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I have been playing the guitar for many years yet I find music theory elusive. Consequently, my musical vocabulary is limited. But I still love to improvise and, through trial-and-error, compose music that I think sounds good. Sometimes I get lucky.

I'm wondering if there is an approach to learning music theory by applying it to my haphazard composition "technique." For example, I would love to be able to collect an assortment of chords and scales that are theoretically compatible, and then experiment within those constraints to build a composition. I have the Guitar Grimoire and some other resources, but I find their scope too broad and intimidating. I would prefer to "dial up" a set of tinker toys in a particular key to play with, for lack of a better analogy. Where would I start?

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    Based on your comment to Kevin's answer it looks you want to learn theory without actually studying theory? I guess I do that sometimes by learning songs I like and trying to figure out why the artists do what they do when writing a song. You won't learn the names for everything but you'll see a lot of different techniques in action. – Charles Oct 7 '14 at 13:37
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Find an article or book about music theory. When you read about a new concept, put the book down and improvise with the new material you just learned.

I'm doing this myself right now. I never actually learned many typical rock or traditional Western harmonies, preferring to use modal chords and exotic modes instead. A few days ago, I realized this was something I'd like to change, so I went to a local bookstore, looked through books on theory, and picked one up that covered harmony in rock. Now I'm going through it, playing the chord progressions on my piano and occasionally stopping to improvise a song with some of the chords and ideas I'm learning about.

Likewise, I need to learn about Celtic music for a project I'm involved in. I bought a book about how to play rhythm section in a Celtic band, and as soon as it arrives, I'm planning on reading it in the same way.

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You can learn theory by ear training. Playing songs just by ear and learning them is learning theory by instincts. But you couldn't communicate with anyone what you know verbally. People like Hendrix or James Hetfield from Metallica are known not to have any training but used their ears for composing or improvising music. They gained a huge vocabulary of musical phrases and songs to come up with ideas of their own that are theoretically correct by most standards.

But if you want to understand what you are doing then you need to get lessons or read material, hence learning theory. I don't think theory is essential if you have a great ear, but your curiosity will drive you to find information on it.

  • +1 but one thought. Theory should be used to describe why something sounds good, not what is acceptable, so your comment "theoretically correct" does not sit well with me. I definitely understand your meaning though. I just hate when people think of theory as rules because they are only rules when you are trying to replicate a specific style, hence the theory behind Classical and Jazz being almost entirely different. – Basstickler Oct 7 '14 at 18:33

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