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I'm a beginner guitarist. I wanted to know if I'm able, if I can, to start with song writing and music theory. I was thinking if I got 2 years of guitar, why not 2 years of guitar, song writing, and some, if not all the music theory. So want you to know about this. Thanks for your thoughts!! I'll be waiting.

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There are several similar questions already answered - take a look. Some people need the theory to progress. Others just get bogged down in it, if it's broached too soon. We don't know which camp you're in.

From experience, far more people benefit from just playing initially. As a beginner, there's already two things going on: learning the instrument itself, and learning music. Maybe that sounds weird, but imagine using a different instrument. The music side will be generally similar, but making noises on something different is going to be, well, different.

Get at least a few months down the line of playing guitar before theory and songwriting - unless you're a theory first person, in which case, don't!

Oft-quoted mantra - see a teacher, who should understand what you need, and work along lines that are beneficial to you.

  • It has been my experience that the people who feel bogged down by it have not been taught by their practical teachers why it is important and just see it as some chore you have to do for a certificate. – Neil Meyer Apr 10 '18 at 6:59
  • I often wonder just how important it actually is. Lack of theory doesn't seem to have held back many, many great musicians, who obviously would think 'Why? It's not important.' – Tim Apr 10 '18 at 7:43
  • @NeilMeyer If it's not obvious why a certain piece of theory knowledge is useful to what a student is doing, it may well be that that particular piece of knowledge isn't actually important for that particular activity. (I'm agreeing with you, BTW, about teaching why things are important - just advocating a 'learning by doing' approach to doing that). – topo Reinstate Monica Apr 10 '18 at 12:53
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    @topomorto - absolutely. Theory for theory's sake is somewhat meaningless. It needs to be used in a practical situation to make proper sense. – Tim Apr 10 '18 at 13:13
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    @Tim "Lack of theory doesn't seem to have held back many, many great musicians". I'm not necessarily disagreeing—I think the practicality of theory differs case by case. But in this quote in particular I think you're ignoring the other, possibly larger, side of the equation. What about the musicians who have learned theory and it has helped? We often hear stories about famous self-taught musicians who "never even learned to read music" but we don't hear stories about all the successful ones who "learned a moderate amount of theory" because it's not as sensational. – user37496 Apr 10 '18 at 15:41
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Don't worry over 'theory' but learn to READ music. Then you have access to everything everyone else has ever composed or played (well, a whole lot of it!) You can only be 'original' if you have the tools. Anyway, originality is greatly over-rated. Cover bands make money, originals don't. Learn the craft.

  • I'm puzzled by these last three sentences. I can't figure out how you have cover material without original material. I find them both important. – skinny peacock Apr 10 '18 at 15:11
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    Well, of course, there must be originals so that people can cover them. But YOU are more likely, much more likely, to be paid for playing covers! And if you do want to be a writer, playing covers is a great way of filling your 'bag of tricks'. – Laurence Payne Apr 10 '18 at 15:15
  • I'm in full agreement – skinny peacock Apr 10 '18 at 15:20
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In my opinion, I think that students should start with theory before song writing. This is because for song writing to be successful (aka a nice melodic line and accompaniment is produced), there has to be knowledge of music harmony - how to come up with the various chords/cadences. Theory plays an important role in teaching students about harmony and how everything can fit together in a better way. Without this foundation, it might not be easy to start writing a composition.

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My personal experience was to write and play first and then study theory. I wrote songs, sang them with others playing them for me, felt compelled to learn to play for myself, learned to play, and then began to study theory to understand what I was doing. I was hearing songs in my head years before I started playing them myself. My thoughts are: A person should write as soon as they feel the inspiration, write snippets and save them forever, write whole songs in fifteen minutes and save them forever, labor tirelessly for years on one song and save it forever, however you choose to write, just do it and save it forever. Learning to play and studying theory can be part of your development.

  • There must be a more apposite term than 'write' for writing songs. I guess a story writer actually writes it all down, but lots of song'writers' only write words - and maybe chords. – Tim Apr 10 '18 at 15:48
  • @Tim - Perhaps the word compose would be more appropriate. – skinny peacock Apr 10 '18 at 15:53
  • There weren't many famous composers who didn't write down the dots as well. – Tim Apr 10 '18 at 16:01
  • These days , if you can whistle or hum a tune, some body can notate it for you. Hopefully, one will learn to develop the abilities needed to be a skilled song writer, but that is a personal choice, not one to be made by me for others. – skinny peacock Apr 10 '18 at 16:22
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I think that learning music theory will be a tool that will help you play the guitar and write music.

Songwriting and playing the guitar are both difficult skills to learn so taking on both at the same time may be difficult, but learning music theory will help you do both of those things better and may even help you learn faster.

Writing music by ear is possible, however, being able to understand why a song is good by analyzing it is going to help you understand why you like the music you like and it will help inform your decisions about your writing. It will also make it easier to understand what you are playing on the guitar because it will allow you to comprehend what notes are in the chord or scale you are playing, and it will help you figure guitar parts out by ear because you will be able to lean on your theory while listening which will suggest the most likely note or chord based on theory.

If you were going to write a book, it would be much easier if you knew the rules of grammar. It would also be helpful if you knew how to read, and write. It would be helpful if you not only read other books but also study why those books are good and the literary devices that are used. I guess you could write a book by dictating a story into your phone not knowing any of that stuff but I would venture a guess that most successful writers have studied the art of writing in some way and someone that knows all of the above will produce a better book than if they didn't. Music is no different. The more you know, the better you will be overall as a musician. Theory is just another very powerful tool in your toolbox.

A word of caution though, if you are struggling to understand some theoretical point don't let it hold you back. As you become a better musician some things that were difficult to understand will make more sense. Just like a guitar riff that was difficult for you a year ago will be easier once you have more playing experience. Also, music theory can be learned like math and you may be able to understand some concepts fine, but until you can really hear them in your mind, internalize them, they may not be much use. Once you understand a concept, or as you are trying to understand a concept, also try to learn how that concept sounds. Get that concept into your head and ear as you learn it by playing, trying to find it in songs, etc, this will also get easier as you grow as a musician. Have fun!

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Theory can be very practical in your guitar performance as well. Learn your scales. Practice them on your guitar. Learn how chords are structured. Practice them on your guitar. When your learn to play a piece, study the chord progression and learn why they fit so well together in that order. When you play a song, think about the phrasing and the form. Think about the shape of the melody and the movement of dissonance and consonance. Listen to where there are pauses. This is all part of theory. As you listen and observe while you are learning pieces others wrote, you will begin to intuit what fits together to make a good song. Then go ahead and start playing around. Make up little melodies using the notes of the scales. Try chords in different orders. Hum or sing a little while playing a progression. When you strike on something that you like, learn how to notate it. Until then, record yourself.

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