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Fellow Guitarists: How Much Do You Get Into – And Out Of – Musical Theory?

I was classically trained on guitar for a very short spell when I was very young – the only (but priceless) two benefits I got out of the experience was the ability to read music and to play fingerstyle. The biggest downside was I developed a loathing for classical guitar music which has lasted to this day.

That said, I have a love for other forms of classical music even to the extent that for pleasure I rarely listen to anything else (except jazz). What this has provoked in me is a deep curiosity about musical forms and the (ab)use of tonality, particularly by late/post romantic composers such as Mahler and Bartok. Such has been my immersion in this – coupled with studies of scores and academic texts – that I often become restless and bored by the verse/chorus/bridge structure of popular songs. This is all an accident caused by my listening habits and I’m not sure it’s all a good thing, particularly when my playing – and writing – pedigree is rooted in folk music!

So do folks here who have a background in musical theory find it a help or a hindrance when setting down to write a “popular” song?

2 thoughts on “Fellow Guitarists: How Much Do You Get Into – And Out Of – Musical Theory?

  1. Greetings Dave,

    I studied music (theory) for a time in college, but was a poor student according to the professor. Truth of the matter, every other student in the program already had all the rudiments down for many years (from high school), and I only knew the rudiments of rock-n-roll (a form the professor obviously detested). My naiveté was in thinking that taking college level music theory would teach me something ….. and it did …… about politics. Since then I’ve learned theory on my own, but I am still a comparative novice compared to folks steeped in classical and/or jazz. But to my credit, I can improvise in many styles/genres. I have classical muso friends that have steadfastly refused invitations to “jam” for over 30 years. They will play pieces they know, and have rehearsed for years, if the sheet music is in front of them. Ask them make something up on-the-spot and they get a look of horror and disgust. So, I wonder who is worse off; me being a late bloomer and still struggling to learn theory this late in the game ……. or those learned theorists who will never compose a piece worthy of their long-haired, long-dead composer icons?

  2. Hi Dave-
    I’m a fingerstyle guitarist, as you are, self-taught, self-guided, and still self-discovering music (theory, composition, and performance). My sense is that if one stays connected to and expresses from “the heart,” theory is not “needed,” (I think here of the young Alex DiGrassi and his writing some of the best guitar muisc to date without much awarness of or need for formal theory). On the otherhand, I reflect on and give consideration to theory as a “spice,” something that is only utilized to improve on thre main ingredient (I think now of Michael Hedges and his vast knowledge and use of theory to create fantastic music). The guitar, especailly contemporary acoustic fingerstyle guitar music, is intuitive, organic, and “pure,” at best, meaning, in my limited opinion, best when theory is an afterthought, especailly in composition. I love to discover something while noodeling the guitar, exploring a new tuning or chords. When I “let go” and simply allow the muisic to take me to where it wants to go, not only do I have fun, but I’ve composed my best pieces that way. Thanks for the question and allowing my thoughts to float into cyberspace. Manfred

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