by Scott Zimmerman

This question comes up from time to time in conversations with my students. Actually, it is more of an implied question, in the sense that the student wants to know more about music, but isn’t sure how to go about it.

In reality, learning the guitar and learning music theory are two separate disciplines that share a common object, viz. music. Therefore, in order to understand music more completely on an intellectual level, the study of music theory must be approached as an end in itself.

The following article will explain some common misconceptions and outline the general sequence and scope for learning music theory. In addition, some methods of learning music theory will be explored as well as how to determine how to begin this study.

What is music theory and why is it so hard to learn?

Music theory is the science of how music works. All scientific disciplines require a systematic mastery of principals. Therefore, lacking an ordered approach to learning these principals, music theory is difficult to learn.

What are some common misconceptions about music theory?

One of the most common misconceptions about music theory stems from the perception that music theory is beyond the grasp of the average musician. It may be deemed the Mythology of Music Theory. I have had conversations with many competent musicians who will make it a point to state that they: “play by ear”, “never learned to read music”, or “wish they had learned music theory”. Clearly, there is a perceived lack of knowledge on their part with regard to the completeness of their musicianship, but a lack of confidence in their ability to learn the subject of music theory. In reality, anyone can learn music theory when it is presented in a systematic way.

Will music theory teach me how to write songs?

Another common misconception regarding music theory has to do with its primary function. It is not a method for learning song writing or composition. Music theory is analytical, whereas song writing and composition develops out of imitation. The most direct way to become a (contemporary) songwriter or composer is to imitate a particular style and develop your own unique contribution as you work within that genre. However, the tools of music theory can analyze the structures of historical music and, therefore, enable a composer to create in that historic style. Generally speaking, song writers of contemporary music do not need such analysis to compose their music because the musical structures they draw from are readily apparent from personal experience.

Can I learn music theory while I am learning guitar or another instrument?

This is possible if you treat learning the guitar and music theory as separate disciplines with the same object, viz. music. Music theory primarily requires the use of the intellectual faculty, whereas learning an instrument utilizes the faculties which are oriented to motor-skill development and muscle memory. That is not to say, they do not mutually enhance each other as parts of the whole, but the knowledge and skills that each require are different; therefore, learning each discipline separately is necessary.

How long does it take to learn music theory?

The typical undergraduate course in music theory at a music college is four years or eight semesters. I note this only to point out that learning music theory takes time, and similar to the guitar, offers a lifetime of learning opportunities. Realistically, it is during the first two or three semesters that the fundamental material of music theory is presented and mastered. After that, generally, the study of what is known as the common period of classical music (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.) is pursued using music theory to analyse compositions of this period. However, depending on the individual, a self-paced curriculum or privately guided tutorial presenting music theory fundamentals, without the subsequent study of the common period music, can be completed in less time.

Can I learn music theory if I can’t read music?

What is generally meant when someone says they can’t read music is: they are not able to sight read music, or more specifically, they play by ear or use some other non-standard notational reading to learn songs, e.g. tablature, lead sheets, etc. Since the study of music theory confines itself to the understanding of music and not the performance of music, it is only necessary to read music to the degree that the notational symbols can be identified and their relationships understood. This is purely a cognitive skill that anyone can acquire with enough study. 

How is music theory taught?

The first level of music theory is generally called music fundamentals. At this level, note identification, intervals, constructing major scales, and learning key signatures are the primary focus. Next, chords or triads are introduced, their qualities and inversions are demonstrated as well as common chord progressions and the use of cadences. More advanced topics such as secondary dominants and modulation follow, which leads to the identification of common musical forms and melodic structures. In other words, there is a systematic progression from the smaller units of musical structure to the larger units.

What is the best approach to learning music theory?

Learning music theory is analogous to learning mathematics. Each smaller concept must be mastered before moving onto the larger concept, because the smaller concepts provide the basis of understanding for the larger. For example, a major triad consists of two intervals: a major 3rd and a minor 3rd. An interval is the distance between two notes measured in half-steps. Half steps are the smallest distance between two notes (inclusive of Western music). A major 3rd consists of four half-steps and a minor third consists of three half-steps. 

Furthermore, mastery learning is essential for a genuine understanding of each concept. In order to master the material, you will need to complete practice exercises for each new concept before moving onto the next. If you are interested in teaching yourself, look for a curriculum that provides ample exercises at the end of each lesson to test your mastery.

What is an applied learning approach?

Using your guitar and applying some of the music theory concepts that you are learning is a great way to develop your ear training and learn more about your instrument. For example, try playing the different types of intervals you are learning, play the major scales that you learn, build triads, play some of the common chord progressions, play a chord progression that contains a modulation, etc. These types of applied exercises don’t require an extensive knowledge of note reading. Many of the fundamental concepts that you will learn can be tried on your guitar, which will greatly improve your ability to hear those concepts when you listen to music.

Where should I start when learning music theory?

So, if you’ve made it this far, and you have a realistic picture of the common pitfalls, and a clearer understanding of the scope and sequence for the study of music theory- you are ready to start. Next, think about whether you learn more effectively in a class or one-on-one, or if you will be guiding yourself using a purchased curriculum. If you will be enrolling in a class, and if you have prior musical experience, e.g. played in a band at school, ask to take a placement test to find out if it is necessary to start at the beginning of their curriculum or in a more advanced class. Of course, if you are taking a private lesson, your teacher will be able to determine where to start and what materials to use. Alternatively, if you have decided on a self-paced curriculum, you will need to decide on whether to use a general music theory text or one that is adapted for guitar.

Should I use a general music theory text or one specifically tailored for guitar?

I would recommend a general music theory text rather than a music theory for guitar only curriculum. In my experience, these programs tend to be guitar-centric. That is, they tend to center around what is natural for a guitar to play to the exclusion of other concepts. Of course, that makes sense because that is the scope of the text. However, the result produces a limited experience of music theory and diminishes the scope of the subject. Remember, it is not necessary to play examples of the concepts yourself in order to gain an understanding of them. You can listen to recordings in order to connect the knowledge with the aural effect. Even if you will never play a Mozart symphony or even go to hear one, being able to listen to his music and understand his intention is an enlightening experience and will only make your own playing more thoughtful and artistic.

About the author 

Scott Zimmerman

Scott Zimmerman is a professional music instructor with over twenty years of guitar performance and teaching experience. Scott holds a Masters Degree in Music Education from Peabody Conservatory.