5 Things You Can Do With Music Theory
Knowing Music Theory REALLY Helps!
I learned music sitting on the side of my bed, listening to music and trying like hell to figure out how to play what I was hearing. It wasn’t until 10 years later that someone informed me that chords and scales were related. In those days, it seemed like a magic trick if someone made up a chord progression that sounded good. So, I realized I was missing out and I started learning how music worked. Later on, I discovered this was called music theory.
Making up your own chords is one of the first things every songwriter tries to do. You can do it by ear, copying other songs you know. But, then all your progressions sound the same (or at least the same as the music you like listening to). Learning music theory – specifically how chords are built within a major or minor scale – illuminates the path to creating unlimited (and more importantly original) chord progressions.
Theory isn’t just for songwriting, but also for learning songs that you love. Understanding that some chord progressions occur much more often than others, diminishes the challenge of figuring out songs from your iPod. Then, when it comes to writing songs, you’ll feel liberated to be more expressive AND original if you know how to figure out all the chords that might go together and then choose your favorites among them. In addition to the boost you’ll get to both learning and writing songs, music theory also boosts your appreciation of what goes into innovative and interesting songs (ones that think outside the box). That is more satisfying that you think!
Music theory is something that you can study, learn and apply anywhere, anytime… even when you don’t have your instrument. There are several ways to explore and practice your music theory knowledge on the go.
Some of My Favorite Apps (iOS)
- GarageBand (great ‘band-in-a-box’)
- Notion (notation app)
- Cubasis (for MIDI writing and mixing)
I’ll often use iPad/iPhone apps on long trips to create/explore/test out theoretical ideas and concepts. Modern mobile devices can pretty much function as full orchestras, so there’s hardly a limit to what you can do.
Music theory IS an intellectual pursuit, but getting good at it will also train your ears – which is SUPER helpful! For example, how are you going to learn to play a scale on your instrument without doing it a million times? I’ll tell you… you won’t. So, there you are playing your scales over and over and of course your ears are there with you… listening! So, as you practice and implement your music theory knowledge, your ears will improve automatically in the background. I used to suspect that music theory would dull my ability to “just feel” the music. But, I can see now that my ears are my greatest “just feel it” tool – and they were trained by my music theory study.
The first instrument I learned (guitar) seemed like the steepest climb. But, the subsequent instruments that I’ve learned have all been easier – thanks to music theory. Every instrument represents patterns – whether its on the fretboard or in the interplay between oscillators on a synthesizer. In the later example, music theory is a total boost to a player’s productivity! If a synth player understands the patterns between consonant and dissonant intervals then they will have the upper hand when they’re twiddling their synth’s knobs!
- Find a place to jam (friends house, around the camp fire, open mic, blues jam or community lessons, etc.).
- Before playing anything on your guitar, ask “what key are we in?”.
- Use music theory to identify the ‘candidate’ chords they might be playing (i.e. chords in the key).
- Start playing along.
- Keep practicing this until you can do it within ~10 seconds… It’s easier than you think (if you know theory:)
Music is a really awesome way to get together with other people. But, unless you know what you’re doing, it is pretty stressful and even the most brave among us can wind up feeling dejected. So, why not learn some music theory – like scales and their relationship to chords? Then, when you’re jamming with others you can (1) quickly identify the key they’re playing and (2) quickly figure out the right way to contribute to the musical conversation. This is like knowing a language – it is awesome to feel like you can say what’s on your mind and join in.
Take the Next Step
Knowing Music Theory REALLY Helps!
- Music theory helps us learn (or write) songs.
- Improve anytime, anywhere.
- Develop your ear more quickly.
- Learn your instrument (or a new one) more efficiently.
- Master ‘candidate’ chords and build confidence.
One of the best investments you can make, is to study and understand how music theory explains the songs you love. Music theory is one of the first things that I always direct my private students to learn… no matter what they *think* they are interested in. It always pays off because music theory always elevates the student, their questions and their ability to self-inform and follow their curiosity!