Heart vs Head

“Hendrix didn’t need theory”

There’s always one…

at any given open-mic or jam night; the guitarist who’ll say something like “you shouldn’t learn theory, it kills your feel.” almost inevitably rebutted along the lines, “but how can you call yourself a musician if you don’t know what you’re doing?” This is an age-old argument, fought fiercely between bluesers and metalheads, jazzers and indie-rockers, but who is right? let’s have a closer look at these common arguments.

Argument #1: Learning theory ruins your feel

One of the most common things you’ll hear people say to try and convince you that music theory isn’t worth your time, is that it spoils your “feel.” The trouble is that it simply isn’t true.

This misconception is in fact born of a simple misunderstanding about what music theory actually is.

Most people who make this argument, will believe that music theory is a set of instructions that tell you exactly what to play and when to play it. This is simply not the case; music theory is a toolbox. In truth, music theory is a set of guidelines, supremely useful when you absolutely need to know that a certain part will work. On top of this, music theory is a language. When you need to communicate an idea to other musicians, it is an indispensable tool.

It is absolutely possible to get so bogged down in trying to play something “correctly,” that you forget to feel, to listen to the music you are making, but this is entirely down to the approach of the musician. If you think of music theory as prescriptive, then it is easy to forget that music is about creativity and expression. Don’t worry though, as long as you remember that you don’t have to abide by the rules, then you’ll be fine.

Argument #2: If you only “feel” music, you don’t know what you’re doing.

This can’t be true, right? Some of the most legendary musicians claimed to know no music theory. What about Clapton, Hendrix, Van Halen? All these guitarists famously don’t/didn’t read music. If it’s good enough for them, surely it’s good enough for me?

In fact, this once again comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of what music theory is. Too many people equate being able to read music with knowing music theory, but like with any language, reading is not the same as understanding. The simple fact is that most musicians know more about theory than they think.

Go to any blues night, you’ll hear things like “12-bar in B flat.” If that’s all the information you need to join in, then you know some music theory. If you can play a G major chord on demand, then you know some theory. It would take a truly exceptional talent to be able to feel and play music well whilst genuinely knowing nothing about theory. As I mentioned before, theory is the language we use to communicate our ideas to other musicians. It’s well worth knowing a bit.

Whats your point?

My point is that it needn’t be one or the other…

…you can have both.

The trick is to know what you need. If you’re a blues player, who simply wants to be able to rock up to a jam session and join in, then the chances of you needing to know the Phrygian Dominant scale, or how to play a close-voiced minor 9 chord are pretty slim. That said, your time would not be wasted, by learning the notes on the fret-board, and the chords for a 12-bar in each key. There’s no need to know everything about theory, but knowing something certainly can’t hurt.

On the other hand, if you’ve spent your life wanting to be the next Steve Vai or Al Di Meola, and have learned all the modes, a cornucopia of fancy extended chord voicings, but find yourself struggling to apply them musically, then your practice time would be well spent training your ears and “feeling” what you play. You might try transcribing the vocal line from a pop song by ear, or try playing a lead using only 3 notes. Both these things will help cleanse your musical palette and get you thinking musically rather than technically.

At the end of the day it all comes down to what you want to achieve with your playing, and striking the right balance to do that.

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