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Guitar Music Theory And Other Dark Arts

Music theory has always been somewhat of a taboo subject amongst music students. Many seem to instantly shy away from learning about it whilst others will simply glaze over. With it being such an intangible subject many find it way more difficult to learn and use than things such as aural skills, fretboard knowledge or technique. Having said this it's importance cannot be understated so what is the best way to go about learning it?

Which came first the music or the theory?


This is what I ask students when we start even considering music theory. Unlike the 'chicken or egg' the answer is a little more clean cut and reveals a little more about how students should think about how to learn music.


Another important piece of the puzzle is revealed in this video. Whilst I don't like turning lessons into a Youtube party we watch this video because of the questions that it raises. If you don't have time to watch it now it's comedy rock band The Axis of Awesome performing their hit tune '4 Chord Song' which is actually made up of parts of famous pop songs that rely on the same 4 chords played in the same order but stitched together.


The result of this is usually students asking 'why....?'. It's a clever piece of music it pokes fun at the percieved lack of imagination in certain areas of popular songwriting. The listener gets this but the intention is to get students to ask why this is and there you have the first step towards understanding music theory.


The music comes first, the theory comes second. The theory is there to help someone understand the music, to aid learning it and to learn from it and to help facilitate it's use. However unless you have a good reason to learn it then it will remain an abstract and eternally frustrating concept. Here are some examples of how music theory can be used in guitar playing to help you to be a better player....


1. Barre chords and note location: Barre chords are great as you can play any major and minor shape (along with many other extentions like 7ths etc) which frees you from the somewhat harmonic restrictiveness of just using open chords. To do this you need to learn the note locations on the 6th and 5th strings (low E and A strings).


2. Scales and improvisation: Improvisation is loads of fun but to do this you need to be able to have some tools to work with. Scales give you a collection of notes that work well together in a certain way and whilst these can be learned easily with fretboard diagrams showing shapes of the scales on the neck, you need more. Theory will help you to understand which scale to use which situation, even the simpler things like if it is a major or minor scale or which key it is in.


3. Tuning your guitar: Yes, even the most simple and humble of activities can involve music theory. Unless you are using a note specific guitar tuner you need to be aware of the order of the notes. Many times students have missed the sharp or flat symbol on the guitar leading to interesting tuning results. Knowing the chromatic scale what sharps or flats are is key here.


As you can see with all of these examples there is a strong reason for learning music theory in each case. In addition in examples 1 and 2 you can see how theory fits in with other musical concepts so you are learning the theory alongside other other musical skills so that they support each other.


Finally, only learn what you need. Only learn what works with and supports other areas of your playing and musical goals. Just because it is there doesn't mean that it all needs to be learned (unless you enjoy that sort of thing). There is very much a 'use it or loose it' approach to this. I've taught many students over the years who have learned loads and loads of theory from books but didn't know what to do with it. When we've finally come round to using it in lessons they've either forgotten about it or have it mixed up with other bits of theory that we have to cover it again.


Don't be affraid of theory. It can be very useful but make sure that you learn it as part of your musical education and development rather than as an isolated subject..... and remember to have fun too!

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