Updated: Apr 28
Is it important to learn music theory? The answer isn't as straight forward as you might think at first.
This short story will show you why.
As a young musician growing up, I often told my musician friends (and myself) that I didn't need to learn theory because I could "play music from the heart" or that I was a good judge of "what sounded good" and as long as I could judge good-ness then theory just wasn't necessary for me.
in fact, I (and many other young musicians I knew) viewed theory as something that stifled creativity and that made your music more boring, predictable and less enjoyable.
Since that time though I've become a huge advocate of theory. I believe (very passionately) that all musicians must learn it.
So despite having such (false) confidence in my abilities at a young age, what changed my mind?
The answer is, the first time I recorded my own music.
I had a school friend named Dan who had made a name for himself in our local music scene as a great guitarist and drummer. But he'd also converted his garage into a small recording studio that I visited regularly with my school bands.
Around the time that Dan completed the studio conversion, I had discovered Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny both playing on Bright Sized Life.
Like so many young bass players, I became inspired and decided I wanted to write something that sounded like this.
I also thought, "why not record it? It'll be great to have a record of my own". So I phoned Dan, booked in a session for a weeks time, told him that I'd be recording a jazz project, then I hung up the phone and got to work writing the music,
Had I written music like this before? Did I understand how it worked? Did I even understand what was going on? The answer to all three questions was no.
But hey, that didn't matter. I could play music from the heart and I was a great judge of what sounded good as I'm sure you remember.
Seven days to go until the session and I sat down to write my first song. I wanted something that sounded like Bright Sized Life so I tried stringing together some of the Jaco licks I had learned from the recording.
They sounded nothing like Bright Sized Life.
But that was ok. This was just my first attempt. And it always takes a little while to warm up, get in the zone and let the creative ideas flow.
I tried a few more things and none of them worked. Perhaps today just wasn't my day.
I decided to take a rest and come back fresh the next day. And the next day I had a great idea.
I'd heard someone say that jazz was all about tension and release, about using dissonance and notes that "don't fit" to make cool sounds.
I took this advice to heart and started writing music that didn't fit inside any scale or pattern that I knew.
Again, the music not only sounded awful but it also sounded nothing like Bright Sized Life. Strangely, it sounded like some messed up, dissonant version of all the rock bands I liked as a kid like Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Foo Fighters.
So despite writing music "from the heart" why was I not able to write music that sounded like Pat Metheny?
And, why was I able to write music that sounded like Red Hot Chili Peppers?
We'll get to Pat Metheny shortly but let's start with what I could do. Write good (sort of) rip-off rock music.
Whilst I couldn't explicitly describe the theory behind any RHCP song, I did have experience with it. I had learnt the riffs that they use in songs, I had copied a lot of the fills that Flea would play and I knew his playing style quite intimately.
In other words, I had absorbed the music.
This meant that I unknowingly had a strong command over the theoretical components of music that made up the RHCP style and I could intuitively use them as a vehicle to articulate my own ideas.
But when it came to Pat Metheny's music, I had no experience to draw on so I couldn't be intuitive. I couldn't just play anything I wanted and hope that it came out sounding like a jazz record because I had no understanding of what jazz was.
In short, I learned that being able to "play from the heart", ignore music theory and work on intuition alone only works if you have an intuitive grasp of what you're playing.
And I didn't.
Not even close.
But there was a bigger lesson here.
My assumption that music theory would make the music I write boring, rigid and "un-creative" totally misunderstood the true reason that music theory is of value.
One of my favourite quotes comes from the author Craig Adams in his excellent book "The Six Secrets Of Intelligence". In this book, Adams says "the true value of learning any subject lies in learning the way of thinking that created the subject".
It's an incredibly articulate and insightful thought. And in my case, it highlights the problem perfectly.
I had no idea how jazz worked as a way of thinking. I didn't understand any of the musical principles that make up jazz so I had no chance of being able to use them to create something of my own.
However, once I understood the problem I also understood the solution.
I needed to study jazz and understand how it worked. And what could help me do that?
I'm sure this situation is familiar to many musicians reading this.
So if you are stuck in a rut, unable to play the way you want or write the kind of music you want then take a long look at your theory skills.
Learning theory will help you become a clearer and more abstract musical thinker.
Contrary to what a lot of musicians think, theory isn't a checklist of what's musically acceptable and correct.
Even a quick look through the history of almost any style of music to see how much they've all changed and developed will show you that.
Instead, theory is a tool that helps us understand why things work they way they do. It helps us observe rather than create.
It's not a set of restrictions. It's perfectly possible to learn music theory and still play from the heart, be intuitive and feel free as a musician.
You just need to really understand what theory actually is and how it helps.