Do You Have To Be A Certain Age To Learn Music Theory?

So you've been playing music for a while now, but you have never taken the time to properly learn music theory. How long can you get by before it is too late for you? Or is any time a good time to learn?

Theres a common dialogue I find happening on online forums between musicians who have learned by ear or have been playing their instrument for a while. They often will come to the message boards with pertinent questions about their playing, and receive a lot of really great answers. But any time someone tries to suggest that they learn a bit of music theory to help progress their playing, they are met with the following responses:

* "I wish I could understand it, but you can't teach a new trick to an old dog" (this was from a 45 year old)

* "I'll be 63 next spring, and just don't have enough good years left to absorb and profit from it."

* "I wish I had started early. I'm an old man now so.... lol" (later it was revealed that this person was 45)

I always feel a little confused from excuses like this. I've taught many older students, some even well into their 80s, who have made great progress with their playing. Since when can a person be too old to learn new things? And where do people get the idea that theory only slows down their learning?

I've Been Playing Without Theory Just Fine

You're not the only one who started off this way. An amateur composer by the name of Nick also got by for quite some time with just a basic knowledge of reading music. He didn't know anything about music theory, which means chords and intervals were a mystery to him.

Because of his combination of a good ear, his way with melodies, and his connections to other people who knew what they were doing, Nick was able to compose a few pieces and get them played by an actual orchestra. Through lots of trial and error, not only was he able to orchestrate all the pieces, but he also received a bit of local fame for his work.

He went on to become the Professor of Composition & Orchestration at a conservatory at the age of 27. He would rush through various theory books in attempts to stay ahead of his students. After a few years of both studying and teaching, he went back to his older pieces to include his newfound theory knowledge and realized that he actually quite enjoyed the practice.

You might think this story sounds made up as some elaborate plot to push my adoration for theory. Well you can look it up yourself by a quick google search of a man by the name of Nicolai Rimksy-Korsakov. You know, the person who wrote "Flight of the Bumblebee" (and other great pieces).

It's true that 27 isn't considered to be all that old, but think of all he was able to do in the time before he started to learn theory. He wrote two famous orchestral works and he got asked to teach composition and orchestration professionally. If its not too late for this guy who seemingly had it all, music wise, then it's definitely not to late for a 40-something beginner guitar player!

How Old Is Too Old?

You might be thinking, "Thats a nice story about a 27 year old, but I am definitely older than that guy."

Fair. Let's talk about another musician named Josh. This isn't another story about a famous composer, but instead a student of mine who began lessons with me at 60 years old.

Josh played guitar and bass in a number of bands and came to me with quite a bit of skill already. Besides a little technique work he needed to do, he had a solid foundation in playing. What he came to me for was to work on his theory practice. He needed to get the basics down in order to audition into a well-known local band. And after a few months of hard work he was hired by the band and now spends most nights playing well-attended shows and having fun doing it.

Josh has told me on a number of occasions that he definitely would not be able to keep up in that band if it wasn't for his theory practice. Knowing theory not only makes him a more capable player, but a more confident player too.

Is It Really For Everyone?

If you haven't gathered this already, the point I am trying to make here is the following: No matter where you are at in your musical journey, no matter how young, how old, how experienced, you are ready to start learning music theory.

It's a common misconception that theory is only something for kids to learn when they are first starting out. But in my experience, adults have a much better time with theory. Not only do they have longer attention spans and willingness to practice, but even after just a few theory lessons its exciting to see how it applies the music you are interested in.

As much as you might try to use age as an excuse, your life isn't over after 50 or 60. I have actually had many students decide to pick up a guitar for the first time in their 70's. My oldest student was a very eager woman who started lessons at the age of 88.

Next time you hear someone try to use the "I'm too old" excuse, do us both a favour and send them this article. Not only is it healthy to challenge yourself sometimes, but it can be fun too. Don't stand in your own way of learning something new!

Tommaso Zillio is a professional prog rock/metal guitarist and composer based in Edmonton, AB, Canada.

Tommaso is currently working on an instrumental CD, and an instructional series on fretboard visualization and exotic scales. He is your go-to guy for any and all music theory-related questions.

Tommaso Zillio