Will Learning Music Theory Change Your Playing?

When you're searching for advice on learning guitar, you'll hear some people saying music theory is the way to go, others despise the practice, saying it'll drain your potential. They can't both be right. And theory looks difficult to learn — is it really that beneficial? Keep reading to learn what music theory can do for you.

Everyone on the Internet likes to talk about their tips for learning Music Theory, and there's always at least one commenter who doesn't believe it's worth it ("you just gotta feel and go along with the vibe"), or that other person who says Theory "is the only way to get good." But one thing neither of these people get into is what tangible benefits does learning Music Theory actually give you.

It's always a good practice to know what you're getting into before expending energy on it, right?

Like any good debate, experts land on either side of the fence when it comes to Music Theory. And there is a solid reason why you can find many articles about people who have had a bad experience with it: They've learned Music Theory the wrong way. But how can you be sure you're on the right path? I've written a short article on the signs of fake music theory, although, the quickest way to figure it out is to actually listen to how the concept sounds.

In the end, once you start learning Music Theory using the "real" method, you will start gaining the following skills (and these are just the beginning) much quicker than you might think.

You'll Have The Ability To Write Songs Like A Breeze

Have you ever had a sudden rush of inspiration for a great riff, but then start to have trouble breaking it into a whole song? This is a common issue that happens to every musician — the good news it's a temporary condition caused by a limited knowledge of composition and creative stimulation.

I know, I know, you've never heard that learning music theory can actually stimulate creativity; but it's absolutely true. And that's because, contrary to popular belief, Music Theory actually doesn't contain a single rule, but is actually a set of tools to be used when they're needed.
There is also a large study of Music Theory dedicated to the exact problem of completing songs from a single melody, riff, or chord progression. The best part is that there are many ways to do this — and learning theory will help you find multiple different ways for the darkest of nights.
Think about it, Elton John isn't the only musician out there who won't work on a song for more than 30 minutes, realizing that taking any longer only results in a boring composition; but have you ever composed a song of that quality in less than 30 minutes? Would you like to make it to that level? The answer lies in music theory, and that ability comes much faster than you would believe.

You'll Learn To Visualize And Play Anything On Guitar

Is you've listened to Steve Vai before, have you every seen him rocking the same melody on guitar as he is singing? It's actually him transcribing music from vocals to guitar live, but the best part is that it isn't nearly as hard to do as it sounds: just a few different exercises and bit of practice and you'll be rocking them like Steve himself.

You don't think that's possible? Start watching this video at 8:55 and you'll learn what you need to do to get started on this technique now.

Watch through this a couple of times and leave a comment if this isn't as easy as it seems.

You'll Learn How To Solo Over Every Chord Progression

Many players new to the guitar know of only two methods to solo or make a melody over a chord progression: using "patterns" or going by "ear"; meaning they either listen for notes and melodies that sound good, or by learning and playing a number of unique patterns to use on top of fast or complex progressions.

You'll be forgiven if it sounds a little backwards — because it absolutely is. When you start to learn theory, you'll see that using patterns and playing by ear are actually the same for two reasons:

1. You'll know the patterns before the notes are played

2. When you hear a note, you'll know what patterns it works with

Playing with patterns and by ear will mesh into the same thing once you start picking up theory the correct way. Once this happens, your fingers will become an extension of your heart — even when you're faced with complicated progressions.

It sounds tough, but once you start practicing, you'll see how simple it really is.

Next Steps

Now that you're ready to begin working on these skills, it's time to hit the books. There are thousands of resources on different sites throughout the Internet. And while there are good ones out there, finding them means you have to think critically as outlined in my article about Real Vs. Fake Music Theory; I have many more resources that can be found in the link below, as well — such as a map to help navigate Music Theory, and guides for beginners. Remember to grab your guitar, and practice along with all of the readings!

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