Don't Let Theory Get in the Way of Rocking Out
So, music theory huh? The very words conquer up one of three reactions. You are either A: ready to close this webpage and go somewhere else, B: have very little idea about what we’re talking about or C: very interested because you love theory.
That latter category is quite rare I’m afraid, while A and B are much more common. Now at WeJam, we love an in-depth music theory discussion but there is a time and place for it and many people can quickly feel out of their depth.
In fact, theory can often scare people off from ever giving music a go, which is a real shame. Yes, theory is important to many musicians but the key word there is some. You might be surprised by just how many big-name, successful musicians out there have no theory knowledge at all!
You definitely don’t need to understand music theory to enjoy performing and rocking out. That might sound strange to hear but it’s true. For many beginners and non-musicians out there the whole idea of music theory can actually be more hindering than helpful.
There’s no avoiding the fact that learning an instrument can be hard. Sure, some people are naturally gifted and will take to it quickly, but that is going to be a very small minority. The good news however is that you don’t need to be a theory whizz to become a great musician. Some would even argue that theory can slow down your progress! It’s a debate with no clear answer because there are pros and cons to learning theory. But for the focus of this article, we’ll be looking at why you shouldn’t let theory get in the way of a good jam session!
What is theory?
While theory encompasses a number of things, for most people just starting out it means learning to read music. For people new to a performing, musical notation can seem like an ancient language or a complex equation. For children and adults alike, this important step can often take the fun out of learning an instrument. Whilst it’s undoubtedly a great skill to have, it may not always be essential – especially if you want to play pop and rock music.
The traditional method of instrument performance requires you to read along as you play. Arguably, this can lead musicians to focus too heavily on the paper score in front of them, and not truly ‘feel’ the music or engage with the audience. After all, when did you last see your favourite band perform whilst reading the music?
It’s easy to see why theory can put people off and at WeJam we believe you shouldn’t let this happen to you! Don’t let your fear of not understanding theory or not being able to read music stop you from rocking out. It might sound strange but in our opinion, it really isn’t necessary, and it could even hinder your creativity.
Who needs theory?
Still not convinced? Well you may be surprised to learn that the musicians listed below have all spoken openly about having no (or very little) theory knowledge.
Eddie Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen is known for playing both the guitar and piano, and while he is certainly well-versed in both instruments, he can’t actually read music. He’s spoken openly about this explaining that he learned to play simply by watching and listening. Nowadays we have a world of resources at our fingertips, and if you want to try this approach then YouTube is not a bad place to start. On the popular video sharing platform you’ll find thousands of totally free video tutorials that guide you through playing your favourite songs – all without a single mention of theory.
Jimi Hendrix quickly became one of the most influential musicians in history. While he is undoubtedly one of the most well-known musicians on Earth, he learned everything simply by listening along. In one of his many biographies, he reflected that his inability to read music actually helped him focus more on what he heard.
Nicknamed the “King of Rock and Roll,” you’d be forgiven for thinking Elvis knew how to read music. He was an accomplished guitar player after all. But he couldn’t read music and explained that his guitar playing was based around his own tastes in music and that he learned it all by ear.
Guns N’ Roses have a colourful history full of feuds and fights but one thing anyone will tell you is that Slash can certainly rock the guitar. It’s a surprise then that he can’t actually read music, rather he learned by ear.
We’re not saying you should purposefully avoid music theory, but you certainly can succeed and be a great musician without it!
Theory could stifle your creativity
While it again might sound a little strange, having too much theory knowledge or simply focusing on it too much could actually hamper your creativity and performance. They say ignorance is bliss and they could be right! If you worry too much about playing things the right way or ‘following the rules’ your performance and songwriting could suffer.
In fact, there are many well-loved songs that seem to defy the traditional ‘laws’ of music theory. Arguably, only by going against the conventions can you create something truly original and surprising. The songs we’re about to discuss are all great examples of pieces of music that break the norm, and probably wouldn’t exist if the writers had stuck to conventional theory. Whilst the musicians listed below have varying levels of formal training, we believe they most likely trusted their ear when coming up with the material, rather than relying on any advanced theory.
Pink Floyd – Money
Money by Pink Floyd is notable for the 7/4 time signature which means each measure of music features 7 beats. For comparison, the majority of pop songs feature 4 beats, so this is highly unusual. Have another listen to it and now see if you notice it?
Nick Drake – River Man
Another song to play with the time signature is River Man by Nick Drake. This time, the piece features 5 beats per bar. Not only that however, the chords are also highly irregular. Whilst it may not be super well known, it’s one worth listening to if you’ve never heard it before.
The Beatles – Oh, Darling
The Beatles had a number of songs with some unusual approaches, and Oh, Darling is a great example. Oh, Darling uses something called the German augmented 6th chord. Although this type of harmony is commonly used in classical music, it is rarely seen in pop music. If it sounds good, then go for it is our opinion!
Ariana Grande – No Tears Left to Cry
For a slightly more recent example, Ariana Grande’s No Tears Left to Cry showcases an unusual setup that works to create a unique sound. The non-diatonic chords allow the song to go through some distinct key changes, from minor to major and back again. Bet you weren’t expecting that.
Don’t overthink it!
Some of the best songs have musical quirks that traditional music theory would tell you is incorrect. But they of course turned out to be amazing works, so it goes to show that sometimes you need to ignore the ‘rules’.
You’ve also seen that you can also be a great performer without getting bogged down in theory. So the message here is not to let music theory ruin your enjoyment of performing or writing songs. Don’t be scared of instruments. Just pick them up and experiment with them. Whatever the instrument is you can likely learn a lot just by tinkering and watching others. Piano, keyboard, guitar, violin, drums, or anything else – just have some fun and see what happens. This is what learning by ear is all about after all so don’t panic about the theory, you can learn a lot without it.
The WeJam conclusion
If you’ve always wanted to rock out but were worried you needed to understand theory, then WeJam can help! At WeJam we focus on making great music from the outset and give you a fun environment to experience playing in a band without making your brain hurt.
When you come to one of your studios, we don’t bombard you with music theory or expect you to know how to play an instrument already. Instead we have made it our mission to get you rocking out and having fun in your first session. And from what we’ve shared with you today you should now know you don’t need music theory knowledge to do that.
Yes, music theory is important (we aren’t saying it isn’t), but at WeJam we believe music theory isn’t essential. You don’t need to be able to actually read music to play an instrument, so let’s put music theory aside for now and focus on having fun and rocking out together.
This article is part of a longer feature titled Be a Real-Life Guitar Hero. How and Why to Start a Band! which you can check out here.