48

Music theory is cool. However, I've noticed that a few genres of music tend to discourage it. I just read that learning music theory "seems like the antithesis" of being able to improvise.

Apparently, having the equivalent of a doctorate in music can actually be a disadvantage if you want to get hired as a conductor, because they think you're too theoretical.

Is there anything about learning music theory well that slows down your musical capabilities?

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    I reckon the paranoia could be from both sides! – Tim Nov 30 '16 at 16:23
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    It should also be noted that learning theory is hard work and we should not underestimate how much of anti-theory sentiments just have plain old laziness at its core. – Neil Meyer Nov 30 '16 at 16:37
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    I actually found music theory study to drastically increase my abilities in improvisation. – veryRandomMe Nov 30 '16 at 23:41
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    This is certainly one question that has woken us all up. When it actually defines exactly what 'music theory' is, we'll all look at it slightly differently. My view has already changed somewhat. +1. I reckon musicians aren't quite as polarised as suspected. – Tim Dec 1 '16 at 9:57
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    This has produced more interest and answers than any question for a while. And someone wants it closed?? Of course there's an element of opinion, but that could be construed for a lot of questions/answers here. There's also a lot of objectivity to it, that should count on this site. – Tim Dec 1 '16 at 14:39

19 Answers 19

53

tl;dr People don't like it because they don't actually know what it is.


There has been and will always be a stigma against music theory and studying it. Some of the reasons I've heard on this very site are:

  • Music is artistic and no theory can explain art.
  • It makes you think rather than play.
  • X musician doesn't know theory so I don't have to.

There are many more arguments and while I could counter each and every one, it outlines a problem that needs to be addressed. The biggest problem is people don't understand what music theory is. People take or see an intro music theory where your hand is being held to learn and compose a certiant style and it scares most people away without them seeing a bigger picture.

Music Theory in the simplest is the study of what works and what doesn't in music and mainly focuses on tools that help you get there by dissecting a piece of music. The tools that you are given help by formal Music Theory really help in this aspect with the only flaw being they are specifically geared for a specific era of music and while it lines up pretty well with most current ones, it's not a exact. The theory itself won't tell you if it sounds good or bad to you, but it will give you the tool and terminology needed for you to find if in a more objective way.

So while there is a formal path for studying the subject, simple things like someone listening to a song and figuring out what you like and what you don't is also music theory. Every musician I know does this even the ones that speak out against theory, just the ones without theory have a much more round about way to get there/describe it.

Most people only equate music theory to an intro class that focuses on the classical era which most modern types of western music are rooted in, but there is so much more. There are pop, jazz, blues, and rock music theory classes and books that focus much more on modern songs and deconstructing them so people can learn what works and what doesn't and even focuses on slightly different types of analysis that are better geared for them. People who study music theory in depth eventually tailor their ideas towards what they find works and what doesn't using what they learned as a foundation for this and utilizes this in what they compose.

This to my knowledge is the only subject that has this problem. Even in other artistic fields like film and art the study is extremely important and no one complains about that affecting the artistic value or creativity of them.

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    I wonder, since this site is 'Music, Practice and Theory', whether we in fact have a clear definition of 'Theory'. It means many things to many people - as the answers are starting to reveal. Maybe without that definition, we're a little in the dark? – Tim Nov 30 '16 at 16:17
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    X musician doesn't know theory so I don't have to. I have heard that one as well. Usually the X in question is Jimi Hendrix or Eddy Van Halen. – Neil Meyer Nov 30 '16 at 16:38
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    Interestingly though, both Jimi and Eddie did know a lot of theory, they just hadn't done much (if any) formal training. But they sure knew theory where it was relevant to them. – Doktor Mayhem Nov 30 '16 at 19:35
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    @NeilMeyer - I recall reading an interview with Van Halen back in the 90s in one of the popular magazines aimed at guitarists... any notion that he doesn't know music theory was completely dispelled by that. He may have taken a non-traditional approach to learning it, but the idea he therefore doesn't understand it is completely skewed. – Periata Breatta Nov 30 '16 at 19:38
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    @Dom It's great that you had a good college professor, but many people will have already been given misconceptions by a poor teacher / book / website at a much earlier stage. – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 1 '16 at 9:24
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The issue with music theory is the same issue science runs into. It is easy to presume that it defines rules for what sounds good at what does not. It is easy to think that is what it does, and if you do, you'll develop the hatred of music theory that you see.

With both music theory and science, one is not trying to define what reality is. One is not trying to define what sounds good and what sounds bad with music theory. One is not trying to define the laws of the physical universe with science. What you're trying to do is develop a model for how music works (or how the universe works) which you can use to make future predictions.

If viewed in this way, music theory and science are running to catch up to reality. They're constantly evolving, coming up with new patterns. I guarantee you that if you showed Mozart the current music theory for how jazz is constructed, he'd call you a lunatic and keep producing the sounds he knew. And he would probably even be right... because what people thought sounded "good" has changed over the years. People didn't want to hear Blues or Jazz in his time.

The trap that both music theory and science face is the moment you say "That can't work, because my theory predicts it can't work." That's when the theory stops helping you and starts imprisoning you. That's when it earns the ire many musicians give it.

If instead, you say "That can't work according to my theory, so if I want it to work, I'm going to have to stretch and expand my theory," then music theory is a brilliant addition to any musician's vocabulary. It may even give you hints as to what direction to look. If you have some massive dissonant chord you want to slam your listener's ears with, music theory may suggest ways to shake up your listener and get them ready for your chord-de-triumph.

Or maybe you have some rockin' guitar solo you want to shred, but you need to figure out how to convince your audience to open their minds and hear the pure-soul you had in store for them. With a proper application of theory, you might be able to play your squealing guitar solo without having to follow it up with, "I guess you guys aren't ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it!"

11

I think the main issue is the perception of its meaning, as others have mentioned. The perception that many seem to have is that theory is a set of rules to live and die by. The reality is that music theory is a couple different things and can be applied in a number of ways. Music theory is a language and an explanation, not a set of rules. It only becomes a set of rules when you are trying to replicate a specific sound/genre/composer. If you're trying to compose Baroque music, then you should be following its strict guidelines or you will be unsuccessful. It's possible to accomplish this without knowing the language itself but incredibly difficult within that particular setting.

Theory is a language because it gives us words to express what is happening. We call it the note A because of theory; we call it a major chord because of theory; we can refer to beats and rhythms because of theory. I mean, I'm kind of misstating it when I say because of theory because that is actually theory, or at least a part of it.

Theory has given us terms to use so that we can communicate with each other, even if it's just some rock guys that don't "know" theory saying, "play the A major chord on beat 3 of the 2nd bar". That's still theory and wouldn't exist without the extensive development throughout history.

Theory is also an explanation to tell us why certain things seem to work nicely where others don't. Consonance and dissonance are used as tools to have a sense of tension and release within a song, such as the V-I cadence sounding good because of the leading tone having increased dissonance, desiring a resolution to the tonic. This is made stronger by adding the 7 to the V chord since that creates increased tension with the tritone between the 3 and 7 of the chord (scale degrees 7 and 4 respectively) and the desired note of resolution for the 7 of the V chord is the 3 of the tonic. This is an explanation for why those things sound good and work consistently.

Depending on what you're doing and where, theory can feel like a burden, specifically if you're thinking of it as a set of rules, especially if the theory that you learned doesn't apply to the style of music you're playing. The voice leading rules for Classical music don't properly apply to Jazz, in fact, it's arguably impossible to use those rules and accomplish a traditional Jazz sound because of the differences between the genres.

The argument that music is art and therefore theory should be disregarded is nonsense. No one is able to play music without some amount of theory, even if it's just abstract. Most people learn names of notes and chord types and I'm sure Jimi Hendrix, the classic example of a successful musician that didn't know theory, was able to say what note or chord he was playing, even though he wouldn't know why it sounds particularly interesting when someone goes from C major to Ab major (the answer is borrowing the Ab from the parallel minor).

So I think the main cause of discouragement from the subject has to do with the thought that theory is rules. Any band I've been in where someone didn't know theory, we had some difficulties talking about certain things, which made it harder to accomplish what we were going for. We were able to work it out without theory lessons but if we all had a common language to discuss things, it would have gotten rid of the ambiguity of describing things based on some abstract concepts that we all think of a little differently. I consider myself a theory geek and use it just about constantly. I don't feel bound by rules at all though, since I understand that theory is not law. I use theory to give me ideas about how to approach something differently, like choosing to play a different bass note to create linear motion and smooth out the bass line, or potentially changing the chord entirely. It allows me to think of ways to transition from one song to another without stopping even though they're in different keys and I don't have to play through 20 chords to figure out the pivot chord that will work best to accomplish the modulation. Theory gives me a lot to work with to come up with new or nontraditional ideas. This works for me because of how much I enjoy theory but I understand that it gets in the way for others because they are then thinking about theory instead of focusing on the art of it all and that's fine. For those people, the approach to learning theory is best described as learning all the "rules" so that you can forget them while you're playing or break them while composing or improvising, or learning the language so you can better communicate. Theory can be used differently by everyone but I think everyone can benefit from learning some amount, if only because of the ability to communicate with your collaborators.

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I think the "no theory" viewpoint is often a reaction against poorly taught and applied theory. I've met plenty of musicians who've learned some theory at school. They know what a subdominant is, and they can explain Dorian mode perfectly. But they have no practical connection between those concepts and the actual music they play. The theory, if you can call it that, loses all connection to the practical.

In my opinion, this is a flaw in the teaching process. Unfortunately, people often leap to the conclusion that the theory itself is useless.

To combat this, I believe that we must always teach theory in a way that is deeply connected to the practical. If we're going to talk about cadences, don't create a big worksheet with lots of 'fill in the blank' style answers, and leave it at that. Get some music out. Listen to actual cadences. Then analyse the notes. If the student sees no practical application of the theory, they will come to the conclusion that it is useless. If we perpetuate that error, we're not helping anyone.

Theory is great, because it helps us communicate. It's great because it stops us having to reinvent the wheel. It's great because it allows us to add structure and order to our analysis. I could go on. Whilst you can certainly play without knowing any theory, why would you want to? You're missing out! If the theory is done well, it can only make you a better musician.

Now, I have referred to 'overtheoreticised' questions on this site before. I think it is worth fleshing that idea out a little more. Theory is useful when it comes to musical communication, but we must use it as the audience understands. Otherwise we're just using big words with no meaning. If your band understands that A in the key of G is really a secondary dominant, call it that. But it might be better to just call it an A. If we're not careful, we can perpetuate the idea that theory is just a bunch of useless jargon.

As a related point, sometimes the wrong theory gets applied. Is there any point analysing a pop tune using Common Practice era theory? I'm pretty sure the vocal parts will contain all sorts of 'wrong' bits. Does that mean the theory is rubbish? Of course not; you just used the wrong tool for the job. A contrived example, perhaps, but I think it's a contributing factor to the viewpoint that music theory is useless.

Now, I know there are many teachers that do theory well. I'm not intending to tar everyone with the same brush here. But I do think we should be aware of the risks of teaching badly, and do our best to correct these errors before we reinforce this myth that theory is useless.

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Is there anything about learning music theory well that slows down your musical capabilities?

None that I can think of.

Music theory is cool. However, I've noticed that a few genres of music tend to discourage it.

Only the poor kind tends to discourage it.

Apparently, having the equivalent of a doctorate in music can actually be a disadvantage if you want to get hired as a conductor, because they think you're too theoretical.

Utter tosh, I don't know of any kind of conducting you will be able to do without a sound theoretical knowledge base.

It all factors in as to how music is perceived by the general populace. The average Joe really wants to believe that there is some sort of inborn qualities to a musician, something he or she lacks that makes doing music impossible for him / her.

People also do not want to believe that you can study music in a scientific manner. It is all about your God-given talent and where the muse takes you.

People do not want to believe that if you work at it and educate yourself in its operation, that you can become proficient and skilled.

The reality is fortunately much different. There has been literally centuries worth of investigation into what makes music sound good. A good theoretical education is nothing more than learning the results of all that vast amount of inquiry.

You are fortunate enough to live in an age where all the great music of the past is available to us. Music teaching is widespread and often (but not always) of a good quality.

Why people refuse themselves such an education really baffles me sometimes.

In the end, I subscribe to the premise that all people (and children) can learn music. No-one was born with talent where others were not. There are only those who decide to educate themselves and those who decide not to.

In every child there is a little Beethoven just waiting to come out.

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    There's still a huge distinction between someone technically proficient in theory and someone who can artfully apply it though, just as the same applies in any form of art. Anyone can learn to write music that sounds technically ok, but there's an art to making it really speak eloquently that requires a knack for it. This is often a lot more obvious in the visual arts where people generally have a somewhat more consistent view of what looks good. – AJ Henderson Nov 30 '16 at 19:49
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    You lost me at "Only the poor kind tends to discourage it" - that's 100% subjective. – user2808054 Oct 24 '18 at 16:11
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I like to compare music theory to composition "rules" and color theory in the visual arts. All arts have a degree of commonality in form that form a language that people generally understand, whether by instinct or culture. They are the basis by which we communicate and understanding them is very helpful to expand the tools you have available to you.

Just because one doesn't study music theory doesn't mean they don't use it. Some people have a natural affinity towards understanding the way to communicate through their medium subconsciously, others have the creative artistic nature, but lack understanding of some elements that can be used to accent what they are communicating.

I think the threat that people tend to see is that they fear that rigorous application of theory will result in a cold and calculated work that feels dead. There's a lot of accuracy to that thought process. As a sound guy, I much prefer a musician that I need to teach the technical to than a technician I need to teach the music to. A perfect application of rules often does produce a boring and disinteresting end result, but I'd also argue that isn't proper use of theory.

Part of a good understanding of artistic theory is to understand when one should break from theory to accomplish your intent. There are really no hard and fast rules in the arts. There are times when breaking color theory or music theory or composition is more effective at conveying your meaning than using them. They are simply the regular structures and patterns that are useful in your toolkit as a creative artist. There is no danger in understanding them, as long as you keep them in their proper place as one tool available to you to use, modify or discard as appropriate.

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There are already some good answers here, ranging from simple laziness to trying to institutionalize art.

My experience comes from the institutional side of things because I never saw the connection between theory and practice while I was taking lessons. It was just a pointless exercise that I had to do in addition to the fun part of learning mostly self-selected pieces.

When my family moved, we never found another instructor, and I stopped playing altogether...but I did teach myself how to run the 24-channel Mackie analog sound board in my new church's youth building. It was all hand-me-down equipment from the main sanctuary, and no one really knew anything about it including me.

A bit of trial-and-error, and I got to where I could get a good sound fairly quickly with a live band, plus fulfilling the musicians' requests to adjust their monitors and sometimes fighting feedback from the house or from a monitor. (like most small-to-midsize installations, the Front-of-House and Monitor Engineers were one and the same) Several years of internet articles and YouTubes later, I can:

  • Just take off running on any analog sound board that I happen to find.
  • Figure out the menu system of a new (to me) digital sound board within 30-60 minutes and then run with that, thinking of it as a "folded" analog board with a vastly unreasonable amount of useful features if it were actually analog.
  • Clean up any random-flailing-to-just-get-something messes that I often see from people who really have no interest in theory but insist on being directly involved anyway. (or are forced to be involved because everyone else flatly refused for fear of letting the magic smoke out)

Only later did I realize that I was actually seeking out theory in regards to art. At the time, I just found it fun and wanted to be good at it.

So I guess you might compare my understanding and use of a sound board to Jimi Hendrix's understanding and use of a guitar. No formal training, but the theory is definitely there, and forms the foundation for everything else.

If I had seen that during my formal lessons on piano and trombone, I might still be playing today, but it just never crossed my mind. So I'd consider myself back to square one now on those instruments, just like any other instrument that I've never touched at all.

It's not a complete waste though, because I can recognize the structure of a song and predict where the band is going. This is useful for any part of the band, including:

  • Musicians (obviously)
  • Sound guy in case different sections need slightly different settings (guitar up for a solo and back down, or backup becoming lead)
  • Lyricist so the audience/congregation can read them with enough confidence to sing along strongly
  • Lighting for different moods or energies
  • Etc.

One more point:

My success at sound is because I saw the value of theory and actively sought it out, not realizing until later that that's what I was doing. But I don't think you can argue that point and convince anyone. It's just something that a student has to "catch" on their own and pursue on their own. If they ask for help, then by all means help them, but it can easily kill their interest to use any kind of force.

5

Kid grows up playing power chords on guitar, kid take a course in music theory, teacher tells kid parallel fifths are forbidden, kid thinks music theory is crap.

That's my 'in a nutshell' version of why people are turned off by theory.

So, I expect many will think I'm suggesting 'rules' turn people off. Wrong. It's the (usually) unmentioned style context of music theory. Many theory texts are European Common Practice oriented with some modernism and maybe jazz tacked on at the end. The texts may have an introduction explaining the style context, but the rest of the book, or it's application by teachers, will be along the lines of 'most of this stuff applies to all tonal music.' How it does or doesn't apply kind of falls through the cracks, and the implication is your non-common-practice music will be assessed by common-practice standards.

I think the other thing that turns people off of theory is the harmony-centric focus with the usual progression from basic diatonic to 'advanced' chromatic harmony. It creates the impression the pinnacle of great music is complex harmony, even better if it's complicated counterpoint. This kind of approach doesn't offer much to explain why a simple song can be great. That can turn people off, because it seems dismissive of harmonically simple, but very good music.

  • I laughed so hard at your first paragraph. Interesting thoughts and observations. – General Nuisance Jan 24 at 22:29
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People are actually afraid of academia.

Music theory isn't itself going to hinder your creative process, but the way in which it is taught might. In my school, most theory professors had some sort of complex about a 4 year music program being perceived as an easy degree. As a result, they make the material more difficult than necessary and absolutely will not permit deviations from the rules, such as "no parallel 5ths", even though the Bach chorales upon which our coursework is based has occasional examples of such.

This type of forceful adherence to the "rules" of music can become so ingrained into the student's mind that it becomes hard to break tradition, and as consequence, will only be able to write period music until they re-learn to break those rules. Unfortunately, in scholastic circles, this realization that all the music they learned to write in school essentially sounds the same leads to extreme departures from any musical guideline, form, structure, etc... Thus, you have what academic circles know as "contemporary music", (contemporary meaning since the late 1800's). No joke, once I finished theory 4, we began composition I learning how to make "music" by rubbing keys on concrete and then notating it on manuscript.

So, theory itself doesn't corrupt your creativity; it has more to do with teaching it as if it is the only way to write music, and punishing departures from the rules. Self-taught composers often benefit because they think of theory as a tool, not the whole toolbox.

  • That first paragraph interests me. And the last one. So then is a music degree, you think, not always the best way to pursue a music career? – General Nuisance Dec 9 '16 at 16:36
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    One of my favorite composers (Nobuo Uematsu) writes music that clearly demonstrates his understanding of counterpoint, but he apparently never attended university. So, I'll say this; school is a resource where you'll attain all the skills and knowledge you definitely need, but at the same time you'll meet many other dedicated musicians, friends, and instructors who will help you in ways other people cannot, and who may work with you in the future. – James M. Lay Dec 9 '16 at 23:54
  • Just as an example, one of my recent gigs was a paid gig producing the music for a video game. The people I worked with? Computer science students that I met in college while I was getting a degree in music. In fact, this group of friends works everywhere from LucasFilm to Telltale Games, and I met them all at school. Not to mention, whenever I need a specific instrumental part recorded, college gave me a huge network of talented session instrumentalists. Just remember when learning theory that the rules can be broken as long as you understand why the rules are there. You'll do fine. – James M. Lay Dec 9 '16 at 23:58
4

Through my career I saw a lot of people shy away from music theory for a couple of reasons:

  1. It is boring to learn and their mind will explode - this is the problem with existing teaching materials. There are excellent videos, however, on YouTube that teach theory in a fun and easy way.
  2. They are afraid that theory will kill their natural instinct and sound - Did you have a friend who, for example, loved rock music, went to music school and came out hating anything but jazz?
    • Theory does not just teach tools, it teaches opinions: "While moving perfect fifths on the fretboard has power, the more sophisticated way are 4-note chords..." Though in reality there are things that work in a context.
  3. Music theory is not yet developed in certain genres - If you are listening to 20 seconds of music, your mind will comprehend the rules and patterns of the song - and you could imagine how it would continue. Take for example this song:
    - here after the first repetition you would feel that a IV-V-I chord progression would not make sense anywhere, or it won't have a catchy chorus with bass drops. If they did it, it would break the song's own structure and rules. How to construct this song and how to approach the composition... Good luck in finding material for it.
  4. They are simply not curious - Some of us like to understand things and are hungry for more knowledge about the inner workings of music. Some just want to experience music by playing it, e.g. if all you want to do is playing covers in a cover band, it is an absolutely valid thing.
3

Perceived Threat

At the broadest level paranoia is a form of fear. And, music theory is the study of the practices and possibilities of music. Thus, we fear music theory because we fear that study of music threatens us in some way.

As for what triggers this fear I would offer that, this is rooted in the historical attitude of academic music theory to approach music in a formalized way. Music practitioners who don't or won't describe their art in formalized terms will be left out of a formal approach to music theory.

Take for example the use of sheet music in western classical music theory. Because of the fact that music was historically not a fixed media artform, academia was forced to use artifacts like the written score to study music theory. A vocabulary was developed around the artifact (sheet music itself) creating a "cult of the written score" as described by Adam Neely.

This use of sheet music is a benefit in that those who understand it have a shared vocabulary. However, it excludes many practitioners whose experience is not readily described within its vocabulary. This exclusion is perceived as a threat. It can be wielded or perceived as a tool to bring people together or as a wall to separate.

As for whether studying theory slows you down. Think of it like learning a foreign language. Our first language sets the neural foundation for what phonemes constitute language. Every language we learn after that is colored by that foundation so there is a tendency to speak with an accent. Additionally, we learn things faster and more completely during "super learning windows of opportunity“ driven by regulatory genes. Learning music earlier rather than later will set it as part of your foundation. This applies equally to western classical music theory, other formalized music theory and non-formalized music.

However, our foundations create a tendency, not a guarantee. Whether this tendency becomes an advantage or disadvantage depends on how we use it. Some adult language learners are able to sound more native than others as do some who come to music later.

3

Is there anything about learning music theory well that slows down your musical capabilities?

Definitions and sets

Partly, it depends on your definition of 'music theory' - whether, according to one's definition, the term 'music theory' covers all the knowledge one can have about making music, or if you consider that only some of the knowledge you can have about music comes under the label 'music theory'.

If you are of the opinion that 'music theory' is only some of the set of musical knowledge, then clearly it's possible that, for a given musician with a given set of goals, they'd be helped towards those goals more quickly by leaning more of the non-'music theory' knowledge than by learning the music theory knowledge. In that sense, if you consider the opportunity cost of learning the music theory, it's clear that learning it would slow you down.

Of course if you consider 'music theory' to be any knowledge you can have about music, that wouldn't make sense - it depends on your definition.

The value of the Beginner's Mind

It's not necessarily true that more knowledge makes you better at something - the idea of the 'Beginner's Mind' is often valued when it comes to creativity. Of course some might say that this is simply a state of mind, and one that can still be achieved in the presence of knowledge, but nevertheless, one can see how it might be easier to achieve with less knowledge.

Introductory courses often don't give you the bigger picture, and may even obscure it to an extent by not telling 'the whole truth'.

To quote Dom -

People take or see an intro music theory where your hand is being held to learn and compose a certiant style and it scares most people away without them seeing a bigger picture.

But that invites the question - why are so many introductory music theory courses not good at leading people towards the bigger picture?

I honestly think that a lot of beginners music theory material is lacking in context and often has a - perhaps unintentional - presumption towards certain styles.

  • You have to start somewhere. You can't teach calculus without teaching someone algebra first. Music theory is no different and why not start with the basis of most modern music. Also about your second point you can't have absence of knowledge in music unless you've never heard any. You will form is ideas based on what you've heard which is the point of my post. – Dom Dec 1 '16 at 1:26
  • @Dom taking concepts and building on them to make more advanced concepts.... sure, that's a thing - in music and in other subjects... I don't see why you think I think it isn't :).But does common music theory teaching actually succeed there? You've said This to my knowledge is the only subject that has this problem - why do you think that is? – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 1 '16 at 9:36
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    It's worth pointing out that calculus teaching suffers from a highly analogous problem, namely starting students off with the awkward and intricate "epsilon-delta proof" in the name of perceived rigor, rather than a more intuitive approach of infinitesimals. Having also had a bad experience with a Eurocentric, rote pattern-obsessed music theory class, I relate to the issue from both angles. Students would benefit from more relatable and less narrow "entryways" in either case. Neither "must start somewhere" nor "No True Scotsman" arguments about the meaning of theory address this. – bright-star Dec 1 '16 at 20:40
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    @bright-star Though it's a more general point than the one you made, the thought did occur to me that maths does suffer from a similar problem - kids being taught stuff that may not be 'the stuff they need to know', in a way that is often lacking context and may be hard to relate to. The advantage it has over music is that the maths exam may be seen as a lot more important, so kids struggle through anyway! – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 1 '16 at 21:18
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    More of the general public, who are not musicians and don't even play themselves, have more "knowledge" of music theory than you might think. Unfortunately, this mostly gets down to being able to read music and understand some basic tonal chord progressions and perhaps 4-part chorale style writing. After that, they think they know theory. There are many, many books marketed to beginning musicians and people who are curious about theory, and this is where it ends. In math, people know the concepts go way beyond Alg I. Most people would not dare say "I know math" after completing after Alg I. – Heather S. Aug 31 '18 at 9:04
2

"You found the right person for to talk to on this party! I have a PhD in communications and another in English grammar! I'll be telling you what every word you say to me means!"

Great. In other words, the problem is not a solid grasp of music theory. The problem is viewing it as a substitute rather than an asset for the practical work with music.

Biomechanics are nice, but they are not all that important to know about for taking a walk. Or if they are, chances are that you are really handicapped.

  • This is a complete overstatement of what the theory actually is. Complete lack of music theory is more like always responding randomly to what is asked. You can here the sounds, but when trying to convey what you want it's always going to be a challenge. – Dom Nov 30 '16 at 15:49
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    @dom you missed the point: the problem is not theory, its the use or assumption of theory as a replacement. Music theory really does have nothing to do with music as an act, just as knowing pluperfects are or even that pluperfect exists has little to do with your ability to verbally charm friends and woo lovers. But Theory always informs our actions. – Yorik Nov 30 '16 at 19:43
  • @Yorik see my answer which is the core of my comment. People don't view it the same way which is why the conflict arises. It's never meant to replace practice or apply a one-size fits all rule to all music. Some people overstate it, some understate it both are problems as it's why it's almost impossible to discuss with other musicians. – Dom Nov 30 '16 at 19:56
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    But this answer is neither an over or understatement, it is a reframing of the problem to begin with. – Yorik Nov 30 '16 at 20:35
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All music theory is at least somewhat opinionated. It isn't just about objective facts about "what works", but also, inevitably, a lot about the theoretician's opinions. Sometimes more so, sometimes less, but it can't be avoided entirely.

Now this is of course itself an opinion, but I'd say that in classical music, a lot of theory has been written without much concern for objective truths. Rather, more as a performative act in itself, the theoretician's attempt to put his personal stamp on music history.

Even when they just teach someone else's theories, in my experience music theorists favor those theories which put themselves in a good light. And in one sense, we can't complain about that. They have to teach what they are familiar with and believe themselves.

The problem isn't really that there are opinions, but that they're institutionalized opinions. Opinions liked by a professor, who became a professor because his opinions were liked by his professors, who was liked by his professors etc. And in this academic pedigree there may be some whose reputation was instead rooted in broad popular success as performers or composers - but that's all the input from outside their world there is in classical music theory.

So, I know some people will be wary if you say you have a PhD in music theory. What they will be thinking is probably something along the lines of, "Oh man, which cult-like school of theories is this guy into? Will we be playing micropolyphonic pieces all day long?".

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In my own experience, learning theory has helped me become a better musician. I have studied theory in one way or another since the age of 3, when I started learning to read music. I knew all my major and minor scales and chords by the time I was 8. Knowing the terminology helped me communicate with musicians who were more advanced players than I was. Theory opened more opportunities. When I was in high school, I was asked to accompany a small baroque ensemble and was suddenly thrown into making up a part based on a bass line with figured bass. I had a 5 minute crash course on figured bass. I wouldn't have been able to make heads or tails of that if I did not already know my intervals, chords, inversions, keys, or what "diatonic" meant. Theory has helped me be a better performer. In jazz music, it helped me focus my choices in improvisation. In classical music, it particularly helps with being able to identify where the melody is and where to accentuate tension, etc. As a composer, no matter the style of music, understanding voice leading can help one write better lines that make the music more understandable and enjoyable for the performer.

Despite all that, I have heard from other musicians, even some composers, that theory is useless. I have heard two main complaints: 1) it is boring, 2) it kills creativity.

Analysis is boring! Rules kill creativity! That is not a problem with theory, but rather a problem with how it is taught. I love theory and have a natural affinity for it, so I didn't mind when it was taught in a boring way. I was making the connections in my own mind despite the class. However, in college I was taught theory in an analytical way, where we broke apart pieces into all their little bits or examined disconnected exercises to identify all the non-chord tones. This turns making art into a chore.

Where I went to school, theory was taught as rules. "This is how music sounds good." Rules kill creativity because they can cause one to think that, in order to write well, one must do as the "book" says. Fortunately, this was not my inner reaction to theory. I am one who enjoys learning by observation, so regardless of the situation, I like to watch how other people have done it before trying it myself, with my own take on it. That is how I approach theory, but I can understand why others might see it as a step-by-step manual.

Theory is descriptive, not prescriptive. It only tells us how others have arranged notes. It does not tell us how we should arrange our notes. If enough people are doing the same thing around the same time, a pattern for an era develops. Unfortunately, these patterns of development are often taught as rules about "how music works." I prefer to think of it as "music arranged this way creates this effect." Composers continue to discover new ways to use notes to create new effects. If one understands that theory only describes the development of music, one realizes that theory expanded through the centuries and is still expanding.

I teach music theory to high schoolers. I make it very clear that I am teaching them Basic Tonal Harmony. I make it clear to them that music theory goes FAR beyond what I am teaching them in the classroom, but that we have to start somewhere, and we are starting at BASIC. What I am teaching them will help them in most of the music they will play (most are not going on to careers in music), but also provides a foundation for further study. It is not the end-all-be-all. I also teach theory in a way that is NOT analysis. I teach theory in a setting that involves composition. The kids are using what they learn in class to create their own small works, from melody-writing to chord progressions, to voicing. In my opinion, music theory means nothing if it is not a practical springboard for one's own creativity, whether in performance or composition.

  • have you heard about Diether De La Motte? His approach is the same as yours. – Albrecht Hügli Feb 1 at 17:45
  • @AlbrechtHügli, no I haven't. I will have to look him up, thanks! – Heather S. Feb 1 at 17:56
  • His 2 books „Harmonielehre“ and „Kontrapunkt“ are both available as Pdf for free. – Albrecht Hügli Feb 1 at 20:59
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There are some that regard it as the holy grail: without it, one cannot be a great musician.

There are some who regard it as a boring side to music, and they can play great music without this knowledge.

Certainly reading all there is to swimming is probably not going to be of use to a non-swimmer who falls in the water, but had that person already been a swimmer, it may well help him to become a far better swimmer. I don't think that theory has been tested properly!

Theory - and remember, it's called theory because it hasn't been 'proved' in order to become a law or rules - is our way of explaining what happens. It's what humans do, pigeon holing, putting on certain shelves, ordering, et al. For some, it's essential reading, which may or may not make them much better for it. For others, it gets in the way. So many students have moaned at me, saying they'll never merely enjoy listening to a guitarist/pianist/etc, because now they have the propensity to analyse what's going on, and that's what they'll have to do!

Whilst theory is there to be respected - after all, it's taken hundreds of years and many hours of people slaving over a hot piano, whatever - but, yes, it seems to be a Marmite thing. Very dependent upon the individual. Some need to know on a need to know basis, others are happy to let it pass by and carry on making wonderful music nevertheless.

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    I can't help the impression, that here (4th paragraph) different meanings of theory are not cleanly distinguished, in Merriam Webster it would correspond to 4a vs. 6b. – guidot Nov 30 '16 at 16:07
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    Exactly; music "theory" and the "theory" of evolution are very different meanings! – Richard Nov 30 '16 at 16:14
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    A "theory" is a set of explanations. The Theory of Evolution is a set of explanations as to why we have different species. Music Theory is a set of explanations as to why some musical ideas sound good or bad. It's the same definition, but it's being applied incorrectly in this answer. – MattPutnam Nov 30 '16 at 17:45
  • @MattPutnam Yes, but people often conflate "hypothesize" and "guess" with "theory." Just consider how often people say "oh, well evolution is only a theory," implying that it's only "some dude's guess." In other words, "a set of explanations" doesn't seem to be a specific enough definition, since it includes "a deduced and tested and improve hypothesis" as well as "some guess I had this morning." – Richard Dec 1 '16 at 17:46
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    it's called theory because it hasn't been 'proved' Well, not really. There is scientific capital-T "Theory", which is so well proven that you can rely on it for any relevant predictions: the Theories of Gravity and Evolution come to mind. There is the everyday "theory" which usually means a hypothesis or guess. Then there's music "theory" which unlike the other two is a strongly empirical set of guidelines that help us understand what sounds good within a given style of music. I suspect much of the fear of music theory is confusion with other definitions of "theory". – Jon Peltier Dec 1 '16 at 20:42
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I see many answers, but I feel like I need to add my own.

I'm going to play the devils advocate.

Music theory is full of rules. You learn about scales: notes that you are told sound good together, rhythms, dynamics, and more.

Often, those who have theory background are afraid to break these rules.

If you never learn the rules and just go by what you think sounds good, you can learn some of these rules yourself, without knowing that they are rules, and break them whenever you want, without knowing.

You can play a few random notes on the piano and make a song without knowing that you are playing an E flat minor gypsy scale. If you change scales or play a note thats not in the scale and it still sounds good, you don't need to be told that what you wrote breaks the confines of the scale that you chose to write in.

If you can focus more on how good your songs can be, and less on what scales you rip through you will make better music.

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    I'd draw the distinction between the theory itself being at fault, and bad teaching of that theory. I think the rule keeping attitude you raise is mostly a result of poor teaching. They don't understand the purpose of the theory, so they overemphasise it. We should remember what they say about babies and bathwater. – endorph Dec 1 '16 at 21:13
  • I have indeed met many people who have learned a little music theory and are scared to break 'the rules'. Sad but true. – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 1 '16 at 22:00
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    Yeah, I think your thought process here is exactly what the OP is asking about. You seem to have a stigma about theory. The way I clarify for those with this sort of impression is to specify that theory is not rules. Theory is an explanation and a language. Theory becomes rules when you are trying to imitate a specific genre or composer. This issue seems to often be the result of academic studies, where you're specifically learning Classical theory, which has lots of rules about voice leading and such that don't properly apply everywhere. See my answer for further thoughts along these lines. – Basstickler Dec 6 '16 at 14:34
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    That's an interesting way to think of things but I'd have to disagree. If we were to say that theory is rules and I were to look at punk rock, I'd see very little rule breaking going on. They break societal "rules", at least original punk did, but not really music rules, other than maybe taste, which is outside the realm of theory. Classical has definitely done the most rule breaking too, if you really delve into the full catalog. If you think Classical is boring, maybe check out some Stravinsky or someone like that. He laughed in the face of conformity, probably more than punkers ever did. – Basstickler Dec 6 '16 at 22:58
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    Ok, well we're into the world of opinion here, which is fine but not exactly what we aim for on SE. There's definitely plenty of Classical that's not so slow but you'd be hard pressed to find a specifically "funky groove" and harder pressed to find distortion. The reason I say that Classical has broken the most rules is two fold. One, they basically wrote all the rules and continuously broke them to evolve music. Two, there is some waaaay, waaaay, waaaaaaaaay out there stuff from the 20th century and beyond that seems to be further outside than any Coletrane solo or Monk chords. – Basstickler Dec 7 '16 at 20:23
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I will add one point that I think a lot of people who are pro-they fail to think about. One of my pet peeves, when this topic is addressed, is the last argument. I can go on about how everyone is lazy when you factor that we all refuse to do things for our own reasons. However, I disagree with the argument that not learning theory is lazy from a hard work context. By not learning theory, you make your learning process harder for yourself than learning it. In fact, I believe learning theory is easier than playing by ear with the trial and error method. As a music student, I'm realising that as I learn theory, my job as a guitar player get easier than when I was finding things on my own. So, the laziness would really lie with learning theory, honestly, laziness is why I've chosen to learn theory. I'm impatient and don't feel I have time to learn the instrument through trial.and error, so, theory will speed things up, and make learning easier.

I would also add, music can kill creativity. On a general level, no. But in personal cases, yes. There are two cases that could lead to this:

  1. Application. The way the player applies the theory can be limiting their creativity. By, finding a new way, you can come out that rut.

  2. Using theory when it's not necessary. There are times when turning off the theoretical mind will help bust a rut. Using theory too much can kill creativity. So, take a vacation and think of a non-theoretical way of writing.

I have found that theory can be bulky, so, I do abandon it sometimes. But then I'll use it when I want to. However, to be fair, there are famous players who do not know theory. Those players are right, they don't need to know theory to play as good as almost any player. Guitar technique is something that can be developed separately, understanding what they are doing will be difficult unless they form their own language. In this case, only they will understand what they are trying to communicate.

Theory is about understanding I believe. I don't buy into the claims that theory will make you a better player as much as people say, if anything, you will improve to a minor extent. I've learned that improvement comes from application, not simply knowing. For example, I know that a chord is made of the I, III, V. Well, that's good to know, but if I don't have the technique to access those notes in every key, what good does theory do for me in this case. I need to apply theory to my technique to truly improve as a player. So, I've found myself reading theory books, and understand what's being said, but when I look at the guitar, my playing is where it was before I started reading the book. I can understand basic theory, but I need to learn to apply it in a technical way. As I apply theory, I find my understanding of theory, gets better, and my technique gets better. Another example is if someone asked me to say the formula for a 7th or 9th chord. I can say the formula. If you asked me to state the notes, in the key of A, I can ask me to find the notes on the guitar, it will take a little time. My technique is not as fast as my mind. I'll need to practice getting to those note to become a better musician. But then I think most theorists already know that application is key to improvement as a player. Yet, based on stories I've read, it seems players are more about the understanding than application aspects, which is why I'm explaining this. For other players who are advanced, and are learning theory, they won't experience much of an improvement since most of what they'll be doing is understanding their own technique. For a beginner, they'll likely learn theory as they learn the instrument.

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Interestingly, we've been trying to answer this Music Stack Exchange question lately: can music theory sabotage creativity

Some of the most pertinent statements the question asker has about his/her/hir growing paranoia about music theory are below:

but now as my studying is getting deeper I fear that when I will compose I will be influenced by the theory, no more able to play like a child daring and inventing compositions that sound nice.

when I play an old song of mine and I see all of a sudden the scale I used I get sad knowing what it is and then I force my brain to forget it.

don't want to lose this innocence of not knowing.

is there a way to get deeper without losing this innocence

is there a way that knowing music theory will even increase creativity ?

This person fears that learning music theory will restrict his/her/hir later compositions, force him/her/hir to analyze all of his/her/hir existing compositions through theory's lens, and drain his/her/hir creativity.

And I believe this person is not alone.

  • I like the connection between the two posts! Although, is this an answer to the question? – jdjazz Sep 1 '17 at 22:20
  • @jdjazz, in terms of answering General Nuisance's question, "Is there anything about learning music theory well that slows down your musical capabilities?", this person suspects that learning music theory well will slow down his/her/hir musical capabilities by making him/her/hir lose creativity, forcing him/her/hir to forget musical concepts or lose the innocence of composing without restrictions. – Dekkadeci Sep 2 '17 at 0:04

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