Why I don’t Learn Music Theory
Before I dive in to this touchy subject, let me just say that I have nothing but respect for those who have taken the time & had the discipline of learning this skill. I am also quite aware that there are some types of music the benefits greatly from understanding these fundamentals in depth. That said, I don’t believe it’s the thing that will make or break an artist. Regardless of your skill level, there is benefit to approaching music making with a beginner’s mind. I’ve found that there is much that the trained and untrained can learn from each other. Now that I’ve address this, let’s move forward.
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)
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!