Why I don’t Learn Music Theory
Music to me is mysterious & magical. Without restriction, I can explore music through trial & error & come to my own conclusions, as well as make my own discoveries. I enjoy playing guitar or my keyboard & fingering out variations of simple chords until I hear something that excites me. It gives me this wonderful boost of energy. It’s that “wow cool, I just discovered something new!” feeling. I still get that to this day.
I can still recall regularly walking over a mile to the music store as a kid just to play the sounds on the amazing Roland Juno 60 synth. I had no idea how this instrument was creating such wonderful sounds. All I knew is that when a played a couple keys, it sounded fantastic. As the years went by I eventually bought the Roland Juno 106 which was largely the same sound engine. Little by little I discovered what certain knobs did to the sound. I certainly didn’t know what all of the knobs did. I just knew that when I pushed up that fader, it sounded even better.
As time went on, by default, I gained a bit more musical experience & started understanding what was previously behind the curtain. Soon enough I started to lose a bit of the magic because I knew the tricks. When you know the magician’s (or musician’s) tricks, they no longer drive the imagination the same way.
I had to set the synth down for a while & rediscover the magic in the guitar. While working with the synth, I was able to forget & unlearn some of what I know about the guitar. I felt like a beginner again. It felt new again. Like I was starting over for the first time. That was extremely exciting for me. I’ve always liked the “give me 4 chords & an imagination” approach. I like to drop an instrument when I feel too comfortable on it for a while & explore something new.
When I was first given one of my dad’s guitars, he also gave me a chord book. I tried, honestly I did. All I got was bored… and sore fingers. None of the music I was listening to were using these chords anyway. I then thought of all the guitar players at my school who played much better than me & realized that although I was impressed by their playing, I wasn’t impressed with what sounded to me like a cookie cutter approach to writing songs. I imagined them arguing “No, it’s gotta be this chord, anyone who knows music knows that!”. Sometimes getting it all wrong can have pleasant results.
Listening to Bauhaus, The Cure & New Order were much more exciting to me even though there were no elaborate guitar solos. I knew these bands didn’t play their instruments as well, but there was something else they did have that sparked my imagination much more.
My argument is not that one style of music is better than another. It’s that sometimes when you create your own path, it may take longer, but it’s more likely that you’ll find your own sound, and in doing so, a much deeper satisfaction.
Would you prefer to know all the chords in existence & lose that feeling of discovering them on your own? Would you prefer to play that 1 chord because your education has taught you that it’s appropriate or because it feels good to you? Education can be pretty important to understand some of the rules before you break them, but letting go & using “the force” might help you express things that simply can’t be taught.
For me, every time I sit down to make music, I still get to feel like a beginner in this magical & mysterious world. Of course I get better instincts which help me solve problems faster, but it’s very satisfying to know that I made these discoveries on my own or through conversations with others of similar tastes. There is still a bit of fear that I might suck or that I might not know how something I want to accomplish is done, but the problem solving involved in making music is one of the things that drives me creatively. After all these years, I wouldn’t trade what I don’t know about music for anything. My ignorance has been bliss. Bring on the magicians!
* Here’s a few musicians who never learned music theory:
(Feel free to add to this list in the comments)
David Bowie (except for sax lessons)
Eric Clapton (he started learning in the last decade or so)
Next I’ll show you “no skills required” tactics to making music.
Happy Music Making,
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The Mental Game of Music Production
The Process for Electronic Music Producers
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Happy music making!
Hmm, well you make some interesting points. If we are ever going to have fun and create some magic, we have to get to the point of inspiration. You have many great posts on your blog about this, which is why I keep coming back here! Thank you for that.
I’m not to sure that you can say that learning music theory is not helpful though. Lets take your guitar example though. I remember when I heard the distorted sounds of guitar in what was at the time called ‘hard rock.’ I was thrilled, and I was in love. I found out that my dad had up in the attic, his little brothers electric guitar. I pulled it down, and then asked around and found a friend of my parents who had a little amp at their house. I remember the excitement of sitting down and plugging in the guitar for the first time. I had no idea what I was doing. The guitar was on the floor in front of me, and my friend and I just starred at it with no idea but with anticipation. We turned the amp up, hit some strings, pushed down, what I would later discover were called ‘frets’ and pulled up and down on the wammy bar. Lots of noise. But no music. No, today, Im sure I could sample 10 minutes of that horrendous noise, and turn it into some crazy glitch-step or Aphex Twin style music, but that is not what I had back then.
We continued maybe 3 or 5 more times repeating this over the next few weeks. Still no music like what we loved listening to. It was not until I went and got some lessons, basic ones, about how to hold the guitar, how to place your fingers on the neckboard etc thatI was able to produce anything that had any musicality to it at all. I met someone my age who played guitar, and he took me under his wing, and showed me how to not play just open chords like my lessons, but what bar chords were, and very quickly I was playing simple power chords and jamming along with Scorpions, Quiet Riot, Ratt and many other ‘great’ bands of the day. Without these two influences and instruction, I would never have learned to play guitar and would have left music behind me as something mystical and magical that I loved, but could never duplicate. It would have been silly to me to have taken months or years of frustrating experimentation to have only discovered what I learned in 2-3 hours from these 2 people. Don’t you agree?
Instruction is important, as I know that you know. Which is probably why you run a website selling such instruction. We are not self-made beings, as much as we like to think we are. We ALWAYS build upon what others have done first, right? If I wanted to continue the thought of, ‘I need to be original, and creative and magical, starting only with myself’ then I shouldn’t have even picked up a guitar, because why should I limit myself to half-steps and whole-steps and tunings! I mean, I didnt invent the guitar, why should I limit myself to someone else’s ideas?
I know I am probably going to far with what you said, but musical theory is just what other’s have discovered. Yes you can be limited by it, but the same could be said for any instruction. My 12th grade music theory teacher said it best ‘Learn all of the rules, and then break them!’
I know recently, as I have been taking music theory again (I am enrolled at Full Sail University) it has helped me immensely. I have been, many times, working on a piece, and I hear the next chord in my head. I have been so pleasantly surprised, after banging away on the keyboard for 30 minutes and not finding the next chord from my head, to just reference my music theory and literally, find the chord within 90 seconds! Music theory has helped me get to where I hear in my head much quicker. I many times choose to do something differently than what the ‘rules’ say, but any good music theory teacher would teach you that as well.
The guy that runs dancemusicproduction.com, who is a great teacher and a renowned producer says it this way about his instruction ‘I will show you how it has been done in the past, you show me how it’s going to be done in the future!’ Your instructions and website follow in this vain, keep up the work, and hey, teach us some applicable theory too!
hey the idea of not studying music theory is one I can relate to, I have sort of started looking at keys/scales but I too prefer the magic and mystery of just fiddling and experimenting, feel free to check out my blog.
You forgot Armand Van Helden!!!
Love this post!
But how you you think about scales? I used to draw in some notes or play them on my keyboard, but they really sound better when I use the right scale. I usually take the midi effect ‘scale’ in Ableton because I don’t have the energy to learn al this theory (better to play that to learn!).
Thanks for your great blog!
I can relate to this, too. Although you might find, as I am doing piano and drum lessons, that after years of getting into the groove of making free music without the knowledge is only made better and you only gain more insight, tools and techniques learning music formally. What you know will, as you say, make you stand out from classically trained musicians (who are often jealous and annoyed by us freeloaders) but now that you have riffed along with the great unconscious, learning music now is only going to give you more tools, not limit your creative freedom. In short, I agree with you. Follow the sound, create the right noises, and do that for a while. A couple of years, maybe. But then go back to the books. There’s a deep sea of recorded human knowledge in those books. That’s where I’m at anyway.
I’m pretty and almost absolutely sure th beatls knew music theory , it’s nearly impossible for a band to function with out understanding harmony and how harmony works, you can’t even write a song without music theory, this is the most absurd article I’ve read in a while, music theory is a means for musicians to connect on a general platform, you can still explore or even break rules, but it’s good to have some idea of how to define what you create! Yes the Beatles knew chord progressions I’ve heard them call out chords in the yesterday recording
There is a massive difference between knowing a few chords & being properly trained in music theory & they couldn’t read or write sheet music. Some people just play by ear & by feel & let their instincts guide them. Check this out: http://lifeofthebeatles.blogspot.com/2010/05/did-beatles-know-how-to-read-music.html
And here are more people you can disagree with about it. http://forums.stevehoffman.tv/threads/did-the-beatles-know-much-about-music-theory.105547/
There is nothing wrong with knowing theory, but ya don’t need it. Some of us can just “use the force” to guide us 🙂