Regardless of your genre preference or level of playing, having music theory knowledge is indispensable. The term “theory” is pretty much a misnomer since it is something practical for the performance and enjoyment of music. It should actually be called music grammar because it functions exactly like grammar in any language. Both involve basic building blocks and formulas derived from them. Western music uses notes in half and whole steps and intervals (which in turn form scales and chords, respectively) as its foundation while language uses words, syntax, and other parts of speech (tenses, etc). If you know the most important general grammatical rules for one particular language, then you can easily learn, memorize, and formulate both formal and informal forms of that language—and yes, that also includes slang! As a multilingual freak, I’ve had people ask me how to teach certain expressions in certain languages, and of course, they want to know the most hip and the oh-so-popular all-time favorites—ah, those good ol’ cuss words! Well, I’m not exactly a prude, but I simply tell them to learn the basic grammar first and they can go from there. So if you’ve got the basics down pat already and you want to impress native speakers or sound like one, you can pick up books on colloquial expressions to learn new materials. You’ll find that you can just “plug and play”—“plug” in the essentials you’ve previously learned and apply the new stuff to them, then “play” around with them to make new sentences! Pretty soon you’ll come up with many colorful ways to express yourself, and let’s hope it’s not limited to just, well, profanity. 🙂
It’s exactly the same thing in music. The most elementary concepts in music theory (the chord approach in particular) are the foundation for more advanced levels and they apply to all styles of music. Notice, for example, that standard pop radio hits and traditional hymns are both chord-heavy. They both require the solid proficiency of reading and playing chords. The chord approach is especially a huge incentive for beginners as it helps them sound and look like pros. Even the knowledge of simple chords gives them the ability to move around across the instrument and to harmonize simple melodies, which is a gateway to playing by ear. So, knowing music theory will certainly get you places. It helps you become versatile in more than one style. It doesn’t matter what you play. If you’re a prospective student or already a beginning student, you don’t have to force yourself (or allow yourself to be forced!) to learn classical music first (as the “fundie” piano teaching establishment would like you to believe)! For one thing, a C note is a C note, no matter how you slice it. A C note in “Three Blind Mice” is the same C note in Beethoven’s 5th. A C chord in Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” is the same C chord in those good ol’ time hymnal pages (say, Silent Night). The 3rd interval in a Willie Nelson tune is the same one as the one in one of those Justin Bieber ditties. ‘Nuff said.
Recall that learning music is a lot like learning a language. Both are means of expression. In language acquisition, it starts with listening and then imitating the words being said. This is how babies and young children learn how to express themselves. Reading and writing are the final stages in the process. Ironically, in traditional music teaching, the order is backwards. Students are expected to read and write notes by rote first, then “express” (playing music by ear, improvisation, or other creative means) later. Seeing the slow progress, no wonder many folks are frustrated with the old-school method to the point of quitting cold turkey! Music theory has been usually just taught as rote memorization of rules without much practical application. So, to put it not-so-mildly, teaching sightreading and rote music theory right off the bat is just as goofy as teaching young ones how to read and write without teaching them how to speak FIRST, and who would really think about carrying a conversation by strictly reading books or memorizing words instead of spontaneously coming up with words to use to chat someone up? That’s just like programming a bunch of robots to talk, and frankly, it’s totally unnatural.
I’m definitely not throwing the poor baby with the bathwater when it comes to “traditional” music theory. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. It simply needs to be turned the other way. 🙂 That said, the “contemporary” chord approach is very popular for a very good reason. For one, it’s some sort of “shortcut” applicable to ALL genres and ALL levels of music mastery as mentioned earlier, and some instruments lend themselves especially well to it. As a pianist/keyboardist trapped in a guitarist’s body (and/or vice versa?), I like to use the guitar and piano as prime examples. The way they’re built allows instant visual and tactile approach. Both are stringed instruments with the notes/pitches and fingerings chromatically arranged, so the patterns are easily felt and seen. Music theory concepts such as half and whole steps and intervals that make up scales and chords are easily shown on the layout of the instrument as early as the first lesson. NO note reading is even necessary! Naturally, sightreading instruction is included in small increments within the context of chords and fingering patterns. I’ve personally used this method with a number of students over several years, and I’ve found that there’s higher retention rate as they get higher levels of enjoyment and comprehension.
Therefore, the chord approach is a more satisfying way to learn and play music, including (and especially) in the beginning stages. You have more ingredients available at your disposal to cook things up. Call it the get-pitch-quick scheme. 🙂 It’s almost instant gratification—with a bit of work, of course. This isn’t some snake oil-type “learn to play in a flash” solution, for sure, but there’s the sense of accomplishment in knowing how to play with a richer sound across the full range of the instrument using just a few notes, and out of them infinite permutations and combos are available at your fingertips! This opens up the creative world of improv and composition, for which musicians, songwriters, and composers across the globe and throughout all eras are known and admired!
If you’re curious about how the chord approach works and if you’ve always wanted to learn how to play in less time with less stress and more enjoyment and more bang for the buck or if you’re a teacher or musician wanting to expand your horizons, I’ll be more than happy to talk to you. Feel free to contact me to discuss possibilities to go forward together!