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Should You Learn Music Theory? 

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Welcome to the freteleven blog! This week, we're diving into music theory and exploring why it's challenging to learn in a way that enhances your guitar skills and actually helps you become a better guitarist.

Like most, when I began playing guitar, I was drawn to shapes like the pentatonic scale and quick, catchy licks. While this motivated me to keep playing, I eventually wanted a deeper understanding of the music I was listening to and playing.

So many guitarists have a negative experience with music theory as a detached set of music rules that involves tremendous memorization and doesn’t contribute to becoming a better guitarist. They end up asking, “What is the point?” I understand this perspective, and to a certain extent, I agree with it.

In the next series of blog posts, I’ll explore various approaches that have helped me become not only a better guitarist but also a more well-rounded musician. Simply learning music theory as a subject to study is not enough; it's crucial to internalize and become intimately familiar with the components of the music you listen to or play. Only then does music theory become essential and worth the time you spend to learn it. If you're not fully committed to this learning process, it's better to focus on practicing your favorite songs. However, if you're ready to dive in, this series will provide a streamlined path to improving your skills by deepening your understanding of the music you play.

My journey to this point began with the desire to emulate my favorite guitarists. I not only listened to their music but also delved into their experiences and perspectives on music. A common thread among them was their innate musical intuition. As I dug deeper, I discovered another shared trait: their ability to seamlessly integrate their musical intuition with their understanding of music theory. This went beyond traditional theory and key signatures; it encompassed a profound familiarity with the scales, chords, and melodies they played. Their knowledge of music theory effortlessly informed their intuition, providing context and guidance for their playing, proving to be an asset rather than a hindrance.

Can you become a great player without knowing music theory? Definitely! Many great players can't explain how they do what they do, yet they sound amazing. The problem is you would have to take the same musical journey they did to come out the other end as a great player. A more effective way is to do the work of internalizing music theory and allow it to get you there faster.

In the first blog post in this series, I’ll reframe music theory from mere memorization to pass a test to how to internalize the essential building blocks of the music we listen to and play.

The Major Scale

Understanding the 12 major scales and their enharmonic equivalents is crucial for a high-level understanding of the keys we play in. However, to comprehend and use the key we are playing in, we must examine each individual key deeply to internalize it. That way, whatever we are playing, out mind and ear has an understanding of the context we are in.

Find the Pattern

Recognizing the fundamental patterns in music is key to becoming a better player. Let's start with the Major scale. The major scale's identifiable sound comes from the pattern: whole step-whole step-1/2 step-whole step-whole step, whole step-1/2 step. This pattern is consistent across all major scales and why it has the same sound no matter what key you play it in. Familiarize yourself with how there is no pitch in between E-F and B-C and how that affects the major scale patterns. You may also notice how the diagram of the chromatic scale is similar to the keys on a piano. You may already know the keys and what sharps and flats are in each key. Take a look how each scale comes out of the chromatic scale and take note of anything new you discover.

Visual Identity

Comparing major scales sharps and flats is a helpful way to differentiate major scales visually. Notice the patter below each scale. You can use that as an easy way to identify a scale. For example, the key of D looks more balanced than the key of A, with a sharp on each half of the scale. In contrast, the key of A is visually unbalanced, with one sharp on the left half of the scale and two sharps on the right half of the scale. If you are a visual person this is a very effective way to have a quickly identifiable visual reference to that key. Using the diagrams below, start familiarizing yourself with each scale individually. After you are familiar with the pattern write the rest of the keys. C Major has no sharps or flats. The sharp keys are G, D, A, E, B, F#, C# and the flat keys are F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb

Breaking the major scale in to two parts is also a great way to have a deeper understanding of the scale. When a major scale is divided into two we have two "Tetra-chords", which are a 4 note scale pattern. Each tetra-chord is whole, whole, 1/2. When you separate the two tetra-chords by a 1/2 step you have a major scale. The tetra-chords are marked with the brackets in all the diagrams in this post. Use them to help you get to know each major scale better and as a way to compare different major scales.

Most guitarists have not looked at the major scales in this detail. If you want to gain a deeper familiarity with music theory, start here. Take the next 15 weeks and write out the scale diagram as I've show above for each scale and take it with you every where you go. Pull it out many times throughout the day until it is impossible for you to forget it. It doesn't take a lot of time, just intention.

I'd love you feedback, comments or any questions you have. You can reach out to us at info@freteleven.com.

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