Why are people so afraid of Music Theory?

I’ve tried learning theory in the past but it just confuses the heck out of me. I think my patience is why, I just want to play songs and not scales. I was the same way with guitar. I learned how to play La Bamba before I learned a scale. I’m just a happy little strummer & fingerpicker, I have no desire to be a virtuoso.
 
I’ve tried learning theory in the past but it just confuses the heck out of me. I think my patience is why, I just want to play songs and not scales. I was the same way with guitar. I learned how to play La Bamba before I learned a scale. I’m just a happy little strummer & fingerpicker, I have no desire to be a virtuoso.

Music theory doesn't necessarily have anything to do with scales. I'm becoming a theory fiend, but I have no interest in scales, ie, the individual notes in a scale, and knowing the shape of a scale on the fretboard, because I have no interest in soloing. I'm also not much of a fan of the blues beyond a few specific songs, so all those tutorials about pentatonic soloing over the blues? Zero interest to me.

If I were to ever solo, I'd be more interested in a solo based on chords in the key, and more specifically, variations (inversions) of those chords up the neck. So yeah, understanding the chords in any key, and ways to play them all over the neck, I love it.

More than that, I'm falling head over heels for Nashville numbers, so not just memorizing the chords in a key, but understanding them in relation to the root. F and G are in the key of C, where they are the IV and V chords, respectively. Along with that, where the minors and majors are, and knowing something about extensions (me, I'm especially about augmenteds and 7s, but there's a lot of joy to be found in all of 'em.

It's not unlike grammar that way. Understanding how sentences and paragraphs are built will improve your typing, because you don't have to spend as much effort on composing while you type, and can focus on getting your fingers where they need to be.

(Ultimately, the thing that has helped my ukulele playing most isn't that I learned other instruments. It's that I know how to type without looking at the keyboard! So, apart from needing to learn new chords and variations as I go, I rarely look at the fretboard, and am looking at it less as I go.)

That's just me, but in general, it's important to decouple scales from theory, if the scales themselves aren't of interest. Going a little farther, I'm not especially curious about where every NOTE on the fretboard is, but I sure want to know where all the CHORDS are.

As with anything, the object of the game is to choose your own adventure, and I'm finding LOTS of adventures with theory that will never, ever have anything to do with individual notes in a scale (apart from their roles in chords) or soloing. Your mileage should vary. Everybody's should! :)
 
I bet if you called it something like Practical Music Knowledge, people might enjoy it. I think the fear of Music Theory is much like the fear of the dentist, because no one really knows what's happening when the dentist is poking around in your mouth or when music theorists start blabbering on about Aeolian Cadences or Atonality.
Even beginners should be able to learn how to figure out chords, keys, basic scales or know why the Circle of Fifths is used and how helpful it really is, and not just an alcoholics dream shape. But most people are either too afraid to learn it, or too proud that they play without knowing why they are doing what they are doing. That's another question. Why are people so smugly proud of not knowing things? Only in music.
For me, it inches too close to the area of math, and I'm seriously math disabled, so that can stop me short. That said, I can easily learn chords and scales, though I can't always keep everything in my head.

I'm not proud of not knowing a ton of theory; and over time I've added more and more knowledge to this twisted brain of mine. For me, though, it can be a slow process. (I am intuitively musical -- and a pretty darn good sightreader.)
 
Last edited:
I suggest that people have the term "stuff-you-can-learn-about-music-if-you-feel-like-it" in mind when they are thinking about stuff they can learn about music if they feel like it. All music theory is is stuff you can learn about music if you feel like it (for example, if learning something helps you accomplish something you want to accomplish). Music theory is not an oppressive entity lurking about trying to force itself on anybody. It is just a bunch stuff people can learn about music if they feel like it.
 
What a fascinating thread! I really enjoyed the discussion in here and it speaks to a wider question I’ve had for a couple years now: how can one take the best aspects of both formal western music training and informal play by ear styles (which I almost see as a kind of oral tradition put into the realm of music) and meld them into something beautiful, enjoyable and widely accessible (while avoiding gate-keeping and beating people over the head with things they don’t want to learn)?

I’ve played fretted stringed instruments in some capacity or other for around 20 years now, and it’s only in the last year or so that I had the slightest interest in music theory. I think if learning music theory in a regimented way were pushed on me early on, I would have never fallen in love with playing like I have. But at this point in my life, for whatever reason, I’m interested in theory.

For all these years I’ve known things like when you’re playing in D, a Bm will sound good and an A7 will pull you back to the D chord but I hadn’t the faintest idea of why this was or how chords were constructed, intervals, how scales work, etc. until very recently. I just knew that this note sounds good with this other one in this key but couldn’t tell you much beyond that. And I still think there’s honestly nothing wrong with that. Being able to prepare a delicious meal does not mean the cook has to be well versed in the biological effects of food down to the celular level or be able to explain the chemical reactions that occur when they are baking.

As several others have mentioned, I’ve also been one of those people who has tried to learn theory through the years and VERY quickly lost interest. But the 2 resources that have shed the most light in it for me recently are Brad Bordessa’s video course Street Theory and the book Music theory for ukulele by David Shipway.

For some reason, these 2 things just clicked for me and were able to explain the most salient points of music theory in an immediately useful and applicable way. I think the fact that they are specifically tailored for ukulele and have you actually playing the examples rather than just theorizing in the mental realm, probably have a lot to do with why I found them useful.

Anyways, I’m getting quite long-winded here but my experience has mostly been that music theory was only useful and interesting to me after many years of playing and figuring things out on my own by ear and that the things that have stuck and been useful were things I could immediately use.
 
Last edited:
some of it pertains to personality. I remember as a kid asking my instructor theory questions and getting theory answers. I also remember my instructor telling me that theory was a 20th century invention. Before that time it was called music and everyone learned theory while they learned to finger their instruments; it wasn't a separate thing.

But some of it must surely be attributed to the instrument. For example, on a saxophone, if someone said to play BbΔ, then you need to know which notes are flatted in Bb and which notes are in Bb. And then you have to play the notes with intention. That just requires a certain level of theory. With the re-entrant uke, all you need is the major pattern and if you start it on the 10th fret you're playing the correct scale. The arrangement and alignment of the strings takes care of a lot of the sniggling theory details for you.
 
I also remember my instructor telling me that theory was a 20th century invention. Before that time it was called music and everyone learned theory while they learned to finger their instruments; it wasn't a separate thing.
I suspect, too, that one would be more surrounded by live music, in both formal and informal settings, and would have had the benefit of the "learning by ear" process as a result. More like like the way we learn our native language.
 
That's a good point. That's why I always tell people reading music is simple. Your ears already know the note lengths, the rests, the rhythm, and the dynamics. All you need to do is learn what the dots on the staff mean. Then combine the dots with what your ears have already provided.
 
This must be one of the most interesting threads I've read on any forum in a while. I think most of my own points are already made by others here, but maybe I can add something as a composer.

I guess everything is about developing as a player and an artist. And at a certain point, most players will find musical theory at some level interesting for developing. The problem is if you are forced to learn loads of "dry" theory (usually at an early age) that is of no use for you. As a composer, I've never read any theory that I didn't find interesting, and especially historical theory interests me, all the way back to Pytagoras. But when I compose, I forget all that, and just listen, deeply and passionatly. I never compose "by brain", although my brain of course can tell me - afterwards - what has been going on.

So music theory is maybe something you have to unlearn when you've learned it, to make it productive. And that is maybe whe some are a little scared of it, they are afraid of loosing some of that intuition that their playing and improvisation is based on. But what is intuition? Intuition is also knowledge, but whitout another language to express it in. You just "know" what is right, but cannot explain why. And as you don't need theory of love to fall in love, you can do perfectly fine without also in music!

Plato wrote that all real learing is remembering. I think that goes to music theory too.
And love, by the way.
 
This must be one of the most interesting threads I've read on any forum in a while. I think most of my own points are already made by others here, but maybe I can add something as a composer.

I guess everything is about developing as a player and an artist. And at a certain point, most players will find musical theory at some level interesting for developing. The problem is if you are forced to learn loads of "dry" theory (usually at an early age) that is of no use for you. As a composer, I've never read any theory that I didn't find interesting, and especially historical theory interests me, all the way back to Pytagoras. But when I compose, I forget all that, and just listen, deeply and passionatly. I never compose "by brain", although my brain of course can tell me - afterwards - what has been going on.

So music theory is maybe something you have to unlearn when you've learned it, to make it productive. And that is maybe whe some are a little scared of it, they are afraid of loosing some of that intuition that their playing and improvisation is based on. But what is intuition? Intuition is also knowledge, but whitout another language to express it in. You just "know" what is right, but cannot explain why. And as you don't need theory of love to fall in love, you can do perfectly fine without also in music!

Plato wrote that all real learing is remembering. I think that goes to music theory too.
And love, by the way.
Thank you for your perspective Simen. This is lovely.
 
Another key factor is to realize that not all tools are pertinent for all tasks at all times. A hammer can't screw in a screw, a screwdriver cannot cut a piece of wood, and a saw cannot drive a nail. Part of learning theory is to unlearn it as well.

For example, I learnt my scales and modes and I had my fretboard cut up into these several territories. However at some point those borderlines get in the way of creativity. You have a tendency to stay within your scale, but there's only so much you can do with those notes. You need to mentally erase the lines that separate the lydian, mixolydian, and aiolian modes and just go to whichever note you want. I don't know if that is germane to this thread; it is just something that has popped up in my musical life.
 
As a follow-up: you know how you focus on left-hand technique and improve, but then the right hand technique sucks? I find the same thing with theory. You need theory, then you don't, then you need it again. Then you don't.

I spent a lot of time learning scales and modes. But after they became restrictive, I jettisoned them. Then I was playing freely (i.e. wanking) and then I re-introduced some scales for the intervallic relationships and structure, but then I got painted into a corner, I went my own way again. And so on.

It is a very dialogic relationship. you play and then theory tells you why you played what you played. And then you play again this time incorporating some of the hints you received from theory. And then you step back and again analyze.

You don't always have to be in theory mode. You just use it when it is needed and holster it when you don't.
 
I haven't commented on this thread, and I haven't read all the responses. I have several answers as a PhD in music who had to take many levels of advanced music theory.

First of all, teachers often force it on students, making it a negative experience.

Second, theory DOES get hard, and a lot of people don't want to put in the work to understand it.

Third, theory (and music literacy as well) is though of as "unnecessary" by many people, including many musicians!

Fourth, I know people...including ukulele players..who like to use theory to "show off" and "put others in their place. When I applied for my doctorate, I had to take an entrance exam, and scored in the 60s. I was sad and embarrassed about it. I went to see my advisor, and they looked at me and said, "Holy cow! A 65%! Amazing!" It turns out that the professor who wrote the exam did so in a way that causes well of 90% of graduate students to FAIL so that they get placed in a class where they can benefit most from that professor's teaching AND be humbled about what it means to be in a graduate program in a "legitimate" university setting. What a load of horse manure. And some people do the same thing on forums, ukulele ensembles, and so on. For some, life is a game about power, any way you can get it. I'd rather spend my time building up others and investing in them.

As a teacher, currently K-5, I don't get into much theory (by 5th grade, we're talking about intervals and major and minor chords) but I try to make the topics we do cover relevant, entertaining (if possible), and in a logical, scaffolded approach.

There are aspects of theory that I will not claim to be an expert about: for example, jazz theory--which is standard theory with more notes.

If adults want to learn it, I'll help them; if they don't want to learn it, I'll leave them alone, but will talk about theory aspects that might be necessary.

Two other quick stories:

1) When I taught high school (16 years), I eventually had a music theory class placed in the curriculum (getting a new course approved is a ton of work, and the minute I left, they discontinued the course). That class was filled with two types of students: students who thought they would be music majors in college, and then students NOT IN MUSIC that were generally guitar members in bands who realized that their own music wasn't very good and they needed to learn the basic rules of music to write better music. My best students in the class, every year, would be students from BOTH sides.

2) I attended a ukulele festival some years ago, where the presenter's entire session was on how to turn songs in major into songs in minor. It's a fun exercise, I guess, but not very relevant (e.g. Go sing "You are my sunshine" in minor, which actually makes more sense with the lyrics, but no one will ever sing it that way). In the session, the presenter talked about switching the chords to the opposite quality (major to minor) and so on. That works, to a point, but the Dominant, the 5th (e.g. G in the key of C or C minor), generally still needs to be a major chord (sometimes with the 7th). If you switch that Dominant to minor, you can't sing along, as the harmony just doesn't work. So the presenter was struggling to try to sing these songs with the wrong version of the Dominant and it was a 45 minute struggle. It was like watching a car crash where no one sustains bodily injuries. In the long run, the presenter shouldn't have taught that class and taught something else, because their lack of knowledge about theory didn't match the skills they needed to teach the class. I have often wondered how many of the participants at that session continue to have a wrong idea about how to switch a song from major to minor.

Anyway, fun topic.
 
For me, just playing is easier and more fun than trying to understand exactly what you are playing. I know it could probably help me improve, but I still haven't felt the need to invest the time, I'd just rather play and enjoy.
Cool. Then don't worry about it. If you don't have a need, why cultivate a tool? It makes no sense. It is like going to Home Depot and buying a Miter Box just because. Do your thing, but remember if you ever want to go deeper, we're here to help.
 
Another key factor is to realize that not all tools are pertinent for all tasks at all times. A hammer can't screw in a screw, a screwdriver cannot cut a piece of wood, and a saw cannot drive a nail. Part of learning theory is to unlearn it as well.

For example, I learnt my scales and modes and I had my fretboard cut up into these several territories. However at some point those borderlines get in the way of creativity. You have a tendency to stay within your scale, but there's only so much you can do with those notes. You need to mentally erase the lines that separate the lydian, mixolydian, and aiolian modes and just go to whichever note you want. I don't know if that is germane to this thread; it is just something that has popped up in my musical life.
The "tools" metaphor works very well! Sometimes you need the entire contents of your workshop for a project. Other times you go, "OK, maybe I don't need my laser-guided CNC router to fold paper cranes." I played bass in a punk band around the same time I was getting to grips with Classical harmony. I did not choose to apply that toolset to the band's material....
 
For crying out loud. It's a yookalele....these things are supposed to be fun !

So if you don't want/need theory,you don't want or need theory.

If you do , there's tons of it out there and loads of resources .

Just my penn' orth ( it used to be ha'p'orth - but global inflation)
 
At least it’s not rocket science…
 
I find that most uke players don't understand theory or find it practical because they haven't been taught fretboard patterns that make theory more directly applicable on the instrument. Once you learn such patterns, doors open.

Similarly, when people learn guitar or uke, the focus is almost exclusively on fixed chord names, rather than on learning to play relatively, which is how we really hear and "understand" music intuitively. If you want to learn to play by ear, the most effective way is to pay attention to the relations between chord roots and to recognize the qualities (types) of the chords that are being played. Some scale study—in terms of generic patterns rather than rote playing of scales—is very useful in training your ear to recognize—and replicate—what you're hearing, in whatever key it's being played, or in whatever key better suits your voice range or group. So, I strongly encourage people to learn the Nashville Number System (more so than formal theory notations) and to learn to play relatively. This is also hugely beneficial is you wish to learn to play songs from memory; the more chords that may be involved, the more beneficial thinking relatively becomes.

Someone mentioned above that learning the notes on the fretboard wasn't that useful for playing all over the fretboard. I may be misinterpreting what that person meant, but I disagree. IF you play primarily by chord names (rather than relatively by root degrees), then knowing two things is vital to playing easily and effectively all over the fretboard: you should know where the roots are in all your (movable) chord shapes and where all the notes are on the fretboard, so you quickly know where you can root those shapes and which shape you can use. Which shapes is dictated by which string the root falls on in the targeted region of the fretboard. Learning the fretboard just isn't that hard, if approached the right way (which, sadly, is not the way it's normally taught, in my opinion), and the payoff is well worth the modest effort.

Degree recognizition is an outgrowth of ear training—it's something that you can learn to hear "naturally" and directly, without even knowing what key is being used. It's similar to how we can sing songs without knowing what keys we're actually singing in. Degree recognition makes it much easier to memorize songs, because the information you're memorizing agrees more naturally with the sounds in your head, and relative progression patterns are easier to recognize and "chunk" in memory.
 
Last edited:
Top Bottom