specific rhythm put to a tempo. IT IS NOT MUSIC. But it can help you to obtain musicality, no doubt.
3. History Is Interesting...
Music theory is music history. It is learning about the past; learning how people did certain things way back when. This might not be your cup of tea (which is totally cool!), but one way that helps people to understand a concept is to put it into a place in time.
The reason chords are formed the way we form them, is because of the history that comes along with using the harmony that we use. I know that sounded complex, but the point is that everything comes from somewhere in time.
Learning about the theory about how music is constructed gives you some insight into how the world works, and how it worked during certain time periods. I don't know about you, but I think that's pretty cool.
4. It can help you move past your compositional plateau.
Have you ever been writing music, and you get to a certain point where you just can't figure out where to go next? We've all been there. I find that when I am composing, I go for what sounds instinctively correct to my ear, and then when I'm not sure where to go next, I turn to my theoretical brain.
I'll start to analyse what I have already written, and then using knowledge of chord progressions, guide tones, theory, history, etc., I am able to intelligently decide on where to go next in the music.
Having knowledge in music theory is like learning to ride a bike (to an extent). Once you know it, you know it. But, you won't be riding a bike every single day, but when you need to ride one you have the knowledge and the skill to pick it right back up. You won't be using theory every waking second of your compositional process, but when you need it, it will be there, and you will know how to use it and how to use it in the way that your music needs it to be used.
5. There is something significant about understanding what you are doing.
When you listen to music, you are taking in information. You are listening to what someone else created, analyzing it in your own way, and coming up with reasons why you like, or don't like it.
When you study music theory, the conversation inside your brain stops being, "What do I/don't I like about this?" and starts being "What about this is interesting?"
What do I mean by this? Well... I'll give you an example. When people listen to music that is harmonically complex for the first time (such as some types of jazz music), they might say that they don't like it because it sounds hard. I truly believe that this isn't true. It isn't the fact that it is hard, it is the fact that you haven't studied it enough to understand it. This goes for EVERY genre of music. Someone who listens to death metal would say the same thing.
When you understand what you are creating, and what you are doing, when you play/create music, your mind will instantly become freer. You will start to realize the beauty in all kinds of music. When this happens, you will venture out into genres you never thought you would, and when this happens you will become an incredibly open-minded musician. Not only that, I believe that people, in general, become more open-minded when they listen to music from all over the world.
Well... there it is. Why should you start learning music theory? Hopefully you have a couple of reasons that might have sparked something in you to start diving into this stuff. I will say this: IT IS A LONG PROCESS. Please do not expect to become a music theorist overnight. It, unfortunately, doesn't work like that. Music (and art in general) is something we can spend a lifetime learning, and if it takes less than a lifetime, we aren't doing it right.
If you like what I do, think what I write about is interesting, or just think I'm a cool person, please consider dropping me a tip. They allow me to write more frequently, and I will love you forever.
Until next time,
John Marvin Scott