I'm currently 17 years old and want to dedicate myself to music. I've listened to different styles of music now: jazz, funk,groove also classical (Bob acri>any pop Idol in 2018). 2 weeks ago I bought myself a Guitar and a Piano and played/learned songs and trained my hands for each instrument. Question comes now: I want to learn the music theory of the guitar first but can I apply that knowledge to the piano (once I learned most of the important things).

Like Barre chords can't be played on the piano right? Is music theory universal for any instrument?

  • 9
    Barre chords aren't music theory, they're guitar technique.
    – Laurence
    Commented Aug 19, 2018 at 1:02
  • 1
    Of course you can play the notes in barre chords on the piano. And if you can't reach all the notes with your fingers, try this method … youtube.com/watch?v=ifKKlhYF53w
    – user19146
    Commented Aug 19, 2018 at 1:41
  • a flute will have trouble with chords and a snare drum trouble with pitches which probably leaves only rhythm as universal
    – thrig
    Commented Aug 19, 2018 at 14:53
  • @thrig - I wouldn't even say that rhythm is universal, after listening to (much) shakuhachi music. Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 8:32

6 Answers 6


Yes, music theory is "universal" in the sense that the same phenomena regarding melody, harmony, rhythm happen on the guitar and the piano. In other words, if by "music theory" you mean a tool or framework that helps you reason about your decisions, which notes to play and when, then it is universal. You might bump into technical limitations like, it's not technically possible or practical to play certain combinations of notes on the guitar, and it is not possible to pitch-bend notes on the piano. The piano keyboard contains a physical realization of some concepts of Western music theory, like the diatonic scale of the white keys.

And no, music theory is not universal, in the sense that it won't teach you about actual music. Music theory can provide tools to help you reason about the real thing, once you do something real, i.e. play music. You don't need to know lots theory before you can enjoy playing. And if you don't enjoy playing, it's hard to learn it. So, play songs, have fun. I'd suggest you learn music practice first, and add small amounts of theory to find names to the things you discover in practice. Learn to play melodies and chords by ear.

  • Wow... REASONING was the word that I missed! I admire people who can improvise on the get go and play other songs in their own way with adding techniques like playing arpeggios on that part or trills on that part and such.(decision making) That's why I wanted to learn the Basics and more advanced stuff so that I know how and why i am supposed to use that. And thanks for that WONDERFUL answer and I'll try to follow your advice!
    – Vo Anton
    Commented Aug 20, 2018 at 17:09
  • @VoAnton learning songs by ear is a good way to start developing this ability; you'll start seeing similar devices/patterns being used in songs, and eventually recognise them by ear and learn how to apply them to different songs. Also, learning different versions/covers of the same song allows you to see possible variations. Also, if you can "imagine" a variation you might like to make (like a trill, a change to the melody etc.) then take the time to work it out by ear, and you'll start to find the the time taken to work it out goes down and down to the point where you can do it on the fly.
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 21:40
  • @Some_Guy Yeah I've started playing songs by ear now and it's exhausting... so far I can only figure out the melody and the rest is for me a mystery hah. In 3 days I've learned most of the basic things in theory (made another post about that) but I can't music out of it.. yet. I'm too much of a theorist and I forget to enjoy to actually play songs. Thx for the answer!
    – Vo Anton
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 0:57

'Barre chords' can certainly be played on piano - except there's no need to 'barre'. The same notes exactly can and are played on each instrument.

Music theory itself covers many aspects, but most of those, particularly in the earlier stuff, will apply to both guitar and piano (and most if not all other instruments).

The piano is considered the best of all for understanding a lot of that theory, as it's set out in a simple graphic way, unlike guitar. For example, there is only one place on a piano where a particular note lives. On guitar there may well be even more than the 6 that 6 strings may indicate. Another is the black keys on piano generally mean # or b, whereas on guitar, all notes can look quite similar!

Do yourself a favour, and favour the keyboard as a theory learning medium.


Yes, music theory will help you regardless of what instrument you play.

Maybe if you play the quarter-tones on your sitar then maybe you don't need western music theory, but for the instruments, you will play typically in the west, it will do.

Question comes now: I want to learn the music theory of the guitar first but can I apply that knowledge to the piano (once I learned most of the important things).

There is no guitar theory or piano theory, there is music-theory and that is applicable to all instruments. You can definitely play the notes of a bar chord on the piano, it may be a very awkward voicing but nothing at least, in theory, is keeping you from playing it.


You're confusing technique with theory. Technique is the way you physically interact with your instrument, like, for instance, fingering on piano or barre chords on guitar. Theory is concerned only with the sounds that are produced and how they relate, not the way in which they are produced.

For instance, theory will teach you about major, minor, dominant, diminished, major seventh, minor seventh, diminished seventh and major minor seventh chords, and so forth, but the way you go about creating producing these chords will definitely vary from instrument to instrument.

As you note, there are no barre chords on piano because the very idea of a barre chord is tied to the limitations of a guitar with six strings (not all of which produce tones from the desired chord). However, the purpose of, say, an F barre chord on the guitar is to produce an F chord sound, and you can achieve the same chord on piano, even the same or a similar voicing, using a different technique (like having really, really big hands).

So music theory, at least, as ggcg points out, on western instruments, is universal. It is the analysis of sounds, a way of describing what you hear or create. Technique, of course, varies wildly from instrument to instrument, like all mediums.


The term 'Music Theory' is quite a general term. It can apply to reading, writing and understanding music and music history. Each instrument has its own technical requirements when learning to play it. A good knowledge of music theory would come in handy for learning most instruments, so in that sense you could call it 'universal'. Much of the theory of music that you learn from the guitar can be equally relevant to your piano study, and vice versa.

  • 1
    While you can learn a huge amount of exciting things when teaching yourself such instruments (with music books?), I highly recommend getting professional music lessons at some point too, just to make sure you are on the right track.
    – Jomiddnz
    Commented Aug 19, 2018 at 5:44
  • Yeah I know that there are different techniques for guitar like slapping, chucking, hammer on and pull, ... for piano I don't really know any hah. But I want to UNDERSTAND music that's why I wanna learn what pentatonic scales, intervals are etc. How to read notes obviously and improvise songs but I don't really know where I'm suppose to start..
    – Vo Anton
    Commented Aug 19, 2018 at 11:49

NO! Music theory in not universal!

Well, in reality Western music theory is fairly standard for all Western instruments and the piano and guitar are "Western" instruments. You will not likely understand southern Indian or far east Asian music using what is called "music theory".

  • 2
    By universal, the OP seems to mean translatable between different instruments, not different cultures. While I agree with you to a degree, I would also point out that there are a lot of things that cross over between different cultures and their understanding of music theory. A lot of the western scales and modes, for example, find very similar equivalents in Indian music. Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 17:18
  • @GeneralNuisance, I did cite the application to western instruments. But the "theory" most often quoted is "western" and that isn't really a theory but a set of guidelines for understanding western culture. Understanding how colors mix can be divorced from the question of which colors look nice (a subjective issue). While the structure of sound is also based on physics, which tones sound good together etc, is largely driven by cultural bias. Helmholtz tried to explain music theory using physics (to a degree) but some of the questions he was addressing were inherently culturally biased.
    – user50691
    Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 21:23
  • I see folks don't like my answer, lots of down votes and no explanation.
    – user50691
    Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 21:24
  • You were probably downvoted because the idea that music theory means "western music theory" is not really true. It might have been true in the past, but it's not true today, nor is it true on this site. *Music theory * can be (and on this very site frequently is) applied to western classical music, blues music, Turkish music, Armenian music, Indian classical music, African drumming etc. It's possible to talk about pitch and rhythm, harmony and melody, form and structure in music from all around the world, whether that be microtonal improvisation against a drone or bossa nova.
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 22:15
  • That is quite abstract and I agree that there is a super-set of concepts that cover all cultures. But that did not seem to be what the OP was referring to. Furthermore a version of meta-music-theory would not be very useful to specific instruments and cultural composition paradigms. The OP is referring to "music theory for the guitar" which led me to think "western music" as the guitar is (primarily) a western instrument. I am aware of fretless guitars, and guitars with micro-tone frets but to date this is the exception rather than the rule.
    – user50691
    Commented Aug 29, 2018 at 22:25

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