For hobbyists who don't plan to write songs, is it worth to invest their time to study music theory rather than get better at playing?

I sometimes wonder how given piece is it structured, especially when chords are complex, dissonant but somehow sound right. I feel it would help me to learn the piece faster if I could mind-map or name things I play (how is A#5 or Bb7(13) related to key of C?) - it doesn't even have to be correct name of a chord relationship.

Or should I jump in and learn harmony just for that? I am worried that this will might be an endless (and possibly pointless) journey for my needs. I sometimes think that harmonies I see just give color over a melody which keeps the piece together.

I wish I could just tell shades of 'pink' from shades of 'blue'.

  • The answer is yes.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 16:34

3 Answers 3



For one thing it's much easier to memorise a piece if you understand the theory behind it.

Imagine memorising a seemingly random sequence of letters. Now imagine how much easier it is to memorise a poem, because you know how the letters fit together to make words, the words go together to make lines, the lines have a rhythm, some of the words rhyme, and the sentences have meaning.

It's just the same with music. It helps to know when a chord change is conventional, and when it's more unusual. It helps to know when a chord change or a melodic element is going to come in, if you understand the rhythmic structure of the piece.

How, and in what form, you learn the theory, is another matter. If you have a certain kind of mind, it's possible to self-learn a lot of musical theory, without knowing the academic names for the things you are learning, simply by working your way through a canon of music (for me it was the Complete Beatles songbook) and observing things. Later you'll discover academic terms that apply to the nameless things you've learned.

However, working through a good book on theory is probably a faster way to get the same knowledge into your brain, and you can communicate with other people who know the terminology right from the start.

Just as you can enjoy a poem, and write poems to some standard, without academic study of literature; you can enjoy music and create music knowing only what you've learned from singing nursery rhymes. But the more you know, the more tools you have to either make music-making easier, or to allow you to do more sophisticated things.

  • 1
    I think that's a poor analogy. A person can memorize a poem without knowing the 'theory' of literature. You needn't know about metaphors, assonance, symbolism, alliteration etc to understand, appreciate or write poetry. These are language tools that we hear from the time we are born starting with nursery rhymes, they are ingrained in our culture and familiar well before we ever learn their names. This is analogous to music theory, we hear musical conventions everyday, one does not need to understand the theory of what a V I cadence is recognize its sense of finality and use it effectively.
    – Fergus
    Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 2:08
  • You know some of the "theory" of literature even if you've not been taught it. You do need to know about metaphors to understand, appreciate or write poetry. You might not need to know it's called a "metaphor"! You find it easy to remember it's "I think that there will never be / a poem as lovely as a tree", not "I think that there will never be / a poem as nice as a bush" - because you know the former rhymes and scans. Will add something about this.
    – slim
    Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 11:48

I would say it depends on what you like to do. If you're playing sheet music as written, you may not need much theory. However, if you want to improvise at all, it's pretty necessary. I've been playing sax and flute off and on for many years, and now jam with some friends on weekends. We play miscellaneous rock/folk/blues/jazz with opportunities for solos often. I've just started learning some theory (which is why I found this forum), and the chords we play are just now starting to make sense. My playing has been improving significantly since I started learning the theory behind it and what scales go with what chords. I found a great book--Edly's Music Theory for Practical People. It's short, to the point, and fun to read. It's also cheap.

  • 2
    I'm playing with a guy at the moment who has very little theory. He struggles to name chords. However, he's one of the most tasteful players I've had the pleasure to play with - hears something a couple of times, and plays some great stuff of his own over it. He wants me to teach theory, but I'm reticent. It won't necessarily make him play better, it may hinder as he will be considering what's going on behind it all. He obviously knows his instrument, and that works well for him.Django Rheinhard had the same syndrome - it didn't stop him.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 8:58

I've been playing guitar for about 7 years and when I started I made a point of learning the theory from various websites.

I learned every mode of every scale and how to construct any chord, but haven't gone much further than that because my studies and work take up a lot of my time, but now I have the theory so ingrained in my brain that I can just listen to any song and pick up what key it's in right away, and play any note I think of right away. Then I play around with the pentatonic scale and various modes and play with different patterns of playing each scale or mode.

So to sum up learn the theory really well, so well that you don't even have to conciously think about the theory when you're playing but just know that you are applying it automatically.

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