“I can’t even read music, I only play by ear!”
Frequently I run into musicians and performers who cannot read sheet music and, more often than not, they happen to play their instrument way better than I do.
When first running into these individuals I often get very discouraged. It seems like a complete waste of time to spend years of my life and thousands of dollars to learn music theory if that knowledge does not even make me a better musician than these “by ear” prodigies.
It is especially upsetting when I run into composers who sit down at the piano and melt my soul with an original piece, only to find out that they have never learned the basic rules of harmony.
Some may even say “music theory takes the soul out of music” or “stop analyzing it bro, you just have to feel it”. Interactions like this used to make me doubt my place as a composer, and question how important this whole “music thing” was to me in the first place.
“Music theory is the scat of music; what music leaves behind”
W. A. Mathieu writes in his book “Harmonic Experience” that music theory is the “scat” of music.
And the funny thing is, I completely agree with him. Music theory is not music, music notation is not music, and theoretical elitists are seldom great musicians. The groove, joy, purpose, and life of music is not communicated by music theory. No amount of functional harmony is going to move an audience or convey a story, music is.
So… why study music theory?
Rather than answer this question directly, I want you to consider three other questions:
What is the intention behind your music?
What fear is holding you in place?
Who is a musical “winner”?
Every note that has ever been played, every word that has ever been sung, and every beat that has ever been drummed has contained a specific and pointed intention. That intention can be heard by anyone that is listening.
If you are playing music to make money, it will sound like you are playing music to make money. If you are singing to impress a crush, it will sound like you have a crush. If you are playing because music is the only thing left in this world that brings you hope, it will sound as so.
Quite often, when I meet “by ear” prodigies, their music fills the room with a boastful shout saying: “Look at me! I am sooooooo much better than you! I have a gift and you are just a silly poser! I deserve attention and you deserve to be forgotten!”
I struggle to even hear their music over the screaming narcissistic intention.
To beat fear
Some days theory, technique, and creativity can seem unattainable because it feels impossible to get off of the couch. I use to think I was just lazy on these days or that I “deserved the break”, but I always knew in my gut that that was not true.
In reality, when you are struggling to find motivation or creativity, it is because of fear. Fear sneaks into your mind and spoils your practice with thoughts such as “I will never be good enough”, “this is a waste of time”, or “I don’t need to know this, the best pop songs in the world only have four chords”.
When you spend some time in conversation with this fear, it is a form of musical practice. Why are you scared of wasting your time learning technique? Why are you scared of modulating to a new key? Why are you scared of spending money on that ear training book so that you can sing with more confidence?
Many of us have a mental image of the “ultimate” musician. For me - John Adams. For many - J.S. Bach. It is an extremely helpful practice to have these huge musical “idols” so that you aspire to their level of talent. And, in fact, it is extremely hurtful to your musical development if you stop looking up to people.
But, you must also hang on to music itself. As you learn, toil, work, and edit, the music you produce gains an increasingly real value. If you play a chord that sounds great to your ears than I guarantee it would sound like a miracle to those behind you in the musical journey. As you play, listen, and learn, you have to hang on to the small musical wins, the small moments of pure musical joy and beauty that make this whole journey worth it.
Music theory is not music. Music theory teaches perspective, humility, and a dash of craft. The lessons you learn as you uncover the secrets of music, in western culture and beyond, will do nothing but inrich your musical journey and your life as a whole.