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We've all heard a statement similar to the following:

X didn't / doesn't know any music theory and is one of the all time greats

replacing X with a famous guitarist.

Being a novice, I am trying to figure out if this statement can ever make sense:

Take the example of playing and improvising chord progressions (since in my mind this would be more difficult to "fake" than lead guitar): is the above statement really saying that these guitarist essentially make up chords as they go along based upon intuition and ear alone? To me, this would be extraordinarily impressive (of course there are prodigies, but I'm wondering if this is the commonplace explanation for the provided statement).

On the other hand, say they initially learned to play by mimicking the songs and styles of other guitarists. Maybe at that point they built up a lexicon of available chords (and maybe even they can name them) and which sound good together. In my mind, this is, in some sense, knowledge of music theory. Is this what people usually mean when they claim lack of music theory knowledge? Is this not considered knowing (to some degree) music theory?

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Could you maybe elaborate on what you mean by "improvising chord progressions"? To write a chord progression, you can just fool around with chords until you find something you like. No theoretical knowledge needed. –  Meaningful Username Mar 10 at 20:46
    
In that paragraph I meant to suggest that the player isn't necessarily working off of a dictionary of known chords or chord shapes, but rather is able to "invent" his or her own, and play progressions that sound good purely by feel. Known chords and known shapes have to come from somewhere, so my "thesis" was that these players aren't entirely self taught / intuitive (which doesn't diminish at all from their skill). –  oym Mar 10 at 20:50
    
All musicians will have gathered information about the music that was created before them. I'd say that it is very rare that someone invents chords or even progressions at this point. The distinction is if they learned by (mostly) studying theory, or got there by listening and playing music. –  Meaningful Username Mar 10 at 20:55
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I certainly wouldn't consider knowledge of chords to be "music theory" - that's a matter of journeyman knowledge. Additionally, I doubt it's possible to "know" whether someone else has certain knowledge unless A) you give them a test, and then you only know that they (don't) know what's on the test, or B) if you ask them; and both of these cases allow for false positives or negatives, as a knowledgeable musician may choose to say he's untutored to improve or retain "street cred", while someone who truly doesn't know may have picked up enough along the way to pass your test. –  Bob Jarvis Mar 10 at 23:02
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An analogy: You don't have to know the technicalities of grammar in order to speak a language fluently. –  Barmar Mar 11 at 19:40

14 Answers 14

up vote 13 down vote accepted

One last update.

The question as I understand it has numerous nested questions:

"...if this statement can ever make sense:

"X didn't / doesn't know any music theory and is one of the all time greats..."

"...is the above statement really saying that these guitarist essentially make up chords as they go along based upon intuition and ear alone?"

"...Is this what people usually mean when they claim lack of music theory knowledge? Is this not considered knowing (to some degree) music theory?"

While I completely agree with the person asking the question that it would be "extraordinarily impressive" for some one to "...make up chords as they go along based upon intuition and ear alone" and would like to add that even a prodigy would have had some memory or experience even if it is a tiny amount to produce an impressive result.

Let's consider music like a language. When a child learns to talk it is both learning from the environment and exploring the voice box, and consequently learning how to imitate sounds and make sounds. A child does not immediately know what the words mean until there is an association, e.g. da da = dad.

At some point the child has learned enough to communicate in a language associated with his parents, siblings, and eventually teachers.

Once the child is in school, a formal presentation, a standardization of the language is taught and hopefully learned.

So in turn a musician may learn the language of music by ear, by rote, before being introduced to formal theory or only learn from imitation, hearing and repeating, and further by taking the learned information and building on this a self taught methodology.

The success to either form of learning, only from ear or only from studying music theory is only limited by the amount of time the musician practices what is in his or her mind and translates this to muscle memory e.g. for guitar, the hands.

The key question that an adversary has pointed out so brutally that I have omitted is, "what does it mean to know music theory?" which is not even asked in the original question per se, but in an effort to save my butt here I will attempt to answer.

To know music theory is to understand a formal peer reviewed pedagogical dogma based on the history of western culture musical practices from the Pre-Baroque era until the late Romantic era and up to the beginning of the Contemporary era, roughly pre-1600 to 15 October 1905 in Paris at the premiere of Debussy's "Le Mer" which has often been sited as the beginning of 20th Century Art Music.

This theory rarely covers the following: Jazz, American Blues, Rock'n'Roll, Folk music of Africa, Australian Aboriginal people's music, to name a few world music idioms.

This training is taught in almost every western music school including universities and private institutions such as the Juilliard School of Music or the Eastman School of Music in addition to covering such things as modes, scales, harmony, melodic line, analysis, counterpoint (both tonal and species) but also challenges the student with intensive ear training, sight reading, private lessons on one or more instruments, composition, and playing in an ensemble. Pretty darn near covers it all.

There is nothing missing in this training. If you understand it and you practice what you learn you will have all the tools to perform, compose, and debate anything written in the last 1000 years of western music culture.

Nothing missing ?

Well, if you were Robert Johnson, or Jimi Hendrix, or Miles Davis you might want to debate this.

I agree with Shevliaskovic in that some people have their blinders on and can not perform outside their comfort zone of what they were taught in music theory.

However, I disagree with Shevliaskovic, music is not evolution. Music history does not evolve in a linear way as to be predictable like a land walking fish. No music is after all art, there is no scientific way to explain how human art has changed because human creativity is neither predictable or static. Yes, to say loosely that music is evolving makes sense in that it is growing but the word evolution is too confining. Let's agree that music is a sky with no limit, and the practitioners of great music understand there are no limits or specific directions but only their passion to guide them.

Most people will need to see it before they believe it, but the wisest musician will be able see it because they believe it. You can not create until you see the vision you model in your head.

---- the prologue --

Theory or not to theory.

You don't have to go to Le Cordon Bleu to learn how to cook a hot dog or roast a marshmellow, however, if you want to truly cook up something exciting in a 5 course meal for 250 people, having knowledge and practice will trump theory only any day.

The best [musical] jams are served up fresh, hot, and spicy.

How much does experience factor into a great performance vs. only theoretical knowledge?

There are countless guitarists that have sold millions of albums that have no "formal" guitar training less college level music theory yet they perform wonderfully, creatively, and make lovely music. What gives?

Knowledge from experience, a knowledge that is not only in the musician's head but in this case his or her hands makes a difference. While theory is great as it accounts for how something "was" practiced, knowing the fingerboard and many chords and the ability to create new chords on the fly is something that only the practice can foster.

The X and the Y may have very easily learned by ear or by rote but it is what they practiced that gives them the edge.

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This best answered my question (FerretallicA was a very close second). I think the key concept that did it for me was the statement that music is art. As such, it must be subjective: what we (in the west) consider "music theory" is only one group's interpretation and formalization of what, to us, "sounds good". I know this is tangential to my original question, but I think the question came about due to deeper reflection about what music theory really is. –  oym Mar 11 at 23:27
    
Thank you for kind the endorsement, I must say there are many good responses here. One of the key points I omitted that others included: music theory facilitates communication with a language that has a wide audience. –  filzilla Mar 11 at 23:33

I would say that the last paragraph of your question is closer to the truth. I wouldn't consider knowing the names and shapes of some chords as knowing theory. I know for a fact that people can play very well with little to no theoretical knowledge, since I have friends with this ability. Theory wasn't there before music, theory is a tool to understand and explain music.

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I tend to intuitively disagree with the statement that theory wasn't there before music. The theory was always there, it just wasn't discovered and formalized. Just like the laws of physics have always been there. But perhaps the physics metaphor isn't the best since music is an art, and what "sounds good" is subjective. –  oym Mar 11 at 23:36
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@oym: Sounds like something for the Philosophy stack exchange... In practice, I believe that music evolved first, and the theory explains patterns that emerged. –  Meaningful Username Mar 12 at 9:20
    
Good points. You got me there. –  oym Mar 14 at 17:41

You don't really need to know music theory to play music. Just like @Meaningful Username said, theory is used to understand music, and also to communicate with other musicians.

Imagine someone trying to explain that he is playing in C major scale, but without knowing the name of the scales. That would be hard.

Also, just consider that there are people that have a 'good' ear. I've seen people without any music theory knowledge that just try chord progressions. They play a chord, then they play another and another and another, until they find one or two or three or any number that sound good together.

Moreover, I've seen people being restricted by music theory. I used to play with a pianist that had really really studied classical theory. That made him think only in that kind of music. He wouldn't even listen to anything that was different from what he knew from the theory. But music evolves.

Think how music evolved from classical into blues,jazz, atonal etc.People used to know classical theory, but they wanted to play something different from it. There wasn't any other theory. So they played what they liked / sounded good to them etc. Thus, they created a new theory.

In conclusion, don't think that people need theory in order to play music. You can really just play music with your emotions, and that is what makes music so beautiful. It cannot be restrained by any kind of theory.

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I can't agree with the statement that people become restricted by theory. More than likely that person would not have become a much different (and not likely better) musician without theoretical knowledge. The counter example would be some musician which produced great music until learning music theory, when results degraded. I know of no such example. Music is one of the few fields where learning all aspects of the craft is often frowned upon... –  Meaningful Username Mar 10 at 21:34
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@MeaningfulUsername most classically trained musicians I have played with (granted, that can't be more than 10 or so) had a hard time improvising. Once they break out of the restrictions imposed on them by their formal training, they are often incredible, precisely because of their knowledge of theory. But it is true that certain approaches to teaching can hamper improvisational ability. I remember having to tell a classical pianist to "Just play anything in A minor" to get her to play blues for example. Her answer was "What do you mean anything"? –  terdon Mar 10 at 22:39
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@terdon: If your sole focus is on performing other people's music to perfection, you likely won't be a good improviser off the bat. But these people weren't ruined by theory, they just had to learn another approach when improvising. While theory is not a necessity, it certainly won't hurt anyone. It wasn't the theory that made these people less than great improvisers, it was lack of knowledge about what improvisation is. And lack of practice. –  Meaningful Username Mar 10 at 22:47
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@MeaningfulUsername agreed, I just think that that is what Shevliaskovic meant. I have often been surprised that I (a middling amateur player with next to no theory) can improvise better than people who have been playing professionally for years. While their technique is way better than mine, they seem to lack the je ne sais qoi that's needed for impro. I think they may well be tripped up by an excess of knowledge. Once they get over that, of course their theory is an advantage and they leave poor me in their wake. –  terdon Mar 10 at 22:53
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@terdon: I can see your point. And certainly there is such a thing as too much emphasis on theory. I guess I get riled up by this subject due to people who won't learn theory since it would spoil their "pure expression". Which wasn't the case here. –  Meaningful Username Mar 10 at 22:58

I think the key point here is that when you're talking about knowing theory you mean "formal" theory. It may seem like pedantry but it's a crucial difference. With that in mind:

You can be a good performer without any musical theory.

You can not be a good musician without knowing some musical theory.

Speaking from my own experience, I've been playing guitar for about 15 years and never had formal lessons or learned to play 'properly'. It didn't stop me from becoming bloody good at what I do - enough so that I have formally educated professional musicians amongst my peers who look up to how I play.

It's only in the last couple years when I've wanted to improve my compositions that I put the effort into things like scales and how chords are constructed. What I'm consistently finding is that 99% of what I'm doing is 'right', I just didn't know how to describe it in formal terms. How is this possible? It's sure as hell not because I'm any kind of musical prodigy rewriting the wheel on the fly. It's because some fundamental things about music are universal. Whether you come to the understanding that a certain chord sounds good because you understand the relationship between the particular notes or because you've simply played so many wrong notes over the years that you know what works and what doesn't by instinct, the results are typically the same. A large part of music is patterns, both rhythmically and melodically, and if you play often enough you'll start seeing those patterns and can use them as a platform for exploring further musical ideas whether you know how to describe them in formal terms or not.

To put it another way, musical theory is largely an effort to provide a ubiquitous language that takes as much ambiguity as possible out of what is already a highly subjective discipline.

So sure, you can be a good musician without understanding 'formal' theory but it's really not ideal. For example when it comes to working with other musicians it makes things infinitely harder when you don't have a common language to communicate ideas with other than the music itself. When there's a room full of people and someone goes "alright that's sounding good but let's try to shift it to staggered triplets in phyrgian dominant with twin exhaust and turbo fox tails" you don't want to be 'that guy' who's scratching his head and needs to hear what they mean before you can kick into that gear (if you can do it at all).

There's also the compositional element I touched on earlier. When your knowledge is predominantly drawn from experience, your results will be limited by what you've already played. It makes it easier to fall into a creative rut or churn out a bunch of compositions which all sound the same. Or when you write something that you're really happy with, how do you expand on that if you're not really sure what you've done? Why does this particular chord progression sound happy? Why does following this chord with this note create a sense of finality whereas this other one creates tension? These are examples of things you can surely learn from trial and error, but it's a hell of a lot harder than it has to be.

All that said, if you just want to play covers shows or rock out in your bedroom to your favourite albums then forget all of the above. Things like a good sense of timing and solid technique are still preferable but you really don't need to understand musical theory at all.

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I was a classically trained violinist in college, and took graduate level theory courses.

I was also a rock and roll and blues guitar player who played almost entirely by ear.

I have been able to meet several well known rock and jazz guitar players and I always asked them if they know music theory and how it figures into their playing.

One guitarist, formerly with Frank Zappa, told me he knew theory but at this point he just "trusts his fingers."

The best answer to this question is that every musician must develop their own personal music theory, whether it be Bach or Hendrix. Or Bieber. Sorry about that...

That personal music theory, which may be your personal application of formal theory that you learned in college, or something you made up on your own, strongly impacts what makes up your personal "style." The bottom line is a musician works to discover what works for him.

One surprising thing I learned along the way was that more than one famous horn player in the era of big bands (and reading charts) couldn't read music.

If you know of someone who can't read music on a certain instrument, then you know they either don't know "formal theory" or can't apply it to that instrument, same difference.

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There is a useful analogy with human language. Learners of the first language almost invariably acquire mastery of that language, and some extraordinary individuals become extremely skillful in writing (prose and poetry) without the benefit of any overt knowledge or study of the grammar system.

If that doesn't settle the argument then how about a few "cases in point" from opposite ends of the musical spectrum. (a) Mozart at the age of something ridiculous like 5, (b) Jimmy Hendrix, (c) Robert Johnson. (Of course, I'm only supposing these people didn't study much musical theory.) On the other hand, if the qualification of "not know ANY theory" excludes what they can infer for themselves, then it's a stupid proposition in the first place and in order for it to make any terms you have to carefully define your terms.

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My apologies if I appear to have stolen some of this content, but I honestly did not read your post until I was done with my rant below. All the best. –  filzilla Mar 11 at 1:30

Unless you are writing a biography of X, I'm not sure why it matters. It sounds to me like your real question is about how important theory is for your own personal development, to which I would respond by telling you to learn as much as you can tolerate without letting your knowledge of theory become your definition of success. There are plenty of musicians who who can tell you the theoretical how and why while sounding like complete garbage.

Theory is a wonderful tool for understanding music in the same way that Physics is a wonderful tool for understanding the world. How important it is for a given person depends more on the person than anything else. Just get started. You don't have to have your growth as a musician completely planned out right now.

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I love really convoluted car analogies! Let's try one.

In this case, a car is a piece of music. All cars are made from the same basic parts, just like all music. And like all life skills, there is a "pyramid of aptitude" - everybody falls into one of the tiers of the pyramid.

  • Tier 1: Riding in a car (Listening to music) No skill required, babies can do it on day 1.
  • Tier 2: Enjoying a car ride (Appreciating music). Basic emotional intelligence required.
  • Tier 3: Learning to drive (Learning to play music.) Basic technical skills only required. Mostly done through trial and error and practice, practice, practice.
  • Tier 4: Driving a car (Can play most music easily).
  • Tier 5: Tinkering with your car (Improvising music.) You must have some understanding of some of a car's parts to do this. This is essentially primitive music theory.
  • Tier 6: Building a car (Writing music). Requires an understanding of the car's basic parts.
  • Tier 7: Building a concept car (Ornette Coleman). Re-engineering basic parts to redefine what a "car" is.

So what we're really talking about here are people somewhere between Tier 5 and Tier 6, people who have at least started composing their own music instead of merely being told what to play by a teacher or a book or by their ear and a radio.

All drivers in Tier 5 have a primitive vocabulary for their cars - "tire", "battery", "engine". Most musicians in Tier 5 have the same - "chord", "harmony", "rhythm". This is the extent of their musical theory knowledge. They can use these as building blocks for tinkering ("upgrade the tires" = "change this chord"), and given enough "tinkering", the end results from a Tier 5 composer are every bit as comparable to a Tier 6 composer, because the basic parts are the same.

In short, understanding every single piece of an engine might not necessarily produce a better built-from-scratch car than someone who just took a classic Corvette like the 12-bar blues and added on some cool ground effects, a paint job, and a new muffler.

And so I would argue that (back to the original questions) most of those "no music theory" great guitarists are Tier 5 composers with an excellent knack for both 1) identifying the classic Corvette underneath those ground effects and paint job and 2) learning some novel ways to tinker without having to build from scratch. So obviously they have some primitive music theory, but for the most part, I strongly disagree with some of the answers here that without music theory, they are not musicians and "cannot communicate" with other musicians. In fact, most Tier 5 artists find themselves inventing vocabulary for the tinkering they do (look up the etymology of "backbeat" or "walking bass", for example) which has nothing to do with formal music theory and everything to do with communicating musical tinkering to others.

And I would also argue that the only real value of moving on to straight Tier 6 is to evolve into Tier 7, where you can deconstruct what you learned in Tier 6 and build concept cars. But that's just me, there are certainly virtues to all education.

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A lot of people (guitarists in particular) know a bunch of chords, but they don't know music theory. Two very different things. These people usually know what C major, D major, G major, etc look like, and with a bit more knowledge they know how to transpose those chords up and down the fretboard, but they usually have no idea why C major is called that, or how to invert it, etc. They may know what the inversions of the chord are, but not why they're called inversions or how they are made from the original chord.

So yeah there can be great players that don't know music theory. You don't really need to know music theory to compose some good tunes or play along with some other people; but it does help a lot in several ways, one of which is having a common language you can speak with other musicians, as well as many tools to help you compose, improvise, arrange, etc.

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Anybody who plays an instrument basically knows something of music theory, whether they call it that or not, or whether they can explain it or not, at least they know it on an intuitive or a musical level.

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When you say "intuitive or musical level" I guess you mean empirically. Empirical knowledge of music is not music theory. Not saying it's bad or anything, just taht it's NOT theory. –  Chochos Mar 10 at 23:59
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well, a guitarist who plays IV V Is also basically knows the theory of that chord progression. –  Michael Martinez Mar 11 at 16:31
    
Not necessarily. They may know about the tension and release, but do they know why? Not that it matters much if they know why, as long as they know how to use that progression. –  Chochos Mar 11 at 21:29
    
@Chochos: nobody really knows why there's tension and release. You can always dig a bit deeper, but ultimately all music theory is just empirical analogies. –  leftaroundabout Mar 11 at 23:46
    
what? um, tension and release in the V-I progression: the tritone in the V chord (the dominant with its v-vi-iv notes; the tritone is vi-iv) is very dissonant and creates a tension that is resolved in the I chord, where the notes from the tritone change from vi-iv to i-iii. –  Chochos Mar 12 at 14:55

Ah yes, ye olde anecdote.

My grandmother smoked for 80 years and she lived to be 105!

Oh, hey, that's great! My grandfather smoked his entire adult life; unfortunately, I never really met him. He died, see.

You never have to borrow money! Just look at my uncle; he pays cash for everything, doesn't owe anyone a cent. Just put your nose to the grindstone and work!

That's truly remarkable, friend -- perhaps he could give some pointers to my cousin, she was side-swiped by a bus and can't feel anything from the nose down anymore. Perhaps a little Econ 101 would be really refreshing and challenging for her.

Countless musicians didn't need music theory to create good music! Why, just look at…

Okay okay okay, we get the point.

Here's the thing about everything -- 100% of the people don't agree 100% of the time, on anything, ever. People will argue that water is wet and that death is certain; maybe these people should be drowned, but I digress.

I do think that one must determine what works for them and stick to it in order to make the practice of music a worthwhile endeavor -- if it were not so, we wouldn't have so many genres as the result of people attempting desperately to have their own voice. So perhaps your voice needs more theory for you to properly find it; maybe you need more ear training to start identifying intervals, to grow your sense of pitch from 'imperfect' to 'somewhere near perfect'. Perhaps you are one of those who can play by intuition; in that case, what sharpens your intuition? I cannot tell you how to sharpen your own internalized instincts, nor can I guarantee that learning music theory or developing your sense of pitch will necessarily augment that. After all if one gets to A Certain Point playing guitar solely on intuition, what good does it do them to start talking about inversions and voice leading? They may not know how to express it, and even once learned it could be akin to forcing a centipede to think about which leg to lead with -- if they have to think about coordinating all those limbs instead of just walking, who's to say they won't just trip and fall?

So yeah, this is all really flowery and lyrical, and there's no hard evidence embedded here whatsoever, except that I would implore you to look at the wide range of people who espouse One Method for attaining One Goal, and then look at the differences in those methods. Is there a pattern there? Is there any common trait? Is it in the least significant?

What do you think?

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Firstly, what is considered to be having knowledge of music theory would be to have a pretty good understand of this article, at least: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_theory - Famous artists will say they have no knowledge of musical theory if they have never formally studied music. That would be a fair account, since studying music will not make you a musician any more than studying football can make you a footballer.

You can arrive at a very simple answer to your question by stepping back and thinking about how music theory came about.

Of course, before music theory, there must have been musicians ignorant of the concepts considered to make up music theory, since music is a natural scientific phenomenon. Many species are certainly capable of experiencing pleasure from music itself, with no concious understanding of it's concept or theory. The same must therefore be true for performing, and creating.

Studying music theory is not a prerequisite to mastering an instrument, practice is, no amount of studying can substitute practice, but studying enhances practice. Many find imitation is an enjoyable way to practice and to learn. Understanding music theory makes it easier to imitate, but many people can imitate just by studying other musicians or with trial and error or 'figuring it out', and a few prodigies can imitate just by hearing perfect/absolute pitch.

Music theory is actually a constraint, but imposing constraints is often used as a trick to boost creativity: For example, rapping without using the letter E. Many self-taught musicians that later study music theory have said doing so has helped them.

Of course, an instrument is a musical constraint in itself. People that struggle to 'pick it up' or just wish to accelerate their progress can certainly do so by studying music theory applicable to their instrument, since that will give them some structure for practising. Having structured practice increases repetition and focus, but it's the repetition itself that results in mastery.

Artists are more likely to name other influential artists when attributing their success, rather than recommend a book or school.

There's a Daft Punk track with a monologue by Giorgio Moroder where he attributes being a ground-breaker to freeing your mind from the concept of harmony and the music being correct. Often musicians that do something new or differently are the ones considered to be all-time greats.

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Guitar is one of those instruments that is easy to learn but difficult to master.

I'll use my own experience with the piano as an example. There are MIDI player programs out there that will show you exactly what notes to hit and when. Sit at a keyboard for a few hours with one of those running in front of you, and you'll be able to play basically any song. However, you won't learn the important skills of piano musicianship like key signatures and finger position.

So it can be a bit like that with guitar. It's really easy to memorize the chords for a piece and then be able to just play them. I'm not saying this like it's a bad thing, a shallow difficulty curve makes it easy to just pick up and play which is great if you're just looking for something that's fun to play and that it's possible to be skillful with the instrument with a tremendous investment of time and effort into practicing (compare with the violin, for which you might spend weeks practicing basic technique before you even begin to play songs and years before you're ready to perform). But the flip side is that this means it's possible to be a very competent guitar player but still an unskilled musician and composer.

If you want to truly master an instrument, you need a grasp on music theory. I don't play guitar, but I do play violin and my strings professor has said that music theory is what separates an "instrument player", a meat robot programmed to repeat memorized chords, from a true musician.

If you want to produce music, you need to understand music theory

But most importantly, understanding music theory makes learning an instrument a great deal easier. Putting your nose to the books really pays off in time spent practicing. The best thing I ever did for learning the instruments I now play (piano, clarinet, and violin) was look up books about them. Knowledge makes your practice time more efficient and it gives you insights into how to improve your playing.

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"Theory wasn't there before music, theory is a tool to understand and explain music."

I used to think like that but it's not right.

If you work through a piece applying theory to "understand and explain" it, the only thing understood and explained is how to make more of it! To create a loose template of some kind. So the theory was there before the music.

The first time a rock was banged against a log, music and the understanding of it came up together, neither preceeding the other.

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