I am a guitar and bass player who has played pop/rock/blues for 15 years. Like a lot of other users I am music illiterate. I am a fan of Frank Zappa, Grateful Dead and am interested in composing rock music with a jazz/music literate influence. After a lot of reading reviews, I bought the book "Music Theory for Guitarists Volume 1" by Bruce Arnold.

Although I had read the reviews, I must say that it is a challenging book. It has about 100 pages of exercises of filling in chords. I have finished upto the diminished triads exercise, and then I wondered if I was wasting my time, or if this is the path to being music literate.

  1. If I were to finish all the exercises in the three volumes in this series, does that give me a good foundation in music theory to start composing?
  2. Is this book more aimed at someone who wants to read/play sheet music (semi-) professionally?

Typically I want to be able to able to have enough musical knowledge to understand and compose at the level of Frank Zappa at the beginning of his career (say early 70s).

  1. To achieve that knowledge, what is the minimum number of books (and which ones) that I need to read/practise?

I do not have access to music teachers but I can buy online courses.

  • 5
    A lot depends on the definition of 'compose'. Many, many players 'compose' music, songs, etc., as in make them up and play them. The Beatles are one example. The actual transcription of that onto paper is another way of looking at 'composing'. For that part, yes, you need to know how to actually write down the music, with harmonies, chords, different instrument parts, orchestrations, maybe. Even using Finale, Musescore et al, you'll still have to understand what theory helps with. But making up songs - start now, with a recorder! Not an answer, thus a comment.
    – Tim
    Feb 14, 2017 at 10:48
  • 3
    Computer generated music draws mostly on theory. Judge for yourself if it's enough. Feb 14, 2017 at 13:52
  • Note that in the early 70's Zappa was in his early thirties and had already been composing (and persuading people to play his compositions) since he was a teenager: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… So you may have a lot of work ahead of you to get to that level! I have no idea having never done it myself, but I suspect that in addition to learning everything you can, you should (as Tim says) be finding ways to make up music and get it played right now. Feb 14, 2017 at 15:06
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    If you want to compose music like Zappa's, then listen to Zappa, figure out your own understanding of what's going on, and imitate it. Then figure out why your imitation doesn't sound the way you want it, rinse and repeat. If you think the reason your imitation is poor is "because you don't know every possible diminished chord playable on a guitar", then is the time to learn about diminished chords! Learning them before that is just filling your head with interesting but potentially useless facts.
    – user19146
    Feb 14, 2017 at 16:26
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    Are you actually saying that you are playing the guitar for 15 years and haven't made a single piece yet? Aren't you at least coming up with some riffs? The theory is really useful but the reason you are not composing yet is because you are simply not doing it not because you are unaware of some rules or structures.
    – Džuris
    Feb 14, 2017 at 17:32

4 Answers 4


Learning music theory is a great way to better understand the nuts and bolts of how music works, broaden your horizons and give you a bunch of tools to make interesting and varied music, but won't in itself teach you how to write; much as how studying creative writing theory won't teach you how to come up with a great story. Imagine studying creative writing theory without ever actually applying these analyses to great works of fiction... Studying music theory only really has value insofar as it helps you understand musical works, be they those of others or things you've come up with yourself.

What learning music theory can do for you is help you to understand what is going on in the music that makes it sound the way it does. Different uses of the elements of music all "feel" a different way of course. Our musical intuitions can tell us what we like, what we don't like, and how isolated parts of music (say a couple of chord changes or an interesting rhythm) affect us. Theory can help us more accurately pin down what is going on, form some more generalised perspectives, and apply what we've learned to other areas. It can allow us to deliberately make conscious alternations to something we've come up with by ear for example. When I'm writing a harmonic progression for instance, I might start with some idea that I "hear", but then use my knowledge of music theory to know "where to look" to find things to add to it. But those theory rules only help me because they're always grounded in a subjective feeling of what the applications of those rules actually sound like. When jamming or co-writing, a bit of or a lot of theory knowledge is a great help for the same reason: it lets you know where you are, and what options are available to you in terms of where to go next.

Songwriters end up using all kinds of weird linguistic devices to try and describe what different patterns of sound are like. Sometimes it can end up sounding a little enigmatic or just pretentious (I knew a lyricist who used to talk in riddles all the time, he'd say things like "I'm trying to get the chorus to sound more agitated", you know, at the moment it has this kinda rainy day vibe but I want it to sound "sharper" you know, more brittle..." when co-writing, and often I'd get what he meant and be able to make changes accordingly. There's a reason people use taste, colour, texture, visual, and spatial metaphors for sound, because they're trying to put into words what certain music devices conjure up. As you expand your knowledge of theory it gives you a wider palette of ideas to draw from: you might call it expanding your tonal vocabulary?

Having said that, some people can write amazing music without learning any formal theory, but generally it's because they have worked out their own understanding of what's going on in the music they are influenced by, by learning it by ear and learning what's going on (even if not knowing the official "definitions"). Once you internalise things enough, you can hear what a lot of things will sound like before you actually play them (not just melodies and individual notes, but complex structures). But this ability will come from practicing learning and making stuff up as much if not more than from written sources.

Lennon and McCartney are a great example of a songwriter duo who knew very little "formal" theory. However, what people often miss is that they were extremely literate in the music of their day, learnt a huge amount of music by ear, and played around with songs they liked all the time (and by that I mean they would make modifications and adaptations in what they played and just generally "have fun" with existing music). That gave them a framework of harmonic, melodic and rhythmic language with which to work (with a couple of true innovations too, see Alan W. Pollack's work).

Similarly, if you are writing, and you try something random, or hit a wrong note, or deliberately try changing a few notes here and there and stumble across something that sounds amazing, then you might find if you go to the literature, you will find that what you've just done is in fact "a thing". You might find that the way it's described doesn't really seem to apply to what you've done, that's OK, doesn't make it any less valid. But you'll probably find basically a description of something you wrote, and also a whole group of similar devices that interest you just as much as the thing you've stumbled across. This more than anything, to me, is where reading about theory becomes interesting, and useful.

Of course, you might find that the way you like to think about it isn't necessarily exactly what the book says. That's fine too, of course, music theory isn't (yet) an exact science.

The most important thing is to study MUSIC. Play songs, and work out what's really going on. Learn songs, or fragments of songs by ear. If this is something you aren't yet that comfortable with, start very simple.

Take an acoustic guitar song in G, for example. You take the chords and label which is the tonic, which is the dominant, which is the mediant, which is the submediant etc. etc. etc. I'm not saying that's not important or useful, but could you play that song with a capo on 3, a capo on 5, a capo on 7, a capo on 10, and have it still come out at the same pitch as the record? Would you have to sit down and think about it, or could you do it pretty much instantly?

I have no idea what your existing level of theory is, but the reason I give this example, is because I know people who can tell me a bunch of scales and modes they've "learnt", but if I ask them to play a "Under the Bridge" in C instead of E, they wouldn't even know to begin: to them, each chord is just a magic position to put your fingers in, which doesn't necessarily share anything with another chord. So despite all their theory "knowledge" from memorising scales, they've pretty much not yet taken in anything meaningful from any song they've played for fun, because they have no idea what the chords actually are, and how they relate to each other.

Something simple like being able to work out a song by ear, or being able to fluidly transpose from one key to another forces you to a certain extent to understand the music you're playing, because you will inevitable notice patterns, and begin to predict where things are going. This in itself is the key to writing, but reading about theory alongside is also very beneficial.

  • 1
    You learn to write melodies from an early stage in theory. I cannot see how that is not exactly teaching you to write music.
    – Neil Meyer
    Feb 22, 2017 at 19:01

Music theory is primarily an analytic tool rather than a synthetic one. It helps you understand better what is happening and recognize patterns and structures.

But your question is akin to asking whether working through a book on perspective and geometry will enable you to draw good pictures.

There is more to the creative process than understanding what one is doing. The most important thing is actually doing it. A solid understanding will likely make you a more effective learner but you still are responsible for your own progress. Consider it a map: you still need to walk all the way yourself, but you have a better chance not to get stuck in a rut.

Hard studying of theory makes you more reliably a good art critic than a good artist. Having what it takes to be a good critic is not amiss when you try differentiating yourself as a good artist. But it's not sufficient either.

You are the most important unknown in your question, so you will have to answer it yourself eventually.

  • 3
    Very good answer. I still think the best way to enhance musicality is to play any music instrument or reasonable complexity (piano, violin, flute, guitar...) but occasionally apply the theory on books to the piece one is playing. Feb 14, 2017 at 12:56
  • That second last para is not true at all, you let me know how many music teachers at juliard have never done theory work.
    – Neil Meyer
    Feb 22, 2017 at 19:03
  • @NeilMeyer can't tell you about that, but I could point you to arguably the most influential composers of the 20th century, the Beatles. And if you think that doesn't count, sit down and do a roman numeral analysis of revolver, it'll blow your mind.
    – Some_Guy
    Apr 7, 2017 at 21:10
  • Found this, says it quite nicely 2akordi.net/znanje/teorija/beatles.html . Also, if you're interested in reading about the nuts and bolts of the harmony in beatles songs, take a look at alan pollack's work
    – Some_Guy
    Apr 7, 2017 at 21:18

Academic music theory may well be a useful tool, in particular being able to write musical notation fluently may be an aid to recording your ideas and will certainly help in communicating with other musicians.

Also an understanding of theory may be useful in making decisions and problem solving around how you structure more complex pieces, especially if you want to orchestrate larger ensembles of musician where the part played by each instrument may not be as immediately obvious as in a small band.

Having said that, unless you adopt a really formal academic style of composition the theory itself won't necessarily give you better idea or make you better at hearing what works or what doesn't.

In particular formal theory tends to give up a bit when it comes down to the small and subtle interpretations of rhythm and tone that makes music musical rather than a sequence of numbers rendered as frequencies.

From what you have said it sounds like you want to use your basic musical instincts to generate ideas but have a more formal way to organise them.

It's also pretty important that you are able to make sense of what the theoretical terminology actually means in terms of sound. In this context it is always good to relate the theoretical analysis to pieces of music you know well. For example if thinking in terms of chord sequences and key changes actually helps you to understand how a particular composition works then great, if not then you might be better off with a different approach.

also bear in mind that while it is always possible to deconstruct and analyse a piece in a perfectly rational way, that does not necessarily mean that the original composer was thinking in those terms.

As with all art forms it really comes down to your ability to know what is good, your 'taste' is you like. Theoretical knowledge can be a a shortcut through a lot of trial and error but it is doubtful that you will ever make good art just by mechanically applying theory.


So to compose music:

  1. Turn on recorder
  2. Make somewhat pleasant sounds
  3. Turn off recorder

That's it that's all there is to it. What happens next is the important part, but it has nothing to do with creating music.

Your goal is to get me, some random internet dude, to play your piece. Now for that you need to be able to tell me want you wan t me to play. Sure you could just send the recording, but then I am only playing what I hear. Thus comes along musical notation.

Here is where "Music Theory" may help you. I need to be able to read your music, AND play it back with the same "feeling" that you intended it to be played in. Musical notation is just the notes, it takes a bit more to be able to convey the emotion.

For example if I said


Ok, you could play those notes and maybe figure out a way to play them. But it may not be the way I like. Music theory may help you express your desires a bit more, and help you convey those to others, in a way that they understand.


Take for example this image. Which measures are going to get me, as the player to play the part more successfully.

That's where Music Theory can help with "composing". But helping your write music in a form that makes it easier for others to understand what you want.

You can listen to it here to hear the differences

  • So intonation can be conveyed much better through musical notation. Understood. Feb 15, 2017 at 13:56

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