Learning vs Memorizing

It’s a debate that’s been going strong for probably 30-40 years. Do you really need to learn any music theory in order to play guitar? Of course the answer is “no” and there’s boundless evidence. The greater question is, “should you?”. That is far more interesting and valid.

Most musicians who firmly plant themselves in offshoots of the rock genre start to get defensive around this topic. They seem to believe that a lack of education is almost an advantage. Or at least, like the science-denier camp, that education is the enemy. They bring up examples, like Jimi Hendrix, as champions of their cause. There’s a ton of logical fallacies going on there, but at the very least mentioning one successful guitarist of millions who did not study music as a reason to avoid it yourself is cherry picking. You’re overlooking the countless musicians playing all instruments and genres and picking the white whale as the norm.

I’ve got news for you… you’re not Hendrix. You never will be. You’re a failure based on your argument. I mean, if you’ve avoided studying and learning music, why aren’t you just as successful as Hendrix?

That’s because it’s not a valid argument. Avoiding learning music1 and sticking to memorizing tablature and patterns limits your toolset. It means you can either play what you’ve memorized by studying pictures or have to essentially invent your own concepts through extensive fiddling/refining2. You’re not leaving your mind more pure or open or creative or whatever. You’re doing the exact opposite. Instead of understanding the full language of music available to you, you’re restricting to whatever tidbits you’ve learned by taking simple concepts away from cover songs and trying to apply them to something original. To borrow a mostly-correct analogy, it’s like writing a novel without studying language first. Sure, one in several million people may write a good book simply by studying other great books – but the odds will greatly increase if you know structure, grammar, style, etc. Hendrix succeeded despite his lack of musical education. Not because of it.

And that is exactly the point. It’s not about conforming to some institutional standard built by fussy old men in suits who play jazz or classical. It’s exclusively about being able to more easily articulate the concepts in your head and communicate them to other musicians. It’s about understanding all the complexities so you can simplify the process in the end. No, I do not mean “know the rules so you can break them” as I feel that’s an invalid argument. Music theory allows for counterpoint and dissonance, within the rules. You can play all sorts of things that aren’t II-V-I or anything resembling it within the rules of music. And you can do it without fighting for hours with all sorts of noises that sound horrible.

Here’s the kicker. Usually these rants come from the snooty classically trained musicians. Not here. Personally, I think I am the typical intermediate guitarist. I’ve studied theory to some extent or another at various points in my life, but never committed. And it’s hurt me. Even during stretches when I just wanted to learn cover songs so I could jam out and drink beers with buddies, it’s hurt me. Not being able to quickly identify the progression or key of a song means it takes longer to learn. It means I have less freedom to improvise on the solo or little melody lines. It means I have to write down every frickin’ chord in a song an memorize it. That’s painful. The implications for times like now, when I’m mostly playing by myself and would like to focus on writing/recording original material, are obvious.

So it’s something I’m going to change. It’s my mission for this year to go back to fundamentals, fill in all the various blanks, and re-learn it all. I’m going to take you folks on that journey with me, to an extent. Now, the gimmick of this blog is that it focuses on everything related to playing guitar except the actual “how to play” part. That’s intentional as I don’t think we have anything unique to offer on that subject and hundreds of others have it nailed down. But what I will share is how the progress shapes my creative output and what it might mean for the way we all think about our playing.

If nothing, it will be part of my personal mission to avoid celebrating ignorance. That’s one of the most disappointing parts of the human experience and if I can get even one of my fellow guitarists to recognize and change the habit, it will be quite a joy.

  1. For the sake of this piece, let’s please agree that “Music Theory” encompasses the understanding of pitch, rhythm, scales/modes, harmony, melody, form, notation, consonance/dissonance, timbre, and style. There’s far more to it than that – but it’s at least a broad enough explanation to work for us
  2. this is, in essence, reinventing the wheel as you’ll fight to discover a way of playing that those who studied would view as second nature