No, Music Theory Won't Ruin Your Personal Style

Share it with your friends Like

Thanks! Share it with your friends!


Learning theory is incredibly helpful, but can it also hurt? Can studying the rules make it harder to find new, exciting things? Well, no, but it’s not unreasonable to think that it would. Many self-taught musicians worry that, if they get too much of an academic background, it’ll mess with their individual style, but in my experience that’s just not true. Learning theory is the best thing you can do as a songwriter, and this week I’d like to get all philosophical for a bit and talk about why!

Mailing List:

Why Study Theory? video:

Huge thanks to our gold-level Patreon supporters:

Ron Jones
Jill Jones
Susan Jones
Howard Levine
Elaine Pratt
Ken Arnold

And thanks as well to Henry Reich, José N., Logan Jones, Jdominioni, Jody, Eugene Bulkin, and Yan Han! Your support helps make 12tone even better!

Also, thanks to Jareth Arnold and Inés Dawson for proofreading the script to make sure this all makes sense hopefully!


dkgatlin says:

1:32 Great point. Please don’t be the “theory will ruin my style” guy, especially as a beginner. You’re already working with theory at some level. The layout of a guitar and the tuning is based on theory. Even power chords are based on theory. Why not learn other chords or even better how they’re constructed in the first place? Whether or not learning to run scales in the locrian mode on the didgeridoo will ruin your creativity, I don’t know, but there’s no reason you can’t stop before you get to that level if that’s what you’re afraid of.

C. McMenemy says:

I would liken it to cooking: you can be a good cook, but it never hurts to use a recipe. Looking at it another way, you can use a recipe but it in unexpected ways; maybe you change the balance of the ingredients a little, or add new ones.

I’ve been playing piano for years, and only recently took an interest in theory at a substantial level. I’ve already been composing for a long time, first with a sequencer, and later with a piano. Sometimes I wanted to know the notes for music I heard, but it was a struggle for me. I just couldn’t place the notes.

Now it’s much easier, at the heart of it I can look for chords or even a root note that fits. So if you can’t work out a melody, start out with the ‘home’ note. Since I read about intervals and did some practice, it’s easier to work out melodies now, since each note can be compared to the one preceding it. And then knowing about progressions can open up a whole song, since it’s probably just a four bar progression around one key.

As for writing music, it’s like a sense of direction for me; I feel where it should go. I hear it in my head. I got stuck on some melodies before, stuck ‘finding’ the note which was right in my mind, but again knowing intervals and key relationships helps with it. So I would like to say, the main thing in writing music is that you have the feeling for it. Theory can help you pin it down.

As a last note, it’s easier to play music in that I can see how it’s based on chords which are changing or cycling. No longer just a seemingly random but coherent bunch of notes; it follows a pattern the composer chose, unconsciously or through the use of theory. This makes it easier to remember. Even if I just think about, say, Chopin’s E major prelude; I believe it goes E major, B major, E major, A major, F# minor, B minor, G# minor (this is just off the top of my head). Why does it work? B major is the dominant of E major, A major is the mediant (I don’t know the term) for E major, having one sharp less, F# minor is the relative key of A major, etc.

These videos are valuable indeed; thanks for your work, I really learned a lot!

Kevin Goeltz says:

This is exactly why I want to learn theory.

Randy Salber says:

Another good reason is to add parts for other instruments. e.g. Writing a bass line as a guitar player; adding piano to a vocal melody; finding a drum beat for a bass driven section…..

calogant says:

Theory is a toolbox

Alex Larking says:

I haven’t rigorously studied music theory, but I have been composing for 3 years and watching theory videos online for a while. I just started taking lessons with a composer and started reading research papers on music theory. This stuff has absolutely blown my mind. I now feel like I know so many more ways to articulate what I want to say with my music.

Nilaksh Malpotra says:

Nitpicky criticism but there was a small static sound I could continually hear from the far right. I'm wearing studio monitors now, and its still small, but you should consider it maybe if you didn't manage to catch that. Great video!

Flávio Giannini says:

My teacher used to give me random information without explaining the whys and the connection between the things he explained. When I ask him things he use to argue that I wasn't accepting the rules, seeing my questions ass if I weren't accepting them. This asshole….So I'm learning music theory with a lot of discipline all by myself, and it's the best thing I am doing!

Smokey Brown says:

Thank you. I was having this very discussion today. Well put!

Colton says:

I’m a self taught Guitarist and singer, learning theory honestly helped me out so much with writing and playing my own music. Before hand i was always stuck mostly to just using jazz scales and power chords because its all i heard listening to Metallica. After learnig the rules of music theory, it became alot easier to break them.

Boris The Kitchen Knife says:

I have the reason why I don't know much theory yet I compose music – impatience and tendency to be practical rather than theoretical. Of course I know the basic stuff like chords, notes, modes, etc, but for things like progressions, harmony, jazz theory, improvisation theory, other complicated stuff is just missing my head. I feel more productive with the combined "what I hear in my head that's on paper" and "what sticks" approach. It's just not very fun to me thinking of music like "ohh that's a solid dominant resolving" or "it's a mixolydian mode played over fuckknowswhat seventh chord in whatever tonality". I better be messing on a piano or a guitar finding the interesting sounds rather than learning the theory. I still watching these videos and getting (probably just trying) some knowledge, and this stuff provokes some thoughts, although I dont think that I will ever sit down and learn properly like harmony or improvisation.

Project-awesome customs and music says:

Music theory is a lot like science. There were scientists before that found the basics, now we're learning about different galaxies and solar systems. Music theory is a set of guidelines that sound good, so when you can't think of a good chord progression or melody you can use theory to create something that will sound good. Theory is also like a tool box. Writing a song is like building a house, yeah you can build a house with just your hands, but it would be a lot easier and probably be sturdier if you just used the tools. Theory is the tools to help speed up and steady the process of composing.

A. Mérida says:

"This isn't the progression you're looking for"
draws Droid you are also not looking for

David The Zetta Nerd says:

Or you could. You know, learn theory before picking up an instrument cause those fuckers cost hella bread. Fucking guitarist not only are the basic bitches of instruments but get super cheaper instruments. Although piano has keyboards so it's like not we're holier than though but you want to learn something like even a violin or heaven forbid something esoteric like accordion. Good fucking luck with that in this political hellfire economy.

Jane Xemylixa says:

I found the same with drawing. Learning basic anatomy, for example, will only stifle your work for a while – until you stop overthinking it and it starts coming to you naturally.

John Tate says:

When I was learning the flute, I went through a phase where it was all exercises and utterly dreadful studies (we flautists badly need a Chopin!!!) and my joy in it died a bit and I did wonder for a while why I was doing this to myself. I should say that I think this was as much a question of bad teaching as anything intrinsic to learning the rules, but nevertheless, I think that getting into the rules does take you through a journey, and not all of it is pleasant. The payoff is that you end up with a richer appreciation for what you hear in the musical world and you get to know why 'breaking the rules' IS breaking the rules – what it means, and what it doesn't mean. The history of European art music (and I'm sure other musics as well, I'm just speaking from my own knowledge) is one of breaking previously conceived rules. It's like human history generally in that sense. The point is that once you have some good understanding of what the 'rules' are, you are much better placed to break them with confidence. It's an evolutionary process. Among people who were totally or partially self-taught are the likes of Eric Satie, John Lydon, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Brian Eno… in other words quite a few people whose music I love and greatly admire. So, yes you can do amazing music without coming from a background of music, but the reality is that even these people ended up studying music quite deeply to keep developing their art. In effect, by saying you're going to study music theory, all you're really doing for yourself is just to say – let's not reinvent the wheel. It makes more sense to learn from other people's mistakes rather than insist on replicating them all yourself for the sake of realism.

Nakano Lemon says:

the ​harmonic minor scale is the first scale i remember

Alex Trendler says:

that's a pretty good r2d2

Alfalfa Male says:

The reason people are afraid of theory is because it's work and people are lazy. If you spread the notion that you can succeed without any work, people will want to take that route and feel threatened by the route that dictates they study at little bit.

Edgy Drawings says:

You sound like L from Death Note, that's cool.

thelithiumcat says:

To be honest, I find that the skills which make me good at music are completely the opposite to skills which would allow me to remember or implement music theory. I think it's great that someone figured out how to put what I feel intuitively into words, but for me music theory often feels redundant because the notes and rhythms themselves express those ideas so much more concisely. It's like someone invented a stepping stone or translation technique for something I already found my own way through. Also, I have extremely kinaesthetic (sort of muscle and concept-based) memory, which just makes remembering and taking in visual information so much harder. It's all about internal muscular awareness of tension patterns rather than the external perception of written symbols. I've had enough musical training to know my way around a music program or most instruments, but I've never found a good way to remember which number minor chord is what. I don't even see how you're supposed to know what key something's in. For me, it's all about vibrational combinations. Nothing else really sticks in my head. I just can't really remember it, but the parts I do remember are interesting and informative.

Matthew Cox says:

2:24 "This isn't the progression you're looking for." I really enjoy your illustrations!

Ryan Henderson says:

I started studying music theory a lot about a 8 months ago and it's dramatically improved my playing style

Jelle Verest says:

I have the exact opposite problem. I cannot make anything without knowing the rules. If I can do anything, nothing is meaningful to me and I really cannot make things otherwise.

Write a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.