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This is a question that not many musicians even want to touch. How do you learn music theory when you have a learning disability that makes it near impossible to remember specifics. I can barley remember dates. Doing basic math is almost impossible. I can't remember all the scales or keys or where they are even at on the neck of a guitar. Trying to remember all the variations of cords doesn't work because there are so many. I can only remember or know where to play by the sound of the note. I have taught myself but i cant communicate with other musicians or understand half of what you all know, and no other musicians want to play with a learning disabled person, who wants to play with someone on a permanent learning curve. It I barely graduated High School and had to drop out of college 3 times because i can't make it past basic algebra. I just can't remember most of it. Is there any kind of music theory for people with dyslexia or dyscalculia?

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    Hi J.P. I'm fascinated by your question. A couple questions of my own: 1) Are you able to remember labels associated with sounds? (For example, does your learning disability allow you to hear a major chord and associate it with the word "major"?) 2) How is your tactile/kinetic learning/memory? (For example, could you learn and remember a sequence of dance steps? And as more of your body is involved, does that help or hurt the learning/remembering process?)
    – Aaron
    Sep 21 at 2:38
  • How well can you learn music by ear? (You already seem to imply that you can learn music by ear.) Maybe a more reference song-based course may be better for you.
    – Dekkadeci
    Sep 21 at 3:14
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    Um. . . there are whole branches of music study for to this subject. You should seek a professional teacher who specializes in it. Sep 21 at 3:43
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    I'd respectfully say that for you, learning and knowing the theory will be of little use, as you say it's unretainable. Many good players manage to play well, with little or no theory. Just play what you enjoy, and that will give you and hopefully others plenty of pleasure. Let the music do the talking!
    – Tim
    Sep 21 at 8:05
  • Do you have a learning disabilities or just poor memory? This sounds like some sort of physical disability that is impairing your memory. Dyslexia if diagnosed does not make learning impossible, teachers just need to be aware of it.
    – Neil Meyer
    Sep 22 at 20:35
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To answer your main question first: no, to my knowledge there isn't a unique curriculum or approach with learning disabilities in mind.

There is a vast spectrum of learning disabilities, and you probably know best what techniques and approaches work best for you. There's one piece of advice, though, that helps everyone when learning theory, and all the more when it's challenging: As much as possible, ground theory in practice.*

By which I mean: Don't just read it, don't just memorize it, unless you also play it, sing it, or hear it. Don't just read a textbook; have the book open and play everything you read.

This is important for everyone—it makes what you're learning "real," helps you remember it, and helps you connect it to music you play. But also, for many people with learning disabilities, musical performance is one “loophole” in an often hostile academic environment. Many students are able to excel in band or orchestra class in ways that they can’t in “core subjects.” If this is true for you, then the more you connect the abstraction of music theory to the actual sounds of musical practice, the more you will succeed and retain. In other words, don’t just read about diminished chords and know what they look like, but play them as you learn about them and know what they sound like.

You tagged this question with “guitar,” so I assume that’s your primary instrument. It’s certainly good to apply the theory to your primary instrument, but I also encourage you to try it on a keyboard as well. Many things like chords and intervals make more sense when there aren’t different strings involved. I always did my theory homework with the help of a $20 Casio keyboard from the thrift store, and all my friends always wanted to borrow it because it helps so much.

You’ve gotten some advice suggesting “why bother studying music theory.” I assume, since you asked the question, that you either want to or are required to for some goal. There are definitely rewards from learning theory, and practical benefit to playing. At the same time, since theory explains what we do in practice, I would work on playing first, and prioritize understanding why we play the way we do second.

* Disclaimer: I'm not trying to set up a theory vs practice dichotomy or imply that pure analysis is invalid. Though I will gladly imply that there's plenty of reason for a non-performing analyst to work “out loud,” just as there’s reason for a scholar writing articles about Shakespeare to perform monologues to the mirror if not on stage: you understand a work of performing art in a new way when you perform it.

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    +1, if only from the end of para. 2! That is so important for everyone learning theory. My comment was considering understanding and retention - I'm sceptical that those factors will help theory, so spending that time on more practical pursuits could be better. In fact, seems that that is the case for thousands of guitarists already!
    – Tim
    Sep 22 at 8:53
  • @Tim Right, and the other part of the conversation is that one "learns" some theory subconsciously through practice (also just by growing up enculturated in a tonal world). Play I - IV - V - I enough times, and then when you later learn about predominants and dominants it's just putting a name on something you already "know." Sep 22 at 12:39
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I feel your pain. Well, not me, but my wife certainly does. I think the advice to not concern yourself with theory is a bad one. While you can certainly do many things and even write songs without knowing a bit of theory, you will run into big problems if you ever want to explain your creations to someone else. You don't have to know how to read it, but you should at least work hard at trying to speak it correctly.

I agree with the advice of trying to train your ear rather than your mind (same thing, actually). But as you train your ear, you should be aware of two things that are essential to understanding music theory - the intervals of the major diatonic scale (whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half...) and the circle of fifths. For the guitar, you can probably get by without the circle of fourths, but it would be helpful as well.

With these two simple concepts (and the more difficult by far is the circle of fifths), you can lay yourself a foundation for the language of music. From these simple concepts you can jump off into modal scales, chord constructions, written music, and almost unlimited areas worth exploring. Or you can just discover how many songs rely upon only the major scale and nothing else.

First, grab a convenient frett and learn the major scale pattern from there. People like C, but you can use A or E or anywhere you find it easier. Think of a piano keyboard if you need a reminder of the pattern while at your instrument, or write the intervals down and look at them in front of you. The pattern is short. Then, try taking that major scale pattern and start on a different finger without adjusting the position of your hand or the notes you are sounding. This is the basis of modal theory. Every note has its own "scale" and "color" even if the pattern never changes. Or try moving the pattern to another starting frett on your instrument (there is no correct starting point), which is the basis for key.

Just a few suggestions that might help you overcome your challenges.

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