music theory

How Much Music Theory Do You Really Need?

By Jason Hall
In Mar 7, 2021
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How much music theory do you really need? At some point, all aspiring guitarists (myself included) ask this question. This question is natural as embarking on the journey to elucidate musical questions we’ve always had can be a long one, and many of us feel apprehensive toward the seemingly insurmountable task of uncovering the ‘secrets’ hidden away in the vast labyrinth of musical knowledge.

If you had to ask for advice, you might find that this topic is debated by professional guitar players and teachers, making it even more confusing for students to figure out the answers. However, as someone who once played live gigs with little music theory knowledge and then decided to devote a great part of my life to decoding the intricacies of music theory, I believe I may be able to shed some light.

What Type Of Guitarist Do You Want To Become

 

Firstly, the question depends very much on what kind of guitar player you aspire to become. Some very successful guitarists double as symphonic conductors, arrangers, or composers. Others have gotten by with learning a few basic chords and letting their ears do the rest to launch them into stardom – such as my childhood idol, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. The music you love and wish to play may consist of very few chord changes or complicated solos. Some styles may even encourage a care-free, ‘loose’ approach to playing. If this is the case, you will likely end up spending less time in front of sheet music and more time coming up with simple riffs and chord progressions that you like.

On the other hand, if the music you think is awesome evinces complicated rhythmic and harmonic elements such as jazz, R&B, or math metal, then you’re clearly going to need to learn a thing or two about key signatures, exotic timings, and modes. Most students that sign up for guitar lessons probably fall somewhere in the middle: they want to know more than the bare minimum so that they are not limited but may not be interested in stringing together cross rhythms from various melodic minor modes to compose cutting-edge avant-garde jazz suites. Thus, in the following section I will outline the theory I believe can greatly benefit and enrich the experience of any guitar player from beginner to advanced.

Learn Basic Music Theory Fundamentals

 

Beginner guitar players should aim to understand the following concepts early in their guitar careers: tempo, bars, beats, rhythm, pulse, time signature, note values. Here are some brief explanations of basic music theory:

  • Beats: the fundamental, constant time intervals used to count music. The ticks of a metronome play beats.
  • Bar (A.K.A: measure): a grouping of beats (usually 4) that make it easier to keep track of structure within a song. The number of beats in a bar informs how the song will be counted (e.g., “1, 2, 3, 4”) and is determined by the time signature.
  • Time signature: represented as a fraction, time signatures indicate how many beats are to be counted in a bar. Some songs may have a ¾ time signature (such as in waltz music) which means that the music is counted and felt in groups of 3s.
  • Tempo: tempo describes the speed of the music by indicating the bpm (how many beats are heard per minute). E.g., a tempo of 80bpm.
  • Pulse: like the human heart, music pulses with beats at regular intervals that establish the tempo of the music. You can feel the pulse of any song by tapping your feet, bobbing your head, or snapping you fingers to it. Try to ‘feel the pulse’ in your own playing.
  • Note values: the varying units of time that make up the rhythm of the song. There are a number of them ranging from whole notes (semibreves) to 32nd notes (demisemiquavers) that should be learned and guitarists should aspire to practice exercises using the various note values. Note values can be used to notate the rhythm of a strumming pattern or the rhythm of a melody or riff played on the guitar.

Learn To Understand Harmony And Key

 

Rhythm and harmony are the two most fundamental parameters of music. If rhythm is concerned with time, then harmony is concerned with note selection for chords and melodies. Most beginners learn the basic open chord shapes and how to play a few melodies on the guitar, but if you want to be able to write your own music, better understand the music you love, or arrange music in a group setting, you need to understand harmony and key.

Harmony

 

Harmony is all about the sounds that emerge from stacking notes together at the same time (i.e., a chord). For instance, you may want to know what exactly makes a major chord a major chord. The three notes that constitute a major triad are not arbitrary; they are selected in a formulaic manner from the key they belong to. The same is true for minor chords and understanding the formulas to create these chords can allow you to manipulate human emotion in your own music.

The Key

 

‘Key’ refers to a set group of pitches that give a song a sense of tonality. These notes are derived from the associated scale of the key. An example of a song in the key of A major will use notes from the A major Scale and learning the scale will equip you with the right notes, so that you don’t have to rely solely on your ear to figure out what sounds consonant or dissonant. With more advanced knowledge of harmony, you will understand how the scale used in a song dictates the type of chords that fit well into the chord progression of the song. In other words, if you want to learn how to string chords together in a sensible way and create your own melodies and solos to accompany them, you need to learn musical harmony.

Just The Tip

 

Of course, the things I’ve mentioned thus far are just the tip of the iceberg of musical knowledge to be learned. However, I believe these to be the most important to guitar players. If you truly have a robust understanding of these concepts, you will be equipped to branch out in whichever direction you choose after mastering the beginner and intermediate phases of your guitar journey.

There are myriad scale and chord shapes to be learned on the guitar, but the process of memorising these shapes becomes a lot more enjoyable and practical when one actually understands how they work and how to apply them. Keeping the above in mind throughout your guitar journey will make it a more interesting and rewarding one, and at the same time you can skip the types of things you may be taught in a music college such as sight-reading, multi-part harmony writing, or memorising endless Italian terms – that is, unless you want to learn those things too, of course. Music theory ultimately will make your musical journey more enjoyable and easier on your mind.

 

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• Currently a top music student at the University of the Witwatersrand • Can teach music theory up to grade 8 ABRSM. • Looks a bit like Kurt Cobain but can play like Jimmy Page • Can play the keys and guitar simultaneously • Gigs with a professional jazz quintet • Police clearance issued

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