Let’s get this out of the way; I’ve struggled with this topic for a long time. I feel that it’s not a matter of whether or not I want to learn music theory but more about the time it takes. Many efforts were made to understand this mysterious language, but life always got in the way. Starting the guitar while in college didn’t help my efforts either.
I’ve taken a stab at learning about the “Circle of Fifths,” intervals, and modes. In addition, I have gone down the path of reading tabs to learn songs more quickly. That was just a band-aid and quick fix for not knowing the theory. I also watch many Youtube videos by Rick Beato, who is unreal in his knowledge of music. Sometimes I come away from his videos feeling as if I’ve just watched a video on astrophysics!
I have to tell you, it really irritates me that I don’t understand everything there is to know about music. I’ve relied on my ear and practice to learn most of what I know. I can only dream of what it might feel like to sit down, look at a piece of music, and understand it completely.
How Important is Music Theory?
That brings me to a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly, “How important is music theory, and how much time should I spend thinking about it?” Perhaps I should continue on my current path, meandering on my own, picking up things here and there.
If you’re reading this post, you probably are interested in knowing if you need to focus on music theory. So, let’s define what it is and why it’s crucial. Music theory is the study of the structure and organization of music. It can be a helpful tool for musicians, providing a deeper understanding of how music works.
Music theory can help musicians to:
- Understand the relationship between musical elements, such as melody, harmony, and rhythm.
- Analyze and interpret music.
- Compose and improvise music.
- Communicate with other musicians.
- Teach music.
That’s all fine and well, but do you need it? The fact is that a musician doesn’t have to know music theory to create great music.
Great Artists, No Theory?
Many famous musicians didn’t (or still don’t) know music theory or who cannot read music. Some of these musicians include Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and The Beatles. These musicians could create great music without knowing theory because they had a natural musical talent and a good ear for melody and harmony. Paul McCartney is one of my all-time favorite artists, and he is famous for not knowing how to read music. I don’t think he cares much, or does he?
So, famous musicians have made great music without theory. Hmm. They didn’t need it; why do I need it? That was a question I asked myself when I was In my 30s, I was on a mission to learn about modes, as this kept popping up in the things I was reading.
One day I stumbled across an article that was explaining what modes were. The author explained why certain songs felt a certain way and much of it concerned the key and the mode. I needed to know more and started diving in.
I learned that a mode is a major or minor scale variation with a different starting note. The seven modes are:
- Ionian (the major scale)
- Aeolian (the natural minor scale)
Mixolydian? That is both scary and mysterious, right? Well, not really! I learned that musicians can use modes to create different moods and atmospheres in their music. For example, the Dorian mode is often used to create a feeling of mystery or suspense. In contrast, the Phrygian mode is often used to develop a sense of tension or excitement.
Here are some examples of famous songs that were written in different modes:
- “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin (Ionian mode) is considered one of the greatest rock songs ever. Its uplifting and triumphant feel is likely due to the use of the Ionian mode.
- “Oye Como Va” by Santana (Phrygian mode) – This song has a strong and driving beat, likely due to the use of the Phrygian mode.
- “Imagine” by John Lennon (Lydian mode) – This song is often described as being peaceful and hopeful, which may be due to the use of the Lydian mode.
- “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen (Mixolydian mode) – This song is often described as uplifting and hopeful, which may be due to the use of the Mixolydian mode.
- “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix (Aeolian mode) – This song has a dark and mysterious feel, likely due to the use of the Aeolian mode.
Did I need theory knowledge to understand that these songs felt a certain way? Certainly not; I could figure that out on my own. But as a musician, if I wanted to create pieces with those moods, it would be nice to understand how to compose them without all the trial and error. I would know where and how to start the process. Oh, well, another opportunity was lost as I tired out on the topic and moved on to something else.
What Path Should You Take?
Suppose you are not interested in music theory. In that case, you can still create great music by experimenting and learning from your mistakes. You can also find a mentor or teacher who can teach you the basics of music theory without making it feel like a chore. That is how I’ve always viewed learning theory…as a chore.
Ultimately, whether or not you need to know the theory is up to you. As stated earlier, many successful musicians do not know music theory, and many successful musicians do. Most importantly, you are passionate about music and willing to put in the time and effort to learn and grow as a musician.
Here are some tips to follow if you aren’t interested in learning music theory:
- Experiment with different sounds and instruments.
- Listen to a wide variety of music.
- Take lessons from a qualified teacher.
- Practice regularly.
- Be patient and persistent.
With hard work and dedication, any musician can create great music, regardless of whether or not they know music theory.
If you choose to pursue learning about music theory, many resources are available online and in libraries. You can also find many qualified teachers who can help you understand the basics of music theory.
What if I’m not a Spring Chicken?
As someone who has a few decades under their belt, is it too late for me? Depending on your age, you might be thinking the same thing. Well, conventional wisdom says It is always possible to learn something. However, there are some challenges that we all face as we get older. These include:
- Memory: As you get older, your memory may not be as sharp as it used to be. This can make it difficult to remember new concepts and information.
- Motivation: It can be challenging to stay motivated when learning something new, especially if you are not used to it. Finding ways to stay motivated is essential, such as setting goals and finding a teacher or mentor to help you along the way.
- Time: As you age, you may have less time to devote to learning music theory. Finding a schedule that works for you and being patient with yourself as you learn is vital.
Despite these challenges, learning music theory can be a rewarding experience for people of all ages. It can help you to understand music better, to improve your playing skills, and to compose your own music.
Learning theory can be highly beneficial for a musician. I wish I had made more effort in my downtime to learn. The same goes for working out more, eating better, etc. If you don’t want to dip in the pool of music theory, have fun, and enjoy what you are doing now. Not everybody has large ambitions with their music career. You might be someone who wants to sit around the campfire and play your 3-chord favorites…and that’s O.K. too!