I've been playing the guitar as a hobby since 2013 and have been gradually gaining familiarity with it by playing all kinds of songs.

At first, I simply tried to remember the fingerings by reading guitar tabs and spent tons of time practicing to build up muscle memory, so I can play my favorite songs to please myself. After some time I started to find it boring to play without understanding what I'm playing.

So I bought some guitar music theory books to learn. The theoretical ones of them mainly talked about scales, intervals, chords, modes, and so on, while the practical ones focused on fingerings and ways to easily find notes on the fretboard. I started to read staff instead of tabs and do the practices in the books.

I know those are important concepts in music, but I'm still kind of confused on how to use them to facilitate the understanding of the structure of songs. Also I'm not pretty sure to what extend should I practice them. How can I get over this?

  • 1
    Are you playing in any bands/ensembles? Much much music have you written yourself yet? Commented Nov 3, 2022 at 8:10
  • @leftaroundabout No, but I was in a band as a drummer when I was in college. I never write music, just playing songs
    – Qing
    Commented Nov 3, 2022 at 8:21
  • I'll warn that knowing your scales/intervals/chords/modes aren't that helpful when attempting to understand the form of the song you're practicing. Quite often, if the entire song stays in one key throughout and isn't all that uniform chord progression-wise, these won't help you locate the verses, choruses, bridge(s), or sometimes any solo(s). (The solo(s) may actually be the easiest to locate due to them generally being more florid, with shorter average note lengths, and more difficult to play than other sections.)
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Nov 3, 2022 at 12:13
  • 1
    I’m not sure this question is on topic because I think the answers are somewhat subjective. If you want to understand guitar, learning as many songs from as many genres as possible is probably the single best focus. If you want to understand music, then studying music theory (without the word “guitar” in front) and learning a second instrument will have a huge impact. In terms of your next step, first you have to tell us what your ultimate goal is. Commented Nov 3, 2022 at 12:28
  • 1
    The rather haphazard and varied nature of the current answers has confirmed my concerns that this is on the subjective side. There are so many areas of music theory that there will never be a single answer to what to learn next. Adding on to my comment about music theory no centered on guitar, I suggest this resource: viva.pressbooks.pub/openmusictheory Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 3:01

5 Answers 5


You need to study harmony, not just theory. An analogy of sorts is that theory is the alphabet and grammar but harmony is literature.

With harmony you learn the functions and qualities of chords and how they relate to and interact with each other. You will learn about basic to advanced chord progressions. This knowledge can be used to study, analyze and better understand music you already know and why things either work or they don’t. It will also help you make educated choices for creating your own music if you choose to take that path.

  • would also help you understand what notes two or more people can play with you - for instance a bass player. The bassist in ACDC often plays the thirds leaving root and fifths to the guitarists. Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 9:19
  • @bigbadmouse Yes, inversions and slash chords are an important part of knowing harmony. Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 21:50

I know those are important concepts in music but I'm still kind of confused on how to use them to facilitate the understanding of the structure of songs.

A word of caution first: music is what sounds good. Music theory is similar to grammatics in that it describes how to create something that "sounds good" in certain rules like grammatics describes in rules how "correct language" is formed, but both, music theory and grammatics take what is actually the case - actually spoken language here, actually created music there - and try to explain what has happened with these rules post festum.

And, quite similar to language, what people think "sounds good" changes over time like the way people express themselves in language. Study those rules, there is wisdom in them, but ultimately "listen to your ear".

There are two main parts of music theory: harmonics and counterpoint. The first one deals with what (which tones) sounds good together. The second deals with how to create musical development. The emphasis of the first is on the static aspect (what do tones sounding together do to each other), the emphasis of the second is on the dynamic aspect of musical occurrence (how to go to there from here).

A small digression. Suppose you read a romance novel and it goes like this: man and woman meet, they fall in love and live happy ever after. This doesn't sound all too interesting, no? Now, how about this: man and woman meet, they fall in love, but they have to overcome a lot of obstacles, the chances for them seem almost zero, but finally they are successful and, having found each other at last, live happy ever after. Better, yes?

Art - and music is no exception - is generally like that: there are certain expectancies of the audience and if you always fulfil them it becomes boring. If you always betray them it becomes arbitrary. But there is a happy medium of sometimes adding tension and sometimes releasing it, that makes a piece of art interesting and pleasing to watch/hear.

In music the most basic development is "going away - coming home", "create tension - release it". Try it yourself: play a C-major chord on your guitar, then a G7. Your feeling will be that there is a tension and you "crave" for hearing another C-major chord to release it. Why this is the case (among many other things) is explained with rules in harmonics. (For this specific instance: see "leading tone".)

I hope i could interest you in the further study of music theory, best of luck in your endeavours.


An understanding of music theory is pretty much a must for any serious musician, even a guitar player! If you want to be the guitar player that can add something to pretty much any band in any setting, the guitar player that gets called to play live gigs, the guitar player other people love to play with, you should:

  • know what chords exist in every common key
  • know what notes are in common chords (major, minor, 7th, etc.)
  • know what notes make up every common key (its scale, accidentals)
  • know intervals, what they sound like and how to play them
  • be able to read a chord chart
  • be able to transpose a chord chart (in a few minutes or, better, on the fly)
  • know chord functions in common keys and how to notate them (I, vi, V or 1, 6, 5)

Yes, that's a lot. Just start with one step and work from there. I suggest starting with a common guitar key (G is a good one) and learn it inside-out. Learn the G major scale, and all the chords in the key. Know the chord functions in the key (C is the four chord, and D is the five [dominant] chord). Know common chord progressions in G: C D Em G = 4 5 6 1 = IV V vi I.

Reading music is a plus, but 99.9% of guitarists won't need that skill. You can go far with an understanding of chords and scales, and the ability to read a chord chart like a boss.


...The theoratical ones of them mainly talked about scales, intervals, chords, modes, and so on...

I can just imagine it. Endless scales and modes. Charts for each one on different tonics. Charts for matching scales to chords, etc. etc.

I think you might find you beginning theory efforts easier if you think in terms of two principle broad realms: general first terminology and notation, and second relative relationships.

The first is things like time signatures and note values, key signatures, interval names and chord spelling. Basically objective stuff you need to know to talk about music with some precision.

The second part is about understanding musical movement in relative terms. So instead of specific chords like G7 Cm, F7 B♭m, etc. you think of V7 i the dominant and tonic chords of any key, root change by descending fifth, G7 adds a minor seventh to a G major triad, or that minor seventh is added by dropping the root a whole step, Cm is just a change to the third of a C major triad, etc. etc. You eventually think/see/hear/finger mostly as interval changes. Root changes by descending fifth, not G to 7, the seventh of the dominant seventh chord falls a step to the third of the tonic triad, etc. etc.

...I started to find it boring to play without understanding ... After some time I started to find it boring to play without understanding what I'm playing.

One of the most practical things you can do to alleviate that boredom and immediately start learning patterns through actual playing is transpose the songs you already know through all keys.

Guitar presents a particular conundrum when it comes to transposing. Some transpositions are trivially easy on guitar, because you can just slide up/down the neck one fret at a time. Don't transpose your songs that way. Instead transpose by fifths and fourths.

Obviously this will first seem like just learning new fingerings, but when transposing songs pay attention to the interval relationships and which notes/strings are which chord members/scale degrees. Eventually there will be a merging of interval knowledge on the fretboard and common musical patterns. Theory gives you terminology to talk about these relationships and significant patterns.

Transposing is a fast track to this knowledge, because instead of thinking specific chords like G7 Cm transposes to F7 B♭m, your theoretical understand of what that progression is in relative terms is more like this: take any bass tone (you don't even need to give it a pitch letter name), play a major third and minor third above that bass (you don't need to know what the letters are), now move the bass down a perfect fifth or up a perfect fourth, and move the third up a half step, move the seventh down a whole step, as a bonus if I want to change the mode of that progression from minor to major the seventh moves down a half step rather than whole step.

It's very, very wordy to say, but it should become second nature to play. When you can play it and can name all the parts, all the relative relationships, that's your performance "muscle memory" enlighten by theory so you will be "understanding what [you're] playing."


To me it sounds like you look for a broader context and stimuli. If so, I'd like to suggest two books for further reading. Though the topic is Jazz music, they provide a lot of things to try and think about in any genre, on any tonal instrument.

The first one is "How to Play from a Real Book, for all musicians", by Robert Rawlins. It's compact, goes through even more details than you've mentioned, like comming up with bass lines, or forms. I.e. all concepts and "tools" you need to understand and turn the (in)famous Fake Book notations (or your own song-fragments) into real, lovely songs.

The second one is "jazz theory, from basic to advanced study", by Dariusz Terefenko. It's a bit overwhelming, but good to read and try, whenever you're reday for a certain chapter. Having started with drums myself, trying the material presented in this book really made me understand and use harmonies on piano, keyboard, synth, Hammond organ clone.

The first one is a kind of bird-eye view with very practical emphasis, while the second one is very detailed, nerdish if you like. Both talk about what you can do with chords and scales, and how successful solutions to certain challenges looked like.

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