Four Common Mistakes Made When Learning Music Theory

If you are here reading this article, it probably means you are a musician whose had a challenging time with theory. Or perhaps you want to make sure that you are not making any mistakes with your progress so far. Either way, this article is going to help create a more easy and fun learning experience.

There are countless musicians out there who have been led to believe that music theory is useless. I already wrote , so I am not here to talk to those people today. I am here for the musicians realize just how important theory is, but are struggling to make it work in their playing.

You might think that to really learn and understand music theory takes many years to do. This is fortunately not the case.

It only seems that way because there are so many people out there who just aren't learning properly. This is usually true for taught musicians who think they don't need any help or guidance. But any good teacher will tell you exactly what you need to know when it comes to theory, and how it can work to better your playing.

This article is a great place to start if you are ready to learn music theory in a more useful and effective way.

Following Rules Too Closely

Theory is about learning the rules that MUST be followed in order to be a proper musician, right? Well, no. Not exactly. There are really no hard and fast rules when it comes to music.

Well then what is the point of music theory, you ask? Think of it like this. Theory is merely made up of suggestions (really good suggestions) on how to create and play music. Whether or not you use these suggestions is your decision to make. However, you need to know why you are deciding this. And how are you to make this conscious decision if you don't know what you are even doing in the first place?

I strongly recommend first playing through how its explained in the books before you start developing your own tastes and techniques.

Too Much Reading, Not Enough Playing

As you are studying theory, you should always ask yourself "How does this apply to my playing?". Theory isn't just learned to impress your friends at a dinner party. It actually makes playing your instrument more easy and enjoyable.

Don't get too caught up in trying to understand everything you read about right away. Even if you only fully understand one out of the first ten things you read, you are still making progress. And if something really isn't making sense to you, pick up your instrument and at least get used to the sound of it. It's all about taking those little steps.

Ignoring The Rules

While you don't want to follow the rules TOO closely, that doesn't mean to pretend they don't exist.
You can usually tell when you are listening to a player who never took the time to properly learn anything about theory. Their music will either sound like everyone else (because they don't know any better but to copy what other people do), or it will sound completely amateur.

"But didn't you just tell me that I should break the rules of theory?" Yes, you are right. There is a difference between breaking rules and ignoring rules. If you never take the time to learn the theory behind how music is made, then you will have a very hard time seeing any real progress.

You need to know the rules before you can break them. And you have to know the rules before you can understand why you are choosing to make certain artistic choices. Trust me, it's good for you.

Separating Theory From Creativity

The reason we learn theory is to help us reach our musical goals. What happens when we have our head stuck in a book for too long is that we forget to connect what we read to the joy we feel when we are actually playing music. The trick is to always keep in mind what exactly you are hoping to improve upon and to always have your instrument in hand as you are learning.

It is unfortunate that music theory is so often taught in a way that seems to suffocate students creativity. I believe this must be because their teachers are either too lazy to find ways to connect theory to what their students are playing, or that perhaps they are just not that creative themselves.

Either way, as you are headed on your journey with music theory, remember to never let it get boring (because it doesn't have to be!). In fact, connecting theory to your own creative pursuits is one of the enriching experiences a player can have. If you challenge yourself to get creative with theory by immediately applying what you learn to your own writing/playing, you will be surprised at how fast you can learn this stuff.

Never Stop Learning

When it comes to music theory, there are endless concepts you can learn. So why limit yourself? If you are one of those people who are working hard to understand theory, but are having a slow start, then you've already won half the battle by at least trying to understand in the first place! Don't give up, take it slow, and remember not to make any of the above mistakes as you go along.

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