Monthly Archives: May 2011

Music Theory — why??

A friend of mine recently asked me, “what are some practical applications of music theory?” This is a very good question. I mean… why learn something if you never going to use it.

Here are some of my thoughts:


As part of learning theory I think you also end up learning how to read music. You learn what the lines and what some of the funny symbols are all about. Personally, I can’t read very fast. But I can read something if I have to. So it provides a way of communicating with other musicians in written form.

Theory is also useful for verbal communication. I find it simpler to talk in numbers rather than letters. Let’s say the song is in G. I prefer saying, “Let’s try playing a 6 5 4 5 progression for the bridge” rather than “Em D C D”. I guess they’re both just as quick…

But let’s say the song has a key change. It’s easier to say, “Let’s try the same progression 1 step up” rather than “Instead of G play A, instead of Em play F#m, instead of C play D, instead of D play E”, etc., etc.


I do a lot of my learning in the car (driving by myself). It seems to be where I can have a block of time to just listen and I can blast it without others complaining. For most songs that I have to learn which are mostly pop and rock I’m able to pick out chord structures and notes while I’m listening. So by the time I get to a guitar, I already have a good idea of what I’m doing playing… maybe evn how. This is called “relative pitch”: being able to identify a I chord vs a IV chord vs a II minor, etc. I wish I also had “perfect pitch” and was able to also tell what the key is. Maybe in the next life.

Understanding theory provides a framework that allows you to quickly figure out what a song is doing (how chords are changing). This coupled with ear training allows you to identify chords and notes quickly and without a lot of guessing.

One time I was sitting with a friend of mine who’s a very talented piano player. We were watching a performance at a conference and she said, “Wow, I really like this song.” She took out some pen and paper and just started writing out the melody she was hearing in numbers. Music theory gives you the language to be able to translate what you hear to something that can be read.


Aside from the obvious advantage of being able to write your composition in music notation so someone else can play your song, music theory comes in handy during writing because it gives you an idea what chords and notes would sound “good” together. And conversely, it would also tell you what chords and notes might sound “strange” and “unexpected” (if that’s what you’re going for). Again, it takes some of the guess work out. Or maybe answer the question, “is this basically the same song as ___?” (the answer is usually yes and it’s okay… we all borrow from somebody)

As you analyze more and more songs, you’ll notice certain patterns are used over and over again. And you’ll notice that these patterns seem to almost always give you a certain “feel”. This might also be useful while writing. Maybe there’s a certain “feel” you’re going after. Music theory might help give you a starting point to vary from.

understanding theory will also help you understand and come up with harmony quicker. This can be used 2 ways: what chords to use and/or what background vocals to sing to harmonize with a given melody.

Moving it up and down

To tie it all to guitar…

One of the things I love about guitar is that you can visually see how the theory “plays out”. For instance, transposing a song from one key to another might be (usually is) as simple as moving a few shapes up or down the neck. This is not true, say, for the piano. Your fingers have to do something slightly different when playing in C vs Eb. No one every feels sorry for the guitarist if the singer decides to change the key (and it’s almost always the singer 😉

In a previous post, we looked at how all chords of the same type (ie major, minor, 7, etc.) are held the same way regardless of the root note. Example: you’d hold G7 and A7 the same way except a few frets apart.

Final Thoughts

I think theory can often be “misused”. You can easily box yourself in both as a player and composer. Nevertheless, it’s a useful tool to have in your toolbox for creative expression.

Wow, I can’t believe I just typed all this on a keyboard hooked up to an ipod!