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I attempted to get into guitar years ago and quickly burned out. I never properly learned theory and was never able to play what I heard (either in my head, or by listening to music). Playing downloaded tab music was not enough to hold my interest.

I want to take another shot. After reflecting on why it didn't work out the first time, I came up with a theory. All of the theory references I've used in the past taught by bombarding the reader with ideas without any deep explanation. The analogy would a physics professor presenting his students with heaps of equations with no derivations, and expecting the students to take his word for it. For me this does not lead to true learning, and I quickly lose interest.

So to my question: is there a good music theory book / site / youtube video(s) (preferably with the guitar in mind, but not required) that presents the theory while simultaneously providing explanations? Something that does not depend solely on memorization, but rather, on understanding?

An simple example would be octaves: why do we use them? why are there 8 notes? why do notes 1 octave apart sound "the same" (I know there is some deeper physics here, but even a simple nod towards integer multiples of frequency) etc. Another example would be scales - rather than just presenting scale after scale, a deeper explanation as to how these are derived and why they are they way they are would be very beneficial to me.

I'm also open to criticism of my approach in general.

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closed as off-topic by Shevliaskovic, Dave, h22, Dom, Dr Mayhem Mar 10 '14 at 9:55

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Have you looked at music theory and ear training college textbooks? Perhaps a college textbook on the physics of sound (acoustics) would be helpful as well. – Wheat Williams Mar 8 '14 at 6:03
Do you have any you personally recommend? I'm looking to strike a balance too and find something that will help me learn the instrument. – oym Mar 8 '14 at 6:12
My problem is that I could never understand how anyone learned the theory by simply memorizing loads of scales and chord formations etc. There has to be some method to the madness. – oym Mar 8 '14 at 6:13
Unfortunately there are no models that can account for all music. The best in class pale in comparison to something like a theory of physics. The problem seems to be the existence of such a vast variety of effects, both simple and composite. The result is that people construct their mental frameworks differently depending on their practice. However, Rameau's Treatise on Harmony (largely on root motion) has been very influential. Schenkerian Analysis presents an ambitious but not as widely accepted view of Western composition. In modal jazz, the Lydian Chromatic Concept was significant. – oliTUTilo Mar 8 '14 at 9:43
I'm reading this right now, take a look. – n.m. Mar 8 '14 at 10:23
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Unfortunately there are no models that can account for all music. The best in class pale in comparison to something like a theory of physics. The problem seems to be the existence of such a vast variety of effects, both simple and composite. The result is that people construct their mental frameworks differently depending on their practice.

However, Rameau's Treatise on Harmony (largely on root motion) has been very influential. This was inspired in the heat of Baroque music, and is somewhat limited to music of the common practice period (CPP) in general. As Wheat Williams has pointed out, there are many modern adaptations and most good theory texts use these ideas (though I think Rameau's original text is actually very good for such a massive idea).

Schenkerian Analysis presents an ambitious but not as widely accepted view of Western composition. Charles Rosen in Classical Style mentions some of Schenker's pitfalls, as well as many other important classical concepts. There are many other good CPP theorists like Hugo Riemann and Donald Francis Tovey.

In modal jazz, George Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept had a big impact.

One big problem is that most of these texts and discussions often suppose quite a bit of musical training and experience, such as what is recommended in the other answers here. But give them a shot anyways and learn what you need to continue!

Remember that none of these systems are complete and most are inconsistent with each other (some not even completely self-consistent), but can all help form a stronger understanding of music.

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Theory reflects what happens.Music is capable of happening without the theory being there. It explains what is happening - it doesn't make it happen.

Not many people I know who drive a car well know how their gearbox functions but it doesn't stop them being good drivers.

Never tried it, but when I used to teach people to swim, I never filled anyone with the theory for weeks before throwing them off the high board !

Yes, some people will need the theory, but they also need hands on. In order to play an open E chord on a guitar, it's totally unnecessary to know that a major chord is made up from the 1,3 and 5 of a major scale, and those notes are E,G# and B, and they can be found on those frets on those strings...I hope the picture is clear.

Some disagree, but I find most students benefit from being able to produce at least some music on the instrument in question way before needing to understand why it all happens.

As far as books are concerned, there is a plethora out there, written in a myriad of different styles, to suit many different styles of learning and understanding. Your best bet, as stated often here, is to find a good teacher, at least initially, who can answer your questions directly. Books are not too good at that, sadly.

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To use an example like yours: a teacher can teach me how to play a G chord. She could then tell me that it sounds good together with a C and a D chord. I now know 3 chords. In order to expand my musical knowledge, I would either need to keep memorizing endless combinations / variations of chords, or I could tap into some deeper understanding of why these things work in the first place. Aside from helping me learn how to construct chords on my own, I'd think this would help in the memorization process: after all information is better retained if it has some organization, no? – oym Mar 8 '14 at 8:29
Also, I would not argue with your point that students should be able to produce some music before needing to understand why it happens. I guess I am at the point where I want to understand why it happens. I don't have the natural ability to magically play whatever hits my ear (like some people actually do..which baffles me) so I'd think this is where the need for some theory comes in. Thanks. – oym Mar 8 '14 at 8:39
At your stage, and guessing that you work best when there is a structure to 'hang it all on', learning to read music would be a good move. The tabs you have used may or may not be good. Proper music will be available as piano - sax - trumpet - you think of an instrument.Tab is quite restricting in comparison.If you find it hard to 'play by ear', then the dots will be your saviour.At the same time, the theory will become apparent as it is part and parcel. – Tim Mar 8 '14 at 9:03
I think what @ksha is saying is that he wants to begin to learn the theoretical basis along with learning to play music on the instrument. And I think it's beneficial to pursue both together, especially for an adult. – Wheat Williams Mar 8 '14 at 12:23

The study of music theory, at the college level, is based around learning diatonic harmony from the common practice period, which starts out with basic concepts of scales and intervals and then moves toward studying how J. S. Bach (1685-1750) wrote choral music. This is the accepted way of introducing the concepts harmony and of chord progressions. You may not see much connection between this and playing guitar, but all college students who play all musical instruments take the same courses in music theory based on this same material.

This is how I learned, but I must point out that it's two years' worth of college classes.

The best way to approach it is to work out the examples from a music theory texbook on sheet music and play through them on piano; it's very hard if not impossible to play 4-part choral harmony on the guitar.

I would hope that there are some books that teach the basics of music theory based around the guitar alone, but I'm not familiar with any. I'm of the opinion that it's hard to get a good grip on the basics of harmony and chord progressions on the guitar alone; it makes much more sense on a keyboard instrument. You don't need to actually learn to play piano well, but it's very helpful to be able to find and play chord progressions on keyboard because you can see and hear the relationships between the chords and notes more clearly on a keyboard than on any other kind of instrument.

Then you can take what you have learned there and apply it to guitar.

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Thanks for introducing concepts foreign to me. Would you say that without this "classical training" I am doomed to rote memorization of scales, progressions etc. without ever understanding why I am doing what I'm doing? In my narrow view, I see the journey like this: first you learn how to play composed music, then you learn scales etc. which show you what can be played (all music theory books I've seen). I am looking to go to the next level of understanding why these patterns that can be played sound good in the first place, which in my mind, makes the learning less tedious and more natural – oym Mar 8 '14 at 6:55
Just to clarify - in my previous comment, I didn't mean to suggest that I think music should be learned with such a top-down approach. I was just saying that those are the layers of abstraction, as I see them, from the top down. – oym Mar 8 '14 at 6:59
Start with common practice period diatonic harmony and learn something about its historical context. I like this link from @n.m. – Wheat Williams Mar 8 '14 at 12:37
As to whether you are "doomed" or not, I would say no. As explained by others, some musicians are perfectly satisfied by learning to play songs accurately and nothing else, or to read sheet music without needing to know why it's written the way it is. Others want to know the whys and the wherefores. There are even successful songwriters who never learn much of any theory. Then there are college music theory professors who like to study music theory for its own sake. Many musicians fall in the middle. – Wheat Williams Mar 8 '14 at 12:59
Thanks @Wheat. wish I could accept both your answers. – oym Mar 8 '14 at 19:53

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