Music Theory (Dispelling the Myth)

“I don’t really care about the ‘theory’ of what I’m doing. I’ll just play what I play… I don’t want to lose the soul of my music or have to follow any ‘rules’.” 

-So many musicians, myself included

I’ve heard variations on this theme for my entire musical life, and probably said something exactly like this when I was 12 and learning how to play guitar. In a way, I understand the sentiment, but since I first dove deep into music theory I’ve come to understand one very simple truth: 

Music theory, at its core, has nothing to do with how you play or what you play. It’s a labelling system. A filing cabinet. 

I’ll say that again:

Music theory is a labelling system for sounds. It is not here to tell you what to play.

You have a lot of musical ideas swirling in your head. You’ve heard what may feel like an infinite number of sounds, chords and notes in your life. However, the real liberation of understanding even a little music theory is that those notes and chords are not infinite. Anything but!

Because they are, in fact, part of a relatively small number of patterns. I promise that you are hearing some chord progressions (patterns of chords that work well together) over and over and over again. Patterns that work nicely are recycled, put into different keys and played with different feelings and grooves – but they are fundamentally the same patterns. 

You can absolutely train your ear to recognize patterns.

When I hear a I vi IV V (“one six four five”) progression, I know instantly what it is. It is a completely unique sound that you can train your ear to recognize. I can name what it is, and I can reproduce it on whatever instrument I happen to pick up without having to poke around and guess. 

This makes life simpler and more fun for me as a musician. Because I’ve invested some time into filling up that filing cabinet (aka “learning theory”), I can get right to the good stuff. If I hear that sound in my head as a song is coming to me, I get to play it right away – reducing the risk that I’m going to lose my initial inspiration. 

If you’re feeling resistance to learning music theory, I urge you to reconsider. There’s work to do up front, and practice to train your ear, but it is absolutely achievable and it makes the sometimes overwhelming world of music a little smaller and more comprehensible. That leads to an increase in your confidence and willingness to step a little further in your practice.

Want to give it a try? Here’s a little ear training track for you.

See if you can recognize the difference between the “1” and the “5”. In this exercise, which I call “Face the Bass”, we’re listening exclusively to the bass (the LOW notes). This is in the key of C, so the notes are C and G. That being said, the beauty of recognizing progressions is that 1-5 sounds like 1-5 no matter what key you’re in.

It’s pretty cool.

“Face the Bass: Level 1”

Want to learn more?

Check out our Musical Mastery Mix Tape: Ear Training 1!

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