What "Music Theory" REALLY Is... imho...

AxemanVR

I appreciate, therefore I am...
Silver Member
Feb 8, 2014
5,849
Minnesota USA
So, I've been on this forum for a while trying to add as much meaningful information as I can in regards to clarifying how music works, only to notice a peculiar resistance to some of it.

Over time it has occurred to me that just using the term "Music Theory" alone can be a major deterrent for a lot people joining in on the pursuit of increasing their musical knowledge.

You see, I truly believe many of these people misunderstand what learning "Music Theory" actually means.

That's why, if I had my way, I'd get rid of the term "Music Theory" altogether and replace it with "Music Knowledge", because most of what people are trying to do is to "understand it" so they can freely "create it". But then they get stuck on the "complexity of it" and decide that they don't want to do “it” (i.e. Music Theory) anymore.

Here's the thing: "Music Theory" is really just "Music Knowledge" and you can learn as much or as little as you need to keep you interested.

For instance, just learning how to tune your guitar is part of Music Theory, but it's not really a "theory" to tune your guitar, is it? It's more of a process to set your instrument up to get it ready to play, right?

So, in that sense, everything a person learns about how to play music is considered to be "Music Theory" whether any "theory" is involved or not.

In other words, most of the stuff we learn about music involving numbers, letters, symbols and words are just "linguistics" for the language of music, with the "theory" defining those symbols. So when someone says "Play an E♭m chord", before you can do it you first have to know what that phrase means...

"E" is something we call the "root" of the chord. "♭" means "flat", so the "E" is moved down a "half-step" below "E Natural" to become "E♭". "m" means "minor", which refers to a "minor 3rd" in relation to "E♭". And of course "chord" means "chord", right?

Well, unfortunately if you don't know what a "chord" is, then it's certainly not going to be easy to understand that phrase.

In fact, there are several things that need to be explained if a person were to ever understand that phrase, like "root", "half-step", "natural" and "minor 3rd".

All of this is taught under the umbrella term "Music Theory", which, as far as I'm concerned, is exactly the same as my preferred term of "Music Knowledge".

~~~

“Music Knowledge” should be the all encompassing title of the subject with “Categories of Various Symbols, Definitions, Structures and Theories” listed below it.

Yet, the fact of the matter is the term “Music Theory” is entrenched in our lexicon and is probably not going anywhere anytime soon.

So, if you already know how to tune your guitar and play a chord, then you already know some “Music Theory”. In that case (assuming you continue the arduous journey of gaining musical knowledge), then the question is no longer "Should I learn Music Theory" but, rather, "How Much Music Theory Should I Learn"?

Or better yet:

"How Much 'Music Knowledge' Do I Really Need to Get Me to Where I Want to Be"?

Anyway, if you want to learn more, I've provided a link below to an article I created which describes the basics of what is often referred to as "Music Theory" (although you can call it "Music Knowledge" if you wish) ;):



`
 
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Pandamasque

Senior Stratmaster
Sep 22, 2020
1,171
Kyiv, Ukraine
It's a bit like starting to learn grammar of a language that you've sort of understood all your life. Except the grammar often makes little sense, because it's based on centuries-old European tradition with tons of exceptions, additions and amendments added to it in order to somehow describe western music of the past couple of centuries (but in a very compromised manner). And also it is rather useless at describing a whole lot of non-western music around the world.

I mean, forget microtones and bends, but even the fact that one has 7 note symbols to work within the 12-tone equal temperament musical system says a lot. It's like having an alphabet of 12 letters and relying on diacritics to notate another dozen sounds. Meanwhile graphically the notation system seems to be deliberately difficult to read. And so on and so forth.

I'm not saying music theory/knowledge is not useful. It's a way of, as they say in psychology, "rationalising" music and that can be useful. So is putting music in writing. But the system itself is gravely crippled by its own roots. It's well overdue for a ground up overhaul, and yet most musicians capable of undertaking that seem to instead be content with treating their knowledge as sort of a secret handshake. You just have to learn it. Music theory is both a key and a major hurdle. Many on the other side are happy keeping it that way. Even if you study a particular cypher long enough you'll be fluent at it. That doesn't make it a perfect language.
 
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AxemanVR

I appreciate, therefore I am...
Silver Member
Feb 8, 2014
5,849
Minnesota USA
It's a bit like starting to learn grammar of a language that you've sort of understood all your life. Except the grammar often makes little sense, because it's based on centuries-old European tradition with tons of exceptions, additions and amendments added to it in order to somehow describe western music of the past couple of centuries (but in a very compromised manner). And also it is rather useless at describing a whole lot of non-western music around the world.

I mean, forget microtones and bends, but even the fact that one has 7 note symbols to work within the 12-tone equal temperament musical system says a lot. It's like having an alphabet of 12 letters and relying on diacritics to notate another dozen sounds. Meanwhile graphically the notation system seems to be deliberately difficult to read. And so on and so forth.

I'm not saying music theory/knowledge is not useful. It's a way of, as they say in psychology, "rationalising" music and that can be useful. So is putting music in writing. But the system itself is gravely crippled by its own roots. It's well overdue for a ground up overhaul, and yet most musicians capable of undertaking that seem to instead be content with treating their knowledge as sort of a secret handshake. You just have to learn it. Music theory is both a key and a major hurdle. Many on the other side are happy keeping it that way.

Yes Yes Yes and Yes.

But, you can’t always choose how the facts are presented to you and, like anything else in life, whatever you put into it determines what you get out of it.

Given the circumstances, whatever approach that works for any individual is fine, as long as they are satisfied with the results.

I mean, let's face it, most people do just fine using an "ala carte" approach to learning music anyway (as opposed to a more formal methodical way) and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

On the other hand (and this is aimed at those who are really determined to "know it all") learning the more complex stuff doesn't have to be overwhelming, as long as you keep this in mind:

The more you learn, the more you understand, and the more you understand, the easier it is to learn more - BUT - The more you LOVE IT, the more you will want to DO IT. So first learn to love it, then learn to learn it.

It's a slow progression at the beginning for sure, but the rewards multiply as that progression ramps up...


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AxemanVR

I appreciate, therefore I am...
Silver Member
Feb 8, 2014
5,849
Minnesota USA
As much as I dread bringing up any comparisons to Mathematics (because some people go berserk when you do) but if you were to see this:

1 + 1 = 2

You’d probably agree that it’s an equation or a formula.

But if you were to see this:

Half-Step + Half-Step = Whole Step

Many would agree that’s part of “Music Theory”. But you don’t hear people saying 1 + 1 = 2 is part of “Math Theory”. It’s just “Math”.

The numeral “1” has been assigned a certain value that is universally agreed upon, just like a “half-step” has been defined to cover a universally agreed upon relationship between musical notes.

After that it’s not really a “theory” anymore, but a defined representation of something used in conjunction with other symbols and words used to explain things related to music.

The “Theory” is “This pitch and another pitch played together sounds the way it sounds because we believe a certain ratio causes it to”

The “Knowledge” is “Those pitches sound good, bad, weird or cool, so I’ll use them for this, that or the other thing”…


 
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Butcher of Strats

Senior Stratmaster
Feb 28, 2022
1,159
Maine
I agree it shouldn‘t offend unless used as accusation or claim of superiority.

I don’t quite agree that everything learned on a guitar constitutes theory though.
Even watching a YouTube lesson and playing the chord progression of the song being taught, gains knowledge of how to play that song but not the theory behind why the chords work together or why it’s in a given key, or how to write a harmony part etc.

Theory lets you decide what to do without having to be shown.
 

Dadocaster

Dr. Stratster
Mar 15, 2015
27,648
Sachse TX behind the cemetary
The way most of us teach ourselves to play, almost sets up the brain not to be able to deal with theory later. Likewise, most of us that played in school band, concert band, marching band, were taught to read music but nearly nothing regarding theory. Again, it almost sets up a barrier to learning theory later. The sad part is that in school music programs, church choirs, even info for the autodidacts, there are many many easy and interesting ways in which bite size chunks of theory could be conveyed. But that's not what we do so most have to figure it our later.
 

Hanson

Senior Stratmaster
Feb 3, 2016
1,605
Mesquite, Texas
The Beatles didn’t study Theory, they studied songs and noticed what chords worked well together. They sang Melodie’s that sounded good with the chords. The Beatles could not read music, but were the most successful songwriters in modern history. Many times, they actually did things that went against “theory” and they still sounded good and it worked musically. I’ve heard many people say you need to know theory, so that you can break theory. I don’t believe that at all. In fact, my belief is that they pushed the boundaries of theory, because they didn’t know it.

You may say that the Beatles new theory because they new basics of music. I would contest that they learned the basics of songs and made music that sounded good. They left theory up to others to explain why their music sounded great and worked when they broke the rules of theory.
 

amstratnut

Peace thru Music.
Dec 1, 2009
21,639
My house.
The Beatles didn’t study Theory, they studied songs and noticed what chords worked well together. They sang Melodie’s that sounded good with the chords. The Beatles could not read music, but were the most successful songwriters in modern history. Many times, they actually did things that went against “theory” and they still sounded good and it worked musically. I’ve heard many people say you need to know theory, so that you can break theory. I don’t believe that at all. In fact, my belief is that they pushed the boundaries of theory, because they didn’t know it.

You may say that the Beatles new theory because they new basics of music. I would contest that they learned the basics of songs and made music that sounded good. They left theory up to others to explain why their music sounded great and worked when they broke the rules of theory.

Whatever YOU call it, hearing something and being able to use it in your own music, counts as music theory. Being able to categorize it and name it is a step further.

Being able to communicate about it to others in a common language is pretty much the best thing about it.
 

kurher

Strat-O-Master
Oct 2, 2017
545
3rd Stone from the Sun
It's a bit like starting to learn grammar of a language that you've sort of understood all your life. Except the grammar often makes little sense, because it's based on centuries-old European tradition with tons of exceptions, additions and amendments added to it in order to somehow describe western music of the past couple of centuries (but in a very compromised manner). And also it is rather useless at describing a whole lot of non-western music around the world.

I mean, forget microtones and bends, but even the fact that one has 7 note symbols to work within the 12-tone equal temperament musical system says a lot. It's like having an alphabet of 12 letters and relying on diacritics to notate another dozen sounds. Meanwhile graphically the notation system seems to be deliberately difficult to read. And so on and so forth.

I'm not saying music theory/knowledge is not useful. It's a way of, as they say in psychology, "rationalising" music and that can be useful. So is putting music in writing. But the system itself is gravely crippled by its own roots. It's well overdue for a ground up overhaul, and yet most musicians capable of undertaking that seem to instead be content with treating their knowledge as sort of a secret handshake. You just have to learn it. Music theory is both a key and a major hurdle. Many on the other side are happy keeping it that way. Even if you study a particular cypher long enough you'll be fluent at it. That doesn't make it a perfect language.
You may want to read Sidney Reeve's "The rational theory of music": https://archive.org/details/rationaltheoryof00reev

The Beatles didn’t study Theory, they studied songs and noticed what chords worked well together. They sang Melodie’s that sounded good with the chords. The Beatles could not read music, but were the most successful songwriters in modern history. Many times, they actually did things that went against “theory” and they still sounded good and it worked musically. I’ve heard many people say you need to know theory, so that you can break theory. I don’t believe that at all. In fact, my belief is that they pushed the boundaries of theory, because they didn’t know it.

You may say that the Beatles new theory because they new basics of music. I would contest that they learned the basics of songs and made music that sounded good. They left theory up to others to explain why their music sounded great and worked when they broke the rules of theory.
One certainly doesn't have to learn theory in order to play and/or write. Music is a listening art first and foremost. There's also a lot of theory for theory's sake out there. However in most occasions there is a certain vernacular among musicians, say in a particular space and time, which constitutes theory in one way or another. If it can help us better understand and communicate ideas, it's good.
 

amstratnut

Peace thru Music.
Dec 1, 2009
21,639
My house.
I halfway agree with OP. Its super cool when youre jamming and call out Am, and everyone know what you mean. Its not a math problem. Its a sound you make because you know where to put your fingers. Where it gets to be a drag it when you call out Am9 and get blank stares. This is not rocket science.

Music "knowledge" seems absolute. "Music concepts" Howzat? 😀
 

nosmo

Senior Stratmaster
Gold Supporting Member
Dec 13, 2020
1,096
Gormenghast
In Theory, there's no difference
between Theory and Practice
But in Practice, there is.

In Theory, my guitar is tuned.

Thanks for your instruction and info. I DO find Music Theory intriguing, and intend to delve into it someday just for the intellectual exercise. As for composing my own music, C, E, G, and Beer flat are all I really need.
 

jd35801

Strat-Talker
Jan 17, 2012
297
Alabama
So, I've been on this forum for a while trying to add as much meaningful information as I can in regards to clarifying how music works, only to notice a peculiar resistance to some of it.

Over time it has occurred to me that just using the term "Music Theory" alone can be a major deterrent for a lot people joining in on the pursuit of increasing their musical knowledge.

You see, I truly believe many of these people misunderstand what learning "Music Theory" actually means.

That's why, if I had my way, I'd get rid of the term "Music Theory" altogether and replace it with "Music Knowledge", because most of what people are trying to do is to "understand it" so they can freely "create it". But then they get stuck on the "complexity of it" and decide that they don't want to do “it” (i.e. Music Theory) anymore.

Here's the thing: "Music Theory" is really just "Music Knowledge" and you can learn as much or as little as you need to keep you interested.

For instance, just learning how to tune your guitar is part of Music Theory, but it's not really a "theory" to tune your guitar, is it? It's more of a process to set your instrument up to get it ready to play, right?

So, in that sense, everything a person learns about how to play music is considered to be "Music Theory" whether any "theory" is involved or not.

In other words, most of the stuff we learn about music involving numbers, letters, symbols and words are just "linguistics" for the language of music, with the "theory" defining those symbols. So when someone says "Play an E♭m chord", before you can do it you first have to know what that phrase means...

"E" is something we call the "root" of the chord. "♭" means "flat", so the "E" is moved down a "half-step" below "E Natural" to become "E♭". "m" means "minor", which refers to a "minor 3rd" in relation to "E♭". And of course "chord" means "chord", right?

Well, unfortunately if you don't know what a "chord" is, then it's certainly not going to be easy to understand that phrase.

In fact, there are several things that need to be explained if a person were to ever understand that phrase, like "root", "half-step", "natural" and "minor 3rd".

All of this is taught under the umbrella term "Music Theory", which, as far as I'm concerned, is exactly the same as my preferred term of "Music Knowledge".

~~~

“Music Knowledge” should be the all encompassing title of the subject with “Categories of Various Symbols, Definitions, Structures and Theories” listed below it.

Yet, the fact of the matter is the term “Music Theory” is entrenched in our lexicon and is probably not going anywhere anytime soon.

So, if you already know how to tune your guitar and play a chord, then you already know some “Music Theory”. In that case (assuming you continue the arduous journey of gaining musical knowledge), then the question is no longer "Should I learn Music Theory" but, rather, "How Much Music Theory Should I Learn"?

Or better yet:

"How Much 'Music Knowledge' Do I Really Need to Get Me to Where I Want to Be"?

Anyway, if you want to learn more, I've provided a link below to an article I created which describes the basics of what is often referred to as "Music Theory" (although you can call it "Music Knowledge" if you wish) ;):



`
Thanks, AxemanVR! I think you really hit the nail on the head, certainly in my case you did. But even at my age, I am still trying to learn more and more of this. Thank you so much for freely sharing your knowledge.
 

Andmyaxe

Strat-Talker
May 12, 2021
275
USA
I think the term “theory” is to differentiate from technique, practice or practical application. I’m not sure I’d consider knowing where a particular note is in the fretboard to be theory. “Knowledge” may be too broad a term because it contemplates theory and technique, etc.

But I don’t mean to quibble as I agree with the core of your point. Theory (or whatever one calls it) isn’t mandatory. One should feel free to learn as little or as much theory as they’d like or find useful.

IMO more theory is better because it opens doors and expands understanding. But I’ve played with some great musicians who know little theory.
 

Andmyaxe

Strat-Talker
May 12, 2021
275
USA
The Beatles didn’t study Theory, they studied songs and noticed what chords worked well together. They sang Melodie’s that sounded good with the chords. The Beatles could not read music, but were the most successful songwriters in modern history. Many times, they actually did things that went against “theory” and they still sounded good and it worked musically. I’ve heard many people say you need to know theory, so that you can break theory. I don’t believe that at all. In fact, my belief is that they pushed the boundaries of theory, because they didn’t know it.

You may say that the Beatles new theory because they new basics of music. I would contest that they learned the basics of songs and made music that sounded good. They left theory up to others to explain why their music sounded great and worked when they broke the rules of theory.
They may not have studied theory in an academic sense, but they certainly paid attention to what worked well in, e.g., the rhythm and blues songs they covered in their early years and adapted those lessons to their own songwriting and performance.

There are many ways to study theory. It doesn’t have to come from a textbook.
 

Hanson

Senior Stratmaster
Feb 3, 2016
1,605
Mesquite, Texas

Held hostage by photobucket. Slime eels.

They may not have studied theory in an academic sense, but they certainly paid attention to what worked well in, e.g., the rhythm and blues songs they covered in their early years and adapted those lessons to their own songwriting and performance.

There are many ways to study theory. It doesn’t have to come from a textbook.
Well that is my point, they studied music.
 

CalicoSkies

Most Honored Senior Member
Gold Supporting Member
Jun 10, 2013
7,106
Beaverton, OR, USA
I thought "music theory" referred to things like the creation of audible/musical notes, how different notes sound together, formation of chords, musical scales, etc.. Things like tuning a guitar wouldn't fit into that.
 


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