I have seen people who can play instruments well, but can't:

  1. Read sheet music.
  2. Do not know anything about music theory.
  3. Do not know the structures or rhythms of sound, acoustics, or the such.

I have, on the other hand, studied music theory for a few days/weeks now, multitude of hours (dedication put in, yes), practiced on piano playing software (I can't afford instruments) that mimics horns, drums, guitars, etc. I even tried other interactive, software-powered musical programs.

All in all, I have tried digital piano keyboards ... I can't seem to "create" music, and I have loads of trouble "understanding" how to play well.

The best I've done is play "twinkle, twinkle, little star", and some of "The London bridge is falling down".

I want to be able to play songs well that I like, and one day (possibly) create my own small music/songs. However, I am puzzled at how some people lacking obvious knowledge of music theory in all angles can adapt and formulate tones, music, and rhythmatics from existing songs, etc.

I have a brother who does just this ... never had a good piano lesson, never studied in any way, shape, form, etc. Give him a guitar, piano, etc., and he can play well, just from the fact that he has experience playing.

I have tried "just playing" without knowing the instruments, but I can virtually never play good music; not of any kind. Is there a secret or something?

Why can some "just learn" music without learning theory well, etc.? Is this dependent solely on the person's brain? Should I throw the towel and just admit this isn't for me?


16 Answers 16


Sounds like you are trying to intellectually and analytically "understand" music. In my opinion, this can be done to some extent. Just like you can intellectually understand language and grammar, and use that understanding to write poems, novels and short stories. However useful it might be, it isn't really necessary to write great stories. What makes a novel interesting is the more vague concept of 'feel', which can't easily be systematized. Some people grasp this without any formal grammar knowledge, either intuitively, and/or through lots of practice. Just the same with music; purely intellectual music can be technically interesting, but not more than that.

I'm a mathematician, and have a knack for logical systems. As yourself, I've used an analytical approach to learn music. So for many years, I've been improvising and playing based on what is 'logical' and/or technically interesting (and some times intentionally breaking those 'rules'). But lately I've more and more discarded this logical paradigm. Using it only for practice sessions. Instead I try to "let it happen".

My point is - and I don't know if this applies to you - that a purely analytical approach to music can somewhat miss the point. Theories and analysis can help you to control what happens - a kind of 'safety net'. These can be very useful in learning to master the instrument. But the real joy of playing and sharing music is to let go of control, and be free and honest here and now, in the moment.

That being said - mastering an instrument takes time - so don't give up. Find exercises and pieces you enjoy playing at the level you're on right now. Enjoy playing twinkle twinkle, and make your own jazzy balkan-metal version of it if you feel like it. Good luck, and have fun!


Why can some "just learn" music without learning theory well, etc.?

Because learning theory is not necessary. Consider singing, or child prodigies, it's a fallacy that you can become an expert in anything before you even start practising it. I feel that anybody that starts anything with theory, is doing it the hard way. Start by trying. Studying theory at the instrument is alright, that would be marginally more exciting than theory in a classroom.

For example, you can study physics, motion, inertia, dynamics, geometry etc all you like, it will not make you any better at football, neither will studying other players, watching games and post-match analysis, categorising skills, abilities, statistics, anything. You might certainly get tips, inspiration and motivation, but acquire no skills without actually practicing.

Everybody you know who is good at playing/creating music, famous or otherwise, only got so good because they enjoyed it. You should only throw in the towel if you do not enjoy it.

You need a real instrument. I bought a cheap guitar once, it was unplayable, even friends that were good on guitar refused to play my guitar, they hated it, if they got no enjoyment from it, how could I? I didn't learn guitar.

Piano however; my grandparents gave me their Lorenzo electric reed organ when I was very young and a load of sheet music but all the notes were numbered as was the keyboard, and I was able to play songs without learning how to read music score.

You can get some toy synths that are useless (e.g. inadequate polyphony), but for not much more, you can get a real instrument. Or you can start simple. You can get a diatonic harmonica with "how to play harmonica" book at very little cost, Silent Night always sounds awesome on harmonica. If you really really enjoy it, you will soon be saving for a good chromatic harmonica.

There are many youtube videos that show you how to play. You can learn to play something a bit cooler than Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Imagine for example, that's quite easy. It's easier to learn to play music that you have heard many times, too.

Once you can play one piece well, you will be thrilled. Progress in whatever way you find effective and enjoyable, learn theory, even, you may even understand it then.

If you want to write, most composers find this easier at their instrument, even if they're going to punch it into a sequencer later (or transcribe it) because you need the instant feedback from the experimentation, free play and creativity, personally I find it easier to work from lyrics, with lyrics, the melody soon comes, then once there's a melody, the chord progression is just there, everything else falls in to place, it's difficult to explain, particularly when I don't know the theory behind it. To me, the theory would only describe what I composed, but not the process or approach that I took.


Music theory is not music, it is a way of classifying and describing music. It is "metadata". Being conversant in the metadata is not a prerequisite for being a musician. That said, someone who plays music well certainly understands music theory on some level, perhaps intuitively. They may not use the same terminology as you to describe what they are doing but they recognize and work from the same musical patterns that a music theory would describe.

In any case, when someone picks up a guitar and can play without any formal training, it's because they have an ability to recognize patterns: the tonal patterns and how these correspond to the fretboard patterns. For the most part this is basically a native talent, but as long as you are not tone-deaf you can certainly make great strides yourself with the right teacher. It sounds to me like you've been trying to teach yourself, but what you really need is a good teacher to guide you along.


Definitely don't throw in the towel. Everyone is different. Some amazing musicians have no grasp of theory at all, but over time they learn what sounds work and what sounds don't.

For most of the music I play, theory is unnecessary - but it helps once you have some physical capability.

So I could, for example, play basic rock chords in a 4/4 rhythm and it would be fine.

Or - I could understand that I can use Dorian and Mixolydian in a solo, and create a bridge that varies from the rule of fifths, and generally build a better tune.

Or - I could just try things and some would sound fine.

Those folks who have no theory may have more of an affinity for notes, melodies, chords or progressions - which is fine.

The best option is to have that and theory (in my opinion) - I have a bit of theory, and a lot of practical experience, and wish I had learned more theory when younger as it takes a lot of effort at this age.


You last question is a non-sequetur. The question of whether or not you do something has nothing to do with how easy it is for others to do.

The question before you is whether you want to put in the time and effort to bring yourself to the level you want to be at. I have seen people with great natural talents squander them because they didn't care to invest the time and effort it would have taken to bring them to the level they felt adequate; and I, myself, who much like you am someone for whom almost everything in music came hard, decided that the extraordinary effort it would require of me was worth it, and so I put in the epic number of hours. I'm not talented: I'm the poster child for practice and hard work.

So the question is where do you want to go, musically -- that is what do you want to accomplish -- what will it take to get you (not anybody else) there, and are you willing to do that?

I used to have frequent occasions for a conversation that went like this:

Random fan: You play so awesome! I'd never be able to play like that.

Me: Can I ask you how old you are?

RF: Me? I'm 20.

Me: Do you think that when you're 40, you'll still want to play as well as I do today?

RF: Well, sure!

Me: Well, I started studying an instrument at the age of 6. I'm now 26. It took me 20 years to learn to play like that. I know that sounds like a long time, but just think! If you want to be able play like I do, start now: and then when you're 40, you will!


Lots of people have natural aptitude to something - be it swimming, painting, playing football...

Those lucky enough to have it in music will be able to just play.Maybe not brilliantly at the start, but progress is usually good,

Getting to know the instrument is paramount.Theory not so. More later. With a complete beginner, I get them used to the instrument,how it makes sounds, how they can affect those sounds, making up their own ditties, etc.No music to read, certainly.Only when they are totally happy with making their own noises on the instrument will written music come along - maybe.

My theory on theory is that it explains what happens. As in the practical part already exists before any theory can be attached to it.You can't theorise without something tangential to hang it on. In other words, theory didn't come first, so it shouldn't be tackled first.Most players who have experience will glean theory on the way - it should become apparent that certain patterns work most of the time, etc. Humans seem to be programmed to see patterns - once bitten, etc !

In your musical journey, try to play by ear initially. If this works, move forward. If it's hard work, you probably need a teacher (a brilliant move, anyway), but some people can only play from music, once they have learnt.It's a fact that some rely on the dots totally. This makes them great pianists, guitarists, but somehow maybe not great musicians, as they will be able to produce only what already exists. The difference between a reader and an orator, maybe ?

Don't give up because others are better and quicker than you - we all learn at different rates.

  • 2
    I disagree with this somewhat. The way I'm wired, I've always been interested in why music sounds the way it does, and as a result, in theory. As a result, I quickly started composing music, and whenever I played on an instrument, my greatest strength was understanding what was going on in the piece, not having good technique. If you tried to teach me music by having me play an instrument for a while before showing me a single note on paper, I would have been very bored and disengaged.
    – Kevin
    Commented Feb 23, 2014 at 1:33
  • All this to say: To each his own, so I disagree that focusing on playing by ear and developing good instrument technique is the best path for all or even most musicians.
    – Kevin
    Commented Feb 23, 2014 at 1:34
  • 1
    Whilst agreeing somewhat with your comment, that some people will need to know why things happen,the OP was attempting to understand why people who play with NO theory can actually do so.Disagree or agree, if the answer to the original question is in your comment, use it as an actual answer.
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 23, 2014 at 7:42

Your playing abilities are currently basic. Music theory is about as helpful to you as a thorough knowledge of some language's grammar is to somebody who knows about 100 words in that language.

How can any kid talk better in that language without even a clue of the underlying grammar?

The point is that a grammar is something that emerged along with the language itself. It's good for deducing things about the language and structuring the way you learn and understand it. But someone having read several dozens of books will still tend to be able to write a better speech than somebody having read a grammar, even though he won't be able to explain what he does.

You'll probably progress a lot over time and be able to play much more complex stuff. The difference between a "natural speaker" and somebody with an accent will, however, show itself more with the simple stuff. Once you proud yourself at playing some pretty complex stuff, try playing "Twinkle, Twinkle, little Star" again. More likely than not, you'll be annoyed how hard it is to play it in a pleasant and natural manner, with a nice phrasing and pacing.

Music theory is like a grammar, being able to read music is like being able to read a book (rather than have to learn a language just by listening). Both help you working "offline", without interacting with other musicians, for acquiring skills. But music is not a dead language: your real level of mastery will develop when you interact with your instruments and other musicians. You can prepare yourself to make this more effective.


I suspect the answer may lay in the way you go about learning to play.

Notice I didn't say "learning music". I think the term "play an instrument" is absolutely appropriate, because it is literally play : creation, imagination, "what if" scenarios, no limit on what you can do. You can play any note you like, however you like. No right and wrong.

If you want to learn to 'just play' then the best way is to 'just play' anything.

This isn't as empty a statement as it sounds : What will happen is you'll 'find' things that work, establish 'points of knowledge' (not sure how else to put it) which you can re-use and begin to understand how the notes of chords and melody can fit together. Doesn't matter what you play : covers, your own thing.. just play and see what you find.

This is NOT the same as learnign from a book ! If you go about things this way you'll eventually discover the chords and scales - they're all on the instrument waiting for you.

Admittedly some help from music thory etc shortens the learning curve, but I think there's a big difference between learning a chord by its shape (eg from a book or course) and playing it so that you understand what it feels like. Especially if you've worked out the notes in the chord yourself through just mucking about.

I've overstated my case a little bit here just to make the point- Music theory does of course have huge value and learning from books helps to get you going. But if you want to "just play", then what I say here may be of value.

Ps. This is how I started learning 25 years ago - still am learning - and I love it !


Excellent question. It's because these people learn to play by ear, they learn how to use music as a language of its own, and usually this learning process is done by listening, imitating, noodling and experimenting. Doing that enough will get you to a high degree of proficiency without needing music theory. There's also probably an element of having a "musical ear."

But don't dismiss yourself. Anybody who has an interest in music can find a role to fulfill. In your case, I would suggest a good teacher (a pop or jazz teacher) who can teach you how to play by ear and improvise.


Talent = intuition. Skill = (effort + attention) * time. Talent can somewhat reduce the time required to build skill because it means that you have to pay less attention to the craft but it's not necessary if you have the determination.

I've known a lot of talented people over the years and I felt like I couldn't keep up. I've learned over time that I don't need to. They eventually lose interest or fall into drugs or whatever and if I've been working on my skills I'm out on top. That's not to say I value myself only relative to others but that it doesn't matter what others can do. Your ability to keep going will trump "talent" over any appreciable time. Mastery is a marathon not a sprint.

I think the most important thing when learning a skill is to find the fun so that that it takes less determination to get over the initial hump. Learning at its best feels like play. People with "talent" I think are more able to find the fun early on. They can feel the patterns in things that others struggle with.


Some people just have a good ear and had an opportunity to start playing at a very early age. They have an instinct to respond to music around them and it is like a language. Many blues players have no idea how theory works and are amazing. James Hetfield who wrote all that complicated music admitted he can't read or write music in an interview that I once read. I can only think he had a drive that only few have and an all or nothing approach to play and write. What's funny is how people try to analyze compositions with theory when the composer was not thinking about theory.


It's just a myth, forget it, it's 99% false.

Every good musician have their own music theory, sometimes they just don't care of others point of view on music theory because they already play their instrument well.

Trying to imagine for example a talented jazz/funk bass player who doesn't understand what are tonality, modes, chords is just a non-sense, even if such a player could have different words to name these music theory concepts.


How is it possible for unlettered musicians to excel?

First premise: Music is created and manifests itself in real time in sounds generated among people.

Corollary: Notation is not music, but the record of music. Music theory is not music, but rather a systemized way to analyze it.

Second premise: People tend to attribute to musical experiences both emotional and intellectual value. My sense of how humans generally value music leans heavily on the emotional side, though I have known individual exceptions whose regard for music is almost exclusively intellectual.

Therefore we can understand a person with an almost entirely emotional connection to music and making music, putting in the time to learn the features of an instrument, to sing, and to compose music. The fact that the person is not concerned about or constrained by intellectual standards lends an element of freedom to that person's effort that better schooled musicians must reach for.

Like others struggling to answer this, I believe there is value in both the emotion-based and information-based approaches to learning and making music. As I acquired more theory, it was frustrating me to work with unlettered musicians. When I called for certain chords, or spoke in terms of chord relationships, I would get a blank stare. Then I noticed that these players often left me in the dust when it came to ease and expressiveness.

I would not want their lack of certain knowledge to have deprived us of Irving Berlin, or Paul McCartney, to name just a couple of the very sort of person your question refers to. And for you, who has been striving to access music through the intellectual side, I urge you to set that aside (just for the moment!) and listen to your musical heart. Playing is play, to paraphrase Peter Brook. Take your right brain out of the drivers seat for awhile, and give your left brain the wheel. Maybe that will get you over the hump you are facing. And you can always switch drivers again when you need to.


Well personally for me I've been playing guitar4 months Now with no previous experience with instruments and I'm actually giving lessons too others. I play constantly and can learn most songs in a good 2 hours and master them by 4. It's all about practice practice practice. I write my own music as well and I tend to make up the best stuff when I'm not even thinking. Instead just let the music flow through you. Dont think just Play. Recently started learning piano and Ukalele as well.


I hope this helps . It appears the definitions are quite loose , however it was explained to me when beginning classical guitar lessons the objective was to make a guitarist that could play any technique, to then make a musician and hopefully to nurture a compositional side.

A musician seems to be a person that can read and write music . They can play music from ear with feeling with others and additionally play music by reading music sheets on multiple instruments without hesitation. This is likely a musician

An instrumentalist is someone who plays an instrument . A trained instrumentalist eg drummer/ guitar/piano/oboe player etc..should be able to write music, play music with feeling by ear and additionally play their chosen instrument by reading music from sheets without hesitation.

An untrained instrumentalist is someone who usually cannot read or write music but may understand and practice patterns chords and scales of music they may like to make some really pleasant sounds

Eg Paul Mcartney is a song writer of popular music. Glenn Gould was a pianist Yo yo ma a cellist Mozart was musician Evelen Glennie a percussionist


Many many people who support theory do so with bitter resentment towards those that have an ear. You wont ever get a straight answer from them? nor will you ever figure out the puzzle as to why some can excel far beyond even the most intelligent music theorist. We are born with what we are born with. Like it or not.

I have always believed that with art? if you apply too much theory you destroy the gift. and for me? that is what music is. A gift. Someone can be taught only so much and if they lack the ability to go beyond that. This is where the anger and bitterness comes in with all of these comments about the absolute need to learn theory you need to recognize a lot of it is jealousy or simply flawed thinking based on how our society is structured and approach education.

Art is destroyed when people try to control it. an artist is born, not created. Many artists are ruined as they are taught theory.. some artists can see it for what it is and just use it as a tool to expand on what they are gifted.. but just like everything we do in life people have a tendency to believe they have all the answers and are on a self imposed mission to spread that horrid thinking on others. Doesn't make them right.. far from it..

You do NOT need music theory if you have an ear for music.. and the choice should be yours. If music doesn't come easy for you? Learn theory. Music is a wonderful part of life and anyone can be taught 'some' of it to a degree. If it comes easy? make the decision for yourself long after you developed your own mastery of various instruments and theory can help expand that and make things easier in some of us. I have never met a person that can approach music with such passion and precision as I can.. and I have and will continue to avoid theory for the remainder of my life. I enjoy my gift and it works. Listen to the birds outside your window, listen to the sound of thunder, lightning, rainfall. If it makes sense to you? Theory may just take away that gift and replace it with a regimented bland reality that turns it into a mechanical boring hum drum.. the fun will forever be sucked out of it.. Every attempt I made was like cold water being thrown in my face and diminished what I felt replacing it with an assigned value.. The Art was destroyed.

Art is a gift.. If you don't have a gift for drawing or playing music? you can learn the science behind it and catch enough of a glimpse of it to enjoy it.. but you are either born with it or you aren't. Dont believe everything people sell you. We all think we have the answers. For me personally? Theory destroys the art and passion and replaces it with cold numbers and symbols. I pity the 90% that force their views on others. They mean well? but are sadly mistaken.

  • 2
    So having an idea of what you are doing destroys the art? Theory doesn't try to control or dictate anything it just tells you what something is. Not if it is good, or bad, or anything else. Even by ear you'll come across theoretical ideas and though what you like and don't like and you'll create your own theories whether you like the idea or not. Theory and practice will always be intermingled.
    – Dom
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 1:01

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