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Stop Bugging Me About Music Theory!

If you troll through the internet looking for music theory +  guitar, you find people telling you that you need music theory. Some of them are angry about it.


Nobody needs music theory.


Unless you want to make a career out of music. Most people not learning guitar in college or university (which happens to be most people) aren’t interested in going pro.


Some are.


In which case, learn your theory. It’ll be easier to make a living. The rest of you? Don’t worry about it.


Some background

I’ve taught theory and composition in university.


Some truth

You don’t need music theory to play the guitar.


Some more truth

You’d probably be happier if you knew some music theory. You might even be able to play the guitar better.


I’ve tried to address the second truth by posting about note-reading, building chords, defining terms, key signatures, etc, but only when it applies to making something.


I haven’t addressed the first truth because there’s not much to say about that. You either agree or disagree.


Here’s what I think:


Play and learn

Just play the guitar. Theory will follow practice.


Learn a scale and you have a finger exercise. Use that scale to play a solo on a jam track and you’ll know about keys (most jam tracks – from books or internet – tell you what key you’re in).


This won’t tell you a ton about keys, but you’ll know that you need to relate the scale to the key.  If you don’t, everything you play will be hit and miss.


You won’t like that, and you’ll learn more about the key/scale relationship. You’ll learn that you need to use the letter-name of the key as the first note of the scale. In other words, start the scale on C if you’re in the key of C.




  • C minor pentatonic on a blues in C
  • C major pentatonic on a country song in C
  • C major scale on a tune in C major
  • C minor scale on a tune in C minor


If there’s any information in those four statements that you didn’t already know, you’ll search, find, and learn. Or you’ll take a few lessons. You might even want to study theory as a separate thing.


When you get dissatisfied with playing in the same place on the guitar, you’ll learn about modes. These allow you to play the notes of a scale anywhere on the guitar.


When you get dissatisfied with the number of chords you know, you’ll learn more and figure out how to use them. All of these activities are theory-based. Why would you not do them?


Be curious

If you’re curious about music and the guitar, you’ll move down a path of increasing knowledge and interest. At some point, you’ll probably get a teacher if you need advice or direction.


If you’re not curious about music and the guitar, then ask yourself why you’re holding a guitar. There’s no shame in putting it down and finding something you’re more interested in.


Whatever you do, don’t let people make you feel bad for not knowing music theory.


Just play the guitar.


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Craft, relationship, perfection

Write it down

If you write down all the things you’re trying, you’ll have material for other songs. You know, all that stuff you wrote down that doesn’t work in this song? It might work in another one.

Nothing you make is useless. Save it all.



Think of craft as your relationship with the material. By material I mean everything you use to make a song: chords, rhythms, melody, words. Relationships are built on emotional reactions to what you build with this material.

This is why you write stuff down: so you can look closely at what you’re doing. So you can learn about how you respond to what you’re doing. So you can learn and grow.

If you accept the first thing that comes out of you, then you’re not doing this. You’re not looking at yourself. You’re not allowing yourself to feel anything. You’re saying that you’re perfect.

You’re not perfect. Sorry.


Last words on craft (for now)

Craft is a starting place, a set of possibilities.

It avoids absolutes, certainties

It is about experience. It is about desire.
It can be beautiful.’

– Edmund de Waal


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Craft and weirdness

Craft involves working with music to develop skill. Working with music helps you to understand the materials (chords, rhythms, etc.) you’re working with. Developing craft means developing both skill and a deep understanding of materials.


How do you do this?


One way is to consider how the music supports the lyrics. Doing something unpredictable might support it. Not playing might support it.  Using a different harmonic rhythm or different strumming rhythms than the ones you’ve been using might support it. Adding a chord in the second verse that wasn’t there in the first verse might support it.



All of these things involve doing something unexpected. Doing something unexpected often feels weird.


Think of a song you’re writing. Where can you do something unexpected? Anywhere, really, but where will it be effective? Try things in different places and see how it feels. Write those things down. After a while you get a feel for what works and your writing gets more interesting.


Be patient. In the short term, it feels like you’re getting worse. In the long term, you’re getting better than most other people, because most other people can’t put up with the short term. Try it and after a while the obvious weirdness gets more subtle. Listeners don’t notice it; they just notice that there’s something interesting about your stuff.


If you’re patient, if you really listen to what you’re writing, if you try different things, you will make better songs. It will take longer. You’ll have fewer songs. But it’s better to have one great song instead of ten crappy ones.

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More on craft

In a previous post on craft (back on April 7), I talked about the things you could do with two chords. To repeat:


“Experimenting with chord relationships is part of the craft process. Why does a chord sound better going to one chord more than another? Why does a chord relationship work in one song, but not in another?


Answers to these questions don’t emerge right away. You might have to wait for the next song. Or you might never get an answer. Or the “answer” might come in the form of an insight that has nothing to do with the question. Just ask the questions. Things will happen. You’ll get better.”


The next chord

Continuing the process into the third chord brings up other questions. These questions are different from person to person, but they usually sound something like: Does chord 1 sound better going to chord 2 or chord 3? Do different rhythms sound better between different chords? Many of these questions are unconscious. Try to be aware of them.


Rhythm experimenting

Once you’ve put the chords where you want them, try experimenting with harmonic rhythm (where you’re placing the chords) and strumming rhythms. This might change the progression, or just where you decide to place a chord. It might not change anything.Whatever happens, this process is important if you want to effectively support the words, and write the best song that you can.


A lot of songwriters don’t think about this. Important words come in unexpected places sometimes. A change of chord at those points can make all the difference. Or not. You really have to try things out.


You are not your work

Craft separates you from your work so that you can clearly see what the music needs. Not what you need. What the music needs. Make the separation. You are not the thing you make. But you will still have emotional responsesto that thing, and to your inability to make it perfect.


Nothing is perfect.But everything can be made better.


And yes, craft makes it better.

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Suppressing self-expression is really hard. This makes suppressing originality really hard, too. I mean, you can do it, but only up to a certain point.


This is good news! You don’t have to work to be original! You just have to work to learn about music if that’s where you want to be original.


Constructing ourselves

We construct ourselves out of our experience of living in a particular culture.We do this by making decisions about how we’re going to act based on what we experience. These decisions express who we are in the world differently than anyone else.


We see it on the street in the way people dress, how they cut their hair, their hand gestures. We see it in songwriting in the way people put chords and words together.Why can people still use the 12 bar blues progression and get away with it? Because they bring themselves to it. Whatever that is, it’s expressed in the choices they make while they’re playing or writing.


Originality isn’t an issue. Stretching yourself is. Go ahead and steal other people’s music.Anybody who’s ever played to blues is doing exactly that. The challenge is to take what you steal apart and put it back together in an interesting way.


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Craft 3: Working with Chords


Experimenting with chord relationships is part of the craft process. Why does a chord sound better going to one chord more than another? Why does a chord relationship work in one song, but not in another?


Answers to these questions don’t emerge right away. You might have to wait for the next song. Or you might never get an answer. Or the “answer” might come in the form of an insight that has nothing to do with the question. Just ask the questions. Things will happen. You’ll get better.


Developing skill means trying things out to see what works.



Different chord shapes

The most common chord progression in the world is C major to G major. How many C chords do you know? How many G chords? If you only know one of each, then you only have one choice for a progression. If you know two C chords (I’ll call them C1 and C2; same chord, different shape) and one G chord, you have two choices. If you know two of each, you have a total of four choices: C1 to G1; C2 to G1; C1 to G2; C2 to G2.


And there’s a lot more than two of each. Here’s a link to major triads shapes.


Trying things out means doing the work to see what the possibilities are. Working with the possibilities develops skill. This is craft.

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