Should I Learn Music Theory?

[ For extra credit, locate all the notation errors in the above image. But it looks, cool, right? ]

Hey, musician. You might have these beliefs and fears:

1: Music is all about mystery and emotion. If I learn some music theory it will take the magic out of my music and I’ll be less creative. 

2: I won’t enjoy listening to my favorite music anymore because it will all just be math. 

3: Music is better when you’re not thinking.

It’s alright, I thought that way, too. (And so do many successful musicians I know…)

The truth is: music theory is a tool you can choose to use. Or not. 

If you don’t want to learn music theory, that’s fine. But when musicians have a shared language, communicating becomes so much easier. Music Theory is that shared language. 

Not knowing music theory is like trying to drive somewhere but not having street names, addresses, or distances. Imagine trying to tell your friend how to get to a place without those things. You’d probably need to put them in your car and drive them all the way there. Then, they’d need to remember exactly how you got there, all the turns, without the street names again. Driving back would be yet another challenge. And that is exactly how many of us operate. 

With music theory, getting from place to place — understanding a piece of music — saves an extreme amount of time and energy. Why? Because we can use those street names, addresses, and distances that have been agreed upon for hundreds of years.

(Fitting with this analogy, sheet music is just a map. Don’t be afraid to learn some basic notation skills. It’s only another tool to communicate music.)

This doesn’t mean that you need to be operating in the language of Music Theory Nerd full-time. There are other “modalities” for understanding music. Sometimes you’ll need to trust at least two others:

1: Playing By Shapes

2: Playing By Ear

You’ll use these different ways of thinking at different times, switching between them / combining them, depending on the situation. It can only help you to have additional ways of solving musical problems.

And if you’re serious about music / want to do it for the rest of your life, why not acquire every musical skill you can? 

Allan Holdsworth created his own personal system for understanding scales and harmony. I don’t understand it, but it obviously worked for him!

I swear to you that three semesters of college music theory gave me a giant boost to my compositional abilities when I was 21. Before that, every piece of music I wrote was like wandering around in the dark and trying to find the right notes, with little success. What chord comes next? It would take me forever. I felt limited. Suddenly, I could create in broad strokes and fill in the little details using my understanding of keys, chords, scales. It’s like having macros. (It’s a way of storing full sentences or larger operations in a single keystroke on your computer, so you don’t need to type things over and over).

Here’s one last belief / fear:

It will take me too long to learn.

Fact: Music Theory is taught in 4 levels in college. Each level takes about 4 months, 2 days a week. Learning Level 1 can get you far, as it did with me. I’m telling you, you could know this stuff by May 1 this year if you start now!

That said, we all have varying abilities and capacities for learning. I’m not going to claim that we can all master any skill if we simply practice for 10,000 hours (that is a myth). But don’t use that as an excuse to avoid learning it altogether. Even a little bit of some music theory can help you! 

Like anyone, I am naturally good at some things and not so good at others. Or to put it another way: I can learn some things very fast and other things, uh, not so fast. The way I see it, having basic music theory skills makes up for things I’m not so good at. One of those things might be called Harmony Audiation. But that’s for another time. 

Two Music Theory books I recommend. Links below.

If you want to learn music theory you probably can’t go wrong with any basic textbook. I recommend this one (the one I learned from) which has been the standard in colleges for a million years:

Tonal Harmony: With an Introduction to Twentieth-Century Music by Stefan Kosta

It’s worth it, even if you can find an old copy from 20 years ago. I keep my 1996 edition handy for reference.

Vaideology: Basic Music Theory For Guitar Players by Steve Vai is another good one for the very basics, but is nowhere as deep as a textbook. 

I hope this post inspires you and was helpful. If you have any thoughts or questions, leave them as a reply below, or email

To support this blog, join my Patreon.

One thought on “Should I Learn Music Theory?

  1. Too many of us take the “lazy way” out, which is actually the more difficult way. I think musicians are much more likely to be stubborn and want to do things their own way. In a way, it’s a cop-out, and I know I’m guilty of it, too. It’s especially prevalent with drummers, it seems. The more we understand any language, the easier it is for us to use it, and it is NEVER too late to learn more.

Leave a Reply