Top 10 Reasons NOT To Learn Music Theory

It's been said a million times that every musician should learn music theory. Here are ten reasons not to:

  1. Music theory is for classrooms and doesn't apply to working musicians.
  2. It's too hard to learn. You need a doctorate to understand this stuff.
  3. It takes too long. There's a better use of my time.
  4. It's a waste of time. Nobody really uses this stuff.
  5. It will make me a jazz musician.
  6. My playing  (performance on my instrument) won't be as good.
  7. I'm a songwriter. If I learn the theory behind it, my songs and songwriting is going to lose 'that magic'.
  8. I'm into rock/reggae/electronica/hip-hop musician. Music theory doesn't apply to my music.
  9. I'm into hardcore metal/do beats/sound design. Music theory will make my music lose its edge.
  10. Don't need it. There's software out there that will do all of the music theory for me.

Are You Kidding Me?

Of course I am, but these are excuses I hear all of the time. The wording may change slightly but the message is the same. Most people think music theory is a separate entity limited to classical and jazz musicians. If fact there is music theory in every genre of music. Theory is simply a way of explaining things that happen with regularity in music; any music.

You Know It

Whenever you learn something new on your instrument, that's music theory. When you learn a new song, that's music theory. If you've learned a solo and then use some of those techniques to make up your own solo, that's music theory. If you've taken some chords that you're familiar with and written your own song over them, that's music theory. The problem with most teaching systems is that the music theory isn't integrated right away. As soon as you learn some theory, it should be applied to your instrument immediately. Music theory needs to be used to be understood properly.

It's All In The Approach

There are many ways to approach music theory and learning. It's true that music theory is a huge subject. There are many facets to learn. It's important that you learn the parts that affect your style of music first. If you're just learning your instrument, the approach would be different if your were studying to become a composer. If you're writing pop songs as opposed to becoming a jazz musician, again, your approach would be different.

The Reality

In case you we were wondering, here are the real world answers to the excuses listed above.

  1. The answer to this one is listed above. If you're playing an instrument, writing songs, performing, you're using music theory already.
  2. Music theory isn't hard to learn, but it does take time. It takes time to learn and most of all, it takes a long time to apply. I'm still reviewing things I learned in university.
  3. It does take time, But if you learn properly, you can start to use it immediately. In fact, you may be surprised how much you improve in a relatively short time.
  4. This is a corollary of the first 3. It seems to take too long without any good reason for doing it.; therefore, it's a complete waste of time.
  5. I get this a lot, especially from the rock guys. Invariably, when learning new skills, you will start to use those skills. Hence the music theory guy/girl start sounding like a jazz musician at band rehearsals. Contrary to popular belief, you can use theory when and where you want to.
  6. This is another band situation that I would come across. There was this saying among rock musicians that the music theory people were usually the worst players. This was mostly because of the fact that their time was spent in the classroom instead of the bandstand. While there is no substitution for live experience, music theory won't take away anything that isn't there. Both theory and technique must be worked on.
  7. This is another gem. Some songwriters feel that they get their ideas from divine intervention (or some facsimile) and learning the facts behind their creativity will make their music 'lose its magic'.
  8. There are scales and pentatonic theory for solos, chord chemistry and progressions for songs, forms in music, harmony and melody. All of these and more apply to all popular music. Once you begin to learn a musical style, you're learning the theory behind that style. 
  9. Some musicians feel that if they learn music theory, they're suddenly going to feel the need to interject major 7th chords into their music. Theory gives you the reasons behind the music. It doesn't make you use anything you don't want to use.
  10. Photoshop has this great function that turns any photo into a beautiful painting. There is a software program for almost anything...except creativity. No matter what software is available, musicians will always feel the need to take whatever is out there and twist it into their own creations. There is no one program that will take the ideas from your brain, and make it into a perfect finished creation. Even if there was, if you're anything like me, you'll probably want to twist it even further!!
Have fun!


  1. Music theory makes for dull music. You can usually tell when a composer has been catrated with strict college theory.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    I actually covered this in #2 and especially in #9.

    Most people think that learning theory is going to make their music sound lifeless and regimented.

    I find some musicians go overboard with this, so in part I can agree with you. I teach theory to musicians of all styles. It always seems to help them as long as they make it their own. Basically, it's all up the musician.

    BTW. I think the word you were looking for was 'castrated'.

  3. "Music theory makes for dull music" Actually, music theory MAKES music. Without the behind-the-scenes thinking of musicians there wouldn't be music in the first place. It's like how you can create a math formula for the power out of your racing car. You're going to make your car go faster regardless of usage of math or not. The process behind making a car go faster in either case is called theory.

    As so with music. Good article--thanks.

  4. Thanks Merc,

    I always find music theory adds to my music writing and playing experience.