I was never much of a music theory whiz.
Music theory was required for music majors—lots of music theory—and it always felt like I was cramming a toolkit into my brain that my brain didn’t quite see the need for—-the tools were for fixing airplane engines and when all I was planning to do was hang out and glide through a few tunes. I could get through the music just fine just by feel. Why learn the inner workings of an airplane engine?
Eventually, I discovered that I could can only get so far by feeling things out.
Ultimately, music theory is worth the trouble. The trick is to connect music theory to your ability to feel things out musically.
I still mumble and stumble a bit with music theory terminology, but that’s because my inclination has always been towards the feeling side of things. I think in the language of feelings, not jargon. I always ask myself, in a very visceral sense, what does this bit of theory mean, in terms of how the music sounds, in terms of how it feels?
So why should you care about music theory? What does it do for you? And what does it not do for you?
Here’s the key:
Music theory provides you with a map of what is going on.
It’s not what is actually going on.
Similarly, Google Maps tells you where the nearest Starbucks is, but it’s not to be confused with actually sitting in a Starbucks, enjoying the community of “those getting jacked up on heavy-duty caffeine.”
In other words, music theory helps you navigate the territory but it’s not the territory.
What this means, if you’re willing to give it a bit of time and effort, is that music theory gives you options.
It keeps you from always traveling the same pathways. It shows you where all paths are—those less travelled by, as well as those worn deeply into the psyche—and it shows how they all connect to each other and how it might be nice to try this one for a change.
In this video I make my first attempt to make music theory relevant to a guitar player. If you watch it to the end, you’ll hear me play a piece while the screen follows the score and little colored arrows jump around. That alone should make it worth your time.
Let me know if this video helps you, and if it brings up any questions for you, by commenting in the comment box below.