A brief thought about music theory

One of the reoccurring  areas of concern that comes up in lessons is the issue of music theory.   This is both in terms of people who don’t want to be taught any kind of  theory, (as in, “No – don’t show me that!  It’ll mess up my playing!”) to people who have been exposed to terms that they have questions about. Usually both scenarios involve a lot of trepidation and discomfort (much of which is needlessly inflicted).

I would guess that the only people who have ever leapt for joy at the sight of a musical note on paper without hearing it are composers.  For most people, music is an expression solely existing in an aural form (i.e. it’s something we hear).


Theory is secondary to sound.

The history of music originates in organized sound.  Theory and jargon were developed over time as a way to replicate those organized sounds.  A term like “C major” is just musical jargon.  When “C Major” is said, it tells the informed person what kind of sound is going to be produced. This jargon then, is nothing more than a way for musicians to express ideas to each other without written music in a more efficient manner.

It’s much less important to be able to look at something and say, “that’s an altered dominant chord” than it is to hear an altered dominant chord in your head and be able to realize it on the guitar ( or to hear someone else playing it and know what to play against it).


In other words, theory and/or analysis should always be in the service of sound.


I think theory should have two functions – first to help us realize sounds that we want to reproduce and (to me the much more exciting option) to expose us to sounds we didn’t know were there.


The entire concept of GuitArchitecture (presenting applied theory as a set of approaches that can be used to help access both known and unknown sounds) is why a lot of the book material is less about licks and more about approaches.  


From a teaching perspective, it probably doesn’t matter if you can sound like me (unless that’s what you’re striving for), the important thing is developing your individual voice and being able to replicate sounds either intuitively and/or with theory is a major component of any player’s individual sound.


Theory, then,  is just a tool.  It really isn’t anything to get tripped up on.


2 thoughts on “A brief thought about music theory

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