To Learn Music Theory, Or Not To Learn Music Theory?

A great question was asked on Quora: “What is the major difference between the musicians who learn the music theory and the ones who have not learnt any of that but still are brilliant?”

I suspect that many out there are skeptical of music theory, or at least intimidated in a way similar to how many might feel when confronted with learning a new language.

I hear the same criticisms repeated all the time… some of which have merit, some of which do not. I’ve even addressed a few of them.

But what is the big difference? Do musicians really need theory? How about standard notation? Well, the real answer is, it depends.

Read my full answer and follow me on Quora.

 

Guitar Six: A Little Theory Boost

Have you ever wondered how to play any scale or mode? And in any tuning?

Thanks to the awesome community at Reddit, we’ve got a nice little theory boost that will help you visualize just that: scales and modes that suddenly appear on the fretboard!

I know I preach about music theory and ear-training, and how there is no real substitute for developing musicianship in the long-term. Very holistic approach, yes, blah blah blah. But there is room to have a little extra help on the side. Hop on over to Guitar Six to check it out.

Guitar Six

It’s awesome and inspiring when amazing people put their hard work and thought into something like this. The Internet is truly beautiful. Nice find, Reddit.

And when you’re ready to take it to the next level, check out my explanation of how modes work and how to make your fretboard do whatever you imagine.

What Is Harmony?

Kendrick Lamar vs. Radiohead

“Have you heard Kendrick Lamar’s album? There’s this one song…” he said.

”‘How Much A Dollar Cost?’” she replied.

“Yeah that’s the one! How did you know? Hah. Yeah, there’s just something great about it.”

“It’s a great song. Love the beat. But that piano part… I think that’s what makes it. So rich and beautiful. It reminds me of Radiohead.”

“Uh… Wow. I never thought of it that way. But I think you’re right. The piano makes that song!”

“Yeah, I actually think it has the same chord progression as ‘Pyramid Song.’ Let me see… [plays both on piano]. Yup. It does.”

“Whoa. What are you, some kind of musical genius? My jaw just hit the floor.”

“Nah, the notes in these chords all have the same basic relationships. That’s all.”

“I wish I understood harmony like you do.”

“Well, it takes some time and effort. But if you understand melody, you’re halfway there,” she said.

Understanding Harmony

In the conversation above, “she” is a figment of my imagination. But everything she said is true, but perhaps more importantly, attainable when you have a foundation in Melody.

If Melody can be thought of as a line, Harmony (i.e. chords, chord progressions) can be thought of as colorful structures.

Structures can be stacked up high like skyscrapers, or built up low, like one-floor homes. They can be plain and simple, or vibrant and complex. They can be dark and ominous, or light and pleasant. And they can be viewed and enjoyed from many angles.

Chords As Vertical Relationships

On a fundamental level, to build these structures in theory is to understand chords, chord progressions, and Harmony as a whole.

Chords are built when you have two or more notes that occur at the same time. They relate from low to high, and how they relate… well, that’s pretty much all you need to know about chords.

Whereas Melody deals with relationships between notes horizontally over time, Harmony (at least initially) can be thought of as dealing with multiple, simultaneous notes relating a vertical fashion.

“That’s a major triad!”

“I think that’s just a power chord there.”

“Oh, this sounds like a tricky one. Have you tried a fully diminished 7th chord? The root is on the #V (‘Sharp Five’).”

Recognizing chords begins NOT with tutorials and tabs, but with understanding chords and being able to hear them for what they are: vertical tonal relationships.

When you get to know chords in a vertical way, you start recognizing them everywhere. You get familiar with them, you develop a history with them. You get Kendrick on a whole new level. You understand Radiohead.

These unique relationships can be described and organized in such a way as to be useful for you now, and for every chord or chord progression for every song you ever want learn or write in the future.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Don’t waste all of your precious time on learning one song at a time from someone telling you where to put your fingers. Instead, invest it into learning Music. And from there you’ll find how closely songs become, how much more they fall within reach.

In the second installment of the WARRENMUSIC Series, we’ll be tackling all of above head-on and at great depth: how chords are built, how to hear what’s happening in harmony, and so much more.

You can pre-order Harmony and the rest of the WARRENMUSIC Series here today.

Now go listen to some music!

  • Skills you can use to work out real world chords and chord progressions by ear
  • Working knowledge of Diatonic Harmony via popular songs, fun demonstrations, and digestible music theory breakdowns
  • Introduction to Chord Numerals expanding The WARRENMUSIC Grid**
  • 10 in-depth episodes ranging from 10-40 minutes in length
  • Lifetime access
  • Visual Aids
  • Audio Examples
  • Worksheets (Song Puzzles)
  • Interactive Tools
  • Access to Members-Only Harony Module Forum
  • Direct help from fellow learners and Warren

Pianu — Fun, But Does It Do the Job?

I really like this little app I saw on Reddit, but as a music teacher, I have one serious critique.

I don’t understand why the designers change the keys used to trigger the scale degrees (1–8) of C Major when a song uses fewer notes.

For example, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” only uses six tones, so Pianu makes the 8th scale degree (the octave, or high “C”) “6” on your keyboard. But for “Chopsticks,” it makes use of keys 1–8 because the song calls for all eight tones of the C Major Scale, and the 8th scale degree becomes “8” on your keyboard. Huh? So you have the same tonal relationships (an octave), but two different combinations of keys to create them? How does this make any musical sense? In this way, Pianu is not like a real instrument. It actually distorts the way a piano as well as musical scales in general are understood. And a piano is a very easy instrument to understand… Left is low, right is high, and every key has an equal pitch distance (perceptually speaking) to its neighbor key.

When one plays a real instrument, one expects a low note to sound low, and a high note to sound high, and for the degree of highness or lowness relative to the other notes not to change from the same key combinations/distances/frets.

Until this tool connects tonal relationships to consistent degrees of highness/lowness (scale degrees is the easiest way to do this on a computer keyboard), I wouldn’t recommend this to my students for learning theory and ear-training, and certainly not for learning piano. I would however, recommend it for five minutes of musical fun.

In the meantime, this Interactive YouTube Piano is a nifty solution I’ve created:

It’s really only a thin but crucial layer of theory on top of a C Major Scale. A simplified, virtual piano, if you will. What it does (that Pianu doesn’t) is fuse the sound of the instrument and music theory in a way that connects back to the physical instrument itself.

Still, Pianu is aesthetically pleasing, gorgeous even. I hope the creator keeps making more cool stuff like this. It’s, at the very least, a beautiful, somewhat musical game. It has serious potential to bring in the visual aspect of playing a piano to augment the aural.

Julian’s Not Even Mad

Since the Melody Module Preview went up, I have received some very cool responses. Here’s one of them, from Julian in Poland:

Below is his reaction to the preview:

So… I watched the preview videos and I’m not even mad that I can’t watch the rest of the module, because I’m not financially independent (that’s a fancy way of saying “I don’t have my own money”).

I sent you a picture on Twitter of what today’s afternoon looked like in my room. Lot of learning and revelations.

Speaking of which, here’s 3 main things I figured out myself based on the first episodes of Melody:

1. “Little Drummer Boy” is in Church Mode

2. First three notes of “Ingenue” are “3”, “2” and “1” of the G Minor scale (I should’ve recorded my face when I realized this. I thought: “It’s that simple? Holy f%%EDITORCONTENT%%amp;#!”)

3. I apparently have Absolute Pitch. My Mom always says that I have perfect hearing, but you indirectly confirming it for me was another thing altogether. Another “Wow” moment.

As far as Relative Pitch goes, I guess I use it when following the distance between frets on my guitar in order to play a riff or a melody, but I don’t do it without first naming the main note I hear in my head. A Relative/Absolute hybrid, if you will.

I didn’t expect to have that many “eureka” moments today. I felt this different energy building up inside me (maybe it’s the “musicianship unlocking within” 😉 )

Thank you for bringing this new experience to me. It’s exhilarating, I tell you that!

Order the Melody Module today. Or buy the Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm* together for and even greater savings!

Join Julian and many others in the journey towards building a musicianship of your very own… one that lasts a lifetime.


 

*Rhythm Module is available as a pre-order. Melody and Harmony are available now.

  • Skills you can use to work out real world melodies by ear
  • Working knowledge of the Major Scale via popular songs, fun demonstrations, and digestible music theory breakdowns
  • Introduction to Scale Degrees and The WARRENMUSIC Grid**
  • 10 in-depth episodes ranging from 10-40 minutes in length
  • Lifetime access
  • Visual Aids
  • Audio Examples
  • Worksheets (Song Puzzles)
  • Interactive Tools
  • Access to Members-Only Melody Module Forum
  • Direct help from fellow learners and Warren
  • Lifetime access to Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm Modules (Rhythm pre-order, TBA 2020)
  • Skills you can use to work out real world melodies, chords and chord progressions, and real world rhythmic patterns by ear
  • Working knowledge of the Major Scale, Diatonic Harmony, Meter, Syncopation, Swing/Shuffle, and much more via popular songs, fun demonstrations, and digestible music theory breakdowns
  • Introduction to Scale Degrees, Chord Numerals, the Time Unit Box System, and The Complete WARRENMUSIC Grid**
  • 30 in-depth episodes ranging from 10-40 minutes in length
  • Visual Aids
  • Audio Examples
  • Worksheets (Song Puzzles)
  • Interactive Tools
  • Access to Members-Only Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm Module Forums
  • Direct help from fellow learners and Warren

Melody Module Preview is UP!

Enjoy the first three episodes of The WARRENMUSIC Series, absolutely free.

After so many days of a somewhat shady-looking page that basically only takes payments, we’re so glad to present a site, even if it is just a preview, that finally has some videos, HA!

For those of you who have pre-ordered, please enjoy all TEN episodes of the Melody Module. But please, not all at once. We don’t want to be cleaning any brain matter off the walls.

For unrestricted access, order here. Make an investment in your musicianship today. You won’t regret it. Or your money back. I’m serious.

Interactive YouTube Piano

I made a nifty YouTube piano you can play with your keyboard. A quick music theory tool that’s sure to be useful. Best enjoyed on desktop.

I also created several Song Puzzles that you can try on this YouTube Piano. Song Puzzles are basically the method I use when teaching my Skype students to learn to play by ear.

I explain the Interactive YouTube Piano and Song Puzzles to my girlfriend here in the first episode of “Cruisin’ With Warren”.

Your Input MATTERS

We’ve implemented comments to make things easy.

Discuss, ask questions, leave comments. Our hope is that every video would be a jumping off point for passionate conversation, i.e. MUSICAL conversation! And many more features are coming soon.

We love your feedback, even if it’s a critique! We’re always looking to improve the site to meet your needs.

Keep an eye on the site. New features will be coming and they will be awesome.

  • Skills you can use to work out real world melodies by ear
  • Working knowledge of the Major Scale via popular songs, fun demonstrations, and digestible music theory breakdowns
  • Introduction to Scale Degrees and The WARRENMUSIC Grid**
  • 10 in-depth episodes ranging from 10-40 minutes in length
  • Lifetime access
  • Visual Aids
  • Audio Examples
  • Worksheets (Song Puzzles)
  • Interactive Tools
  • Access to Members-Only Melody Module Forum
  • Direct help from fellow learners and Warren

You Might Be Doing It Wrong

If you don’t look like this when you’re trying to learn a tricky song, you’re DOING IT WRONG.

It doesn’t matter how ugly or stupid I look here. What you don’t see is how I’m actually kicking musical ass.

In this seriously scary photo, I’m OWNING Atoms For Peace’s “Ingenue” bass synth. I’m making one of the squirmiest, twisty, jumpy, convoluted, yet infectious melodies in the entire album my own.

The way I see it, if you don’t harness 100% of your musical energy into truly listening (and I don’t mean passive listening, I mean engaging your whole body and mind), then you are not building up your ear. Like… when I do this, the room goes dark around me.

If you lift weights, then you know that you have to squeeze out that last rep to get them GAINS. You have to use every muscle fiber, until you FAIL.

Well, ear-training is no different.

The best thing you can do for your musicianship is, for five minutes a day, listen with FULL INTENSITY to a melody or a portion of a melody you love and try to work out what’s happening in it, musically.

Ask yourself:

  • Is it moving up?
  • Down?
  • Staying the same?
  • Is it moving by a little, or a lot?
  • Does it use the Major Scale?
  • Can you match it?
  • Can you tell the distance between any two given notes?
  • Do you know whether it’s a “1,” or a “5,” or a “♭7?”

Transcribe what you hear until you FAIL. This way you’ll see the greatest musical gains. Because it’s when you actually find the limits of your ear that you discern what’s been holding you back. Only then can you actually do something about it. How can you possibly know how to improve if you don’t know where you are weak?

Don’t know how to transcribe? Well, I have a series that will show you how to do that. I show you how real-world melodies can be translated into Scale Degrees in this free preview:

Or don’t do any of the above, and keep reaching for that next tab, or tutorial. And you’ll just stay the same.

I shared my intense music learning face. How about yours? Do you have one? Put one up on Instagram with the hashtag #musicface. I think it’s time the world sees how intense music students can be!

Melody Module: What Will You Come Away With?

By the end of the Melody Module, what will you come away with?

  • You will see Melody in a fresh way…
  • We’ll begin to de-mystify Melody via the concept of Scale Degrees
  • You’ll be introduced to the ultimate codebreaker for Melody, The Major Scale
  • You will make your way towards a more finely tuned sense of relative pitch
  • You will learn how musicians approach playing by ear
  • You’ll be given a clear way to process real-world melodies
  • You’ll discern what’s been holding you back.
  • You will have a clear picture of the ultimate goal of Ear-Training
  • And lastly, you will learn to make songs your teachers.

Perhaps best of all, I’ll be taking your suggestions on where the series should go next. With your input and my love of being thorough and my obsession to share every musical insight in my brain, I think we can go pretty far.

Are. you. ready?

Pre-order the Melody Module today for $99.

You’ll receive:

  • Life access to all ten Melody Module Episodes
  • Topics include everything listed above
  • Innovative Music Theory Aids
  • Challenging Ear-Training Exercises
  • 100% satisfaction guarantee. If you aren’t fully satisfied, you can get a full refund.

You can also purchase all three modules in a bundle (Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm) now. These three subjects form the foundation of musicianship, and the rest of The WARRENMUSIC Series.

Order Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm Modules together, and receive the above PLUS the following:

  • Unrestricted access to TEN Harmony and TEN Rhythm* Episodes.
  • Topics will include how to identify different types of chords, and entire chord progressions, rhythmic structures, syncopation, and much more… all by ear.

Looking to the future, topics will include improvisation, modes and scales, modulation, alternate tunings, fretboard exercises, phrasing techniques, chromatic harmony, chord substitution, altered chords, poly-rhythm, hidden syncopation, and the list goes on and on!

Pre-order now.


*Rhythm Module is available as a pre-order. Melody and Harmony are available for access today.

  • Skills you can use to work out real world melodies by ear
  • Working knowledge of the Major Scale via popular songs, fun demonstrations, and digestible music theory breakdowns
  • Introduction to Scale Degrees and The WARRENMUSIC Grid**
  • 10 in-depth episodes ranging from 10-40 minutes in length
  • Lifetime access
  • Visual Aids
  • Audio Examples
  • Worksheets (Song Puzzles)
  • Interactive Tools
  • Access to Members-Only Melody Module Forum
  • Direct help from fellow learners and Warren
  • Lifetime access to Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm Modules (Rhythm pre-order, TBA 2020)
  • Skills you can use to work out real world melodies, chords and chord progressions, and real world rhythmic patterns by ear
  • Working knowledge of the Major Scale, Diatonic Harmony, Meter, Syncopation, Swing/Shuffle, and much more via popular songs, fun demonstrations, and digestible music theory breakdowns
  • Introduction to Scale Degrees, Chord Numerals, the Time Unit Box System, and The Complete WARRENMUSIC Grid**
  • 30 in-depth episodes ranging from 10-40 minutes in length
  • Visual Aids
  • Audio Examples
  • Worksheets (Song Puzzles)
  • Interactive Tools
  • Access to Members-Only Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm Module Forums
  • Direct help from fellow learners and Warren

When the Tutorial Fades Away, Hear This

Let’s talk about your musical goals.

Everyone desires something from their musical journey.

Many of you started your musical journey by learning your favorite songs. But as you continued to progress in your skills, you began to realize you wanted more: to write your own songs, to write better songs, to improvise, or to gain more insight into the music you love, or play by ear. Some of you want to become a better bandmate, and to be more musically fluent and aware of what’s going on during band practice. Some of you want to make music more freely, jumping from musical idea to musical idea, eliciting and expressing emotion sonically, with conviction and intensity.

All of these are GREAT GOALS!

But allow me to be very direct for a moment.

The hard truth is that none of the above will happen for you if where you turn to first is a tab, a tutorial, or song-by-song lessons from a private teacher. It won’t even happen for you if you understand some things about music, but don’t have an ear for Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm to pick up on the things you’re hearing in your favorite music. It definitely won’t happen if you have an ear for Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm, but lack the musical insight to process any of it or make something new.

If any of the above describes you, it simply WON’T happen for you, unless you make a change.

The main problem with learning music today isn’t that there aren’t enough tabs, tutorials, or teachers. In fact, there are tons. And tons of great ones. I know this firsthand. I make tutorials, after all!

The problem is hoping that tabs and tutorials can do anything more than teach you single songs. They can’t. Or the problem is finding a great teacher who is affordable. Good luck…

Ask a tab to do more than teach you that one song. It can’t. Ask a tutorial to show you how to improvise the way the artist does, to play the song differently every time while retaining its essence, or give you general insights into songwriting, or how the song relates to other songs like it, or how to make the ideas in the song your own. Odds are, it can’t.

Most private music teachers would probably LOVE it if you ask them the about deeper stuff like music theory, ear-training, how to think about and how to approach music the way musicians do, how to communicate better with your bandmates, how to create new arrangements of existing songs, how to find inspiration to write music. But few of these teachers would be very affordable. I also know this firsthand.

But there’s another way: Invest in yourself.

Invest in building your own musicianship. Not in more tabs and tutorials. But in yourself.

And be smart about how you invest. If you can, sign up with a great teacher at the best value you can possibly find.

Musicians can play by ear, compose, improvise, write inspired songs, and find ways to continually grow because they did one thing above all: they prioritized the development of their own musicianship.

Start building the bridge between the music you LOVE and the music you want to MAKE.

The WARRENMUSIC Series will give you the tools you need to grow your musicianship, to train your own ear, and build your own understanding of music. Invest in yourself today.

Pre-order the Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm Modules together at a discount*.

Get ready to UNLEASH the musicianship within!

*Rhythm Module is available as a pre-order. Melody and Harmony are available for access today.