“Do I really need all this Music Theory?!”

Written music on the treble clef staff
Written music on the treble clef staff

Oh no, not theory!  With thirds, and triads, and sharps and keys…….I just want to play!!!

Do I need theory to do what I want to do?

I’ve been teaching a long time.  Since I was 17.  I’m now 97 (ok, not quite but still) so that’s a long time.  And in all that time, theory lessons are easily the most complex and the most confusing to students.  Even though we are applying it through the guitar, it’s still dizzying.

So again,

Do I need theory to do what I want to do?

The short answer is no.   I’ve played with many musicians – guitarists, bassist, singers, drummers (typically not keyboard players) who don’t understand what a key is.

Singers – the singer needs a good ear obviously and needs to know if the song is in his or her range and we usually find out the hard way.  And they may sing “la la la….right here….can we do the song here?” as you move the chords up and down and find the right key.

Drummers – although many drummers sing, and many play multiple instruments, the don’t need musical theory but they will be more keyed into intros, outros, breaks, fills, and tempo.

Bassists – I didn’t think it was possible to not know theory but I have worked with bassists that just learned bass runs, bass patterns and chord outlines without being able to say “This song is in the key of [fill in the blank]”.  They just play the song.

Guitarists – most guitarists learn open string chords, then bar chords, and pick up on the main Rock scale – the minor pentatonic or blues scale, or just pieces of it from learning by ear and figuring out solos on record.  Throw in some flashy effects, some stage presence and bingo – you’re a rock star.

I had one student where his band wanted to learn Led Zepplin’s The Wanton Song from the Physical Graffiti album.  He had a lot of the licks down, but was stuck on the bridge.  Good ol’ Jimmy page threw in a Diminished 7th chord as a “connecting” chord and once we hit that chord, my student said “That’s it; this is too hard!” and promptly gave up on that song.

So let me qualify that short answer of “no”.  If you’re going to be doing very simple rock, folk, or blues (and blues can get hairy too), then no.  You don’t need theory.  Dress in black or white or all yellow, spend $3k on a stacked amps, effects and work on your moves in a mirror (which one should probably do anyway to get a sense of performance) and stick to the easy songs.  When it comes time to do a solo, you can figure out what the recording is doing and noodle with that.

I am not being sarcastic or mean.  Many gigging musicians do just that.  There’s nothing wrong with it.

So why would I want to learn theory?

There are many reason but I’ll list them here:

  • To more quickly figure out songs as you’ll be used to the stock chord progressions
  • To more quickly figure out the key to do your own improvisations
  • To more quickly figure out the recorded solo since you know what you would use
  • To play a wider range of songs – ballads, or Steely Dan or “easy listening” music for playing during dinner time or wine tasting
  • To more easily write your own songs
  • To more easily transpose songs if the singer needs it
  • To figure out 2 and 3 part harmony in the vocals

Not all music is straight forward.  If you are into heavy metal the likes of Dream Theater, or Day of Reckoning you will do better if you know your major/minor scales, keys and modes.

Me?  I’m going to brush up on my pentatonics with my 7 string and go pick out yellow clothes for my next gig.

Have a great time y’all!  Hit me up with any questions you have.  I’m not a lawyer so I don’t charge by the question :).

Shreddy