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.


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

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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.

The Sidewalk Test, Revisited

WARRENMUSIC Intro Module, Episode 06 — “The Sidewalk Test”

If you recall Episode 6, which was first published back in July of 2015, it introduces what I call “The Sidewalk Test.”

In this video, I demonstrate how I play by ear, how I pull the melody, the harmony, and the rhythm out of a song… on the spot.

So what is “The Sidewalk Test,” exactly?

The Sidewalk Test is two simple things:

1) Identify the melody, harmony, and rhythm of a song without outside help
2) Reproduce it ON THE SPOT.

You pass the test if a stranger who knows the song walking down the street would recognize it as they pass by.

Would you pass the test?

If not, then today you can do something about it. You can invest in your own musicianship. Learn music theory. Develop your ear. Build up what is worth more than all the tabs, tutorials, and sheet music in the world.

You can pre-order the Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm modules now.

And until then, watch a new cut of Episode 6, now live.

Modes Explained

I get a lot of questions about music theory. I thought it would be great to tackle some of these questions and post them on this blog for anyone who might want to chew on ideas in music theory and use them as a jumping off point for making new music or gaining some clarity on the songs they are already studying. So here is my first attempt! Keep in mind, this is a tough one, so until you have a good grasp on the Major Scale, I’d suggest holding off on this explanation until after you learn about that first.

The Scale Degrees of the Major Scale, transcribed in grid form.

I am often asked questions like, “What is a mode? How does it differ from a key or tonality or a scale? How do modes and keys interact?”

I’ll unpack a few of these terms.

A “key” is the term for a group of specific notes. If you tell me we’re going to play a song in the key of D Mixolydian, it means chiefly two things:

  1. “D” is the main note in the song, or home note, the note from which the rest of the song’s melodies and chords originate, the note that makes us feel like the song has reached resolution. Some people call this the “tonic” or the “Do” in Do-Re-Mi of Moveable Do Solfege.
  2. When we play a Mixolydian scale from “D,” we’ll hear all the tones used in the song.

That’s a mouthful of music theory that fits in only a few words.

So what does it really mean to play a scale? Well, the “scale” is just a simple way to lay out all of the notes presented in a piece of music in order, typically from the lowest to the highest. We refer to the scale as if it were a dictionary, and we apply the scale in myriad ways… we can transcribe melodies into the degrees of the scale, create lead guitar parts from a scale, write bass lines; the scale is also used to show the relationships between chords or entire chord progressions, to help us see the connections between different songs across the whole spectrum of artists and genres we encounter, to provide a basis for improvisation, to aid in re-arranging, etc. Again, it lays out all of the notes we might hear or use in a song in a clear way. A scale, in this sense, is maybe not so different from a painter’s palette with its colors arranged in a gradient.

The term “tonality” is more loose… it has more to do with the mood/flavor/feeling the musical tones give the listener; it describes the experience of the listener. The idea of the tonality of a piece is, in this sense, distinct from the word “key,” which is a more specific word: where “key” refers to the actual set of notes, “tonality” refers to the way we perceive those same notes. They are by definition closely associated, so their meanings can have some overlap.

Now for the crazy part: a “mode” is a way to think of a particular key or tonality as a subset of another key we are more familiar with; but in actuality–once introduced and grasped–is experienced as if it were distinct from that key. For example, one can listen to a song in the key of G Mixolydian and another in the key of A Aeolian and never recognize that they are at all related even when, in fact, these two scales are comprised of the exact same set of notes. They are known as the fifth and sixth modes of the key of C Major.

The C Major Scale and its Modes, source —

These modes can also be rendered more simply using any equal-width font:


C Ionian:
C _ D _ E F _ G _ A _ B C
D Dorian:
D _ E F _ G _ A _ B C _ D
E Phrygian:
E F _ G _ A _ B C _ D _ E
F Lydian:
F _ G _ A _ B C _ D _ E F
G Mixolydian:
G _ A _ B C _ D _ E F _ G
A Aeolian:
A _ B C _ D _ E F _ G _ A
B Locrian:
B C _ D _ E F _ G _ A _ B

And so the “Key of C Major,” which is usually the first big concept any serious student of western music comes across, is actually much greater than it seems. In practice, most of us learn about C Major and play the C Major Scale when, in truth, we are really only playing C Ionian, the first mode of C Major. So, let this be our introduction to the real C Major, this set of notes with subsets of notes that yield amazingly different results. Become familiar with C Major and its modes (D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, etc.) which, by definition, use the exact same notes (the white keys on the piano) to produce wildly varying tonalities.

To hear what I’m talking about, try playing only with the white keys on the piano, or natural notes on any instrument. But start and end on G, and then try again with A. You’ll notice G Mixolydian sounds familiar; rock and folk seem to be full of examples of Mixolydian.

Here are some quick Mixolydian examples:

A Aeolian sounds totally different… it sounds melancholy or dramatic. Just take a listen to

So, while the fifth and sixth mode of C Major are experienced subjectively as something entirely different from the first mode, they are, on an objective level, the SAME as C Major! Indeed, the same set of notes used to play “Happy Birthday” and “London Bridge” can also yield the tune to every one of the songs listed above (ignoring the fact that the songs are in different keys, which we will get to next). This is why the term “mode” is a challenging idea, but an amazing one. It alludes to both an objective and subjective musical reality in one word.

So modes and keys? What’s the difference?

Any given piece of music may change keys. This becomes obvious when one set of notes succeeds in describing one section of the song, and then fails in describing another. But even when this happens, the mode may remain the same. For example, if I play in the key of C (and the first mode, a.k.a. Ionian, is always assumed when I say “key of ”), I can change in the middle of the song to the key of A, and still be in the same Ionian mode, I would just be in A Ionian (with three new sharps, F#, C#, and G#). I can also change modes within a song without changing the key. Yes, a song that doesn’t change keys can still shift your perception of its tonic! There are a few songs that come to mind on this subject:

Let’s take “Untitled 8” by Sigur Rós, one of my all-time favorites.

It starts out in what appears to be D Major/Ionian (but never gives it away fully, so we are left guessing), but eventually reveals itself to be D Mixolydian. You see it when the main guitar part drops to C, revealing a b7, the key of D Mixolydian (the fifth mode of G Major) in what you might call the pre-chorus of the song. And then in what you might call the chorus of the song, it flirts with G Ionian! And eventually, it migrates to E Aeolian and stays there for the last brooding, powerfully dark section of the piece that still gives me chills a decade after I first heard it. And the glory of this is that you can play one scale, G Major, and capture every single note in the epic journey of the 11:45 minute song. D Mixolydian for the verse and pre-chorus, G Ionian in the chorus, and E Aeolian in the build-up to the song’s climax… three different tonalities, but all one scale!

It’s incredible what range of emotions can be captured by only seven tones.

The best-selling jazz album in history employed heavy usage of modes.

Another love of mine, Miles Davis’ legendary album, Kind of Blue, is famous for having used modes as a jumping off point for improvisation. Miles simply gave his band some manuscript paper with basic scales on them and indicated which notes were the tonic in each (mode) and then they played some great tunes to contextualize these improvised modal explorations. To this day, people still call that album an example of “modal jazz,” and the term is very accurate. It also became the best-selling jazz album of all time!

So… in sum, the study of modes gives us an incredibly deep appreciation for how when different notes are treated as the tonic, the same notes can be experienced in different ways. But we had to go through the key of C Major to understand it.

Hope that was helpful! If you found this helpful, leave a comment, share it with others!

Another Way…

WARRENMUSIC Melody Module — Episode 09, “The Ultimate Goal of Ear-Training”

I am convinced that we live in the best time in history to learn music. We download albums in seconds, watch entire concerts on YouTube, and have easy access to tons of educational content. I hear there’s even a crazy guy who teaches tons of Radiohead songs for free! It truly is an amazing time for students of music everywhere, isn’t it? And yet, I am approached–almost daily–with the same issue students have everywhere in the world… what I call a lack of fluency in music.

Over the brief time I’ve been teaching music, I’ve been privileged to meet all kinds of students: hobbyists who learn through YouTube and guitar tabs, passionate songwriters in possession of a few basic chords, precocious youngsters looking to develop a more mature musical palette, and many more. But one thing unites them… the desire to become musically fluent, to have confidence in the midst of the many musical situations that arise in our daily musical lives. To most people, the task seems immense. Many students ultimately turn to tabs, instructional media, and sheet music in hopes of learning how to make the kind of music they love. And they eventually get stuck, plateau, and become frustrated with the lack of progress that inevitably sinks in for so many.

Now I won’t lie to you. Musical fluency is a challenging road. Not everyone will successfully walk on that path. But I wholeheartedly believe that–if steered in the right direction–passionate lovers of music can learn to teach themselves. With the right approach and a deep level of commitment, I believe anyone can learn to make music: they can learn to play melodies and chords by ear, solo over complex chord changes, program a drum groove, compose for a quartet, or arrange a whole song for a single guitar… it is all possible with time, dedication, and a way forward.

After all, I have been demonstrating exactly all of this for years by sharing my passion for music on my YouTube channel. Sometimes it’s a Radiohead song that I will teach the same day it’s released. Other times it’s an old Christmas song I have arranged in my own way. Occasionally, it’s an original piece with some electronic production. And it all starts with a few big ideas explained in the simplest of ways: melody, harmony, rhythm.

What I am advocating, in my opinion, is more complete and more helpful than any single tab, guitar DVD, piano/vocal/guitar book, or piece of sheet music. Tabs are often wrong, and they lack rhythmic information; they also condition us to focus entirely on the fretboard, while taking away the focus from developing our listening skills. DVDs and books can be very expensive; they can also be impossible to find when dealing with obscure songs. And reading sheet music proves over and over again to be a big obstacle for so many; the staff lines, note heads, and other symbols can simply become overwhelming. There are certainly many positive aspects about all of the learning methods above, but fundamentally, they all foster a dependence on something other than the most important thing: the connection between your ears, your understanding, and the music.

There is another way.

Through my training in the Kodály method, my studies in ethnomusicology and western music theory, and my own geeky fascination with understanding everything about the music I love, I have put together a system that can help people understand and play what they hear. In my system, the song itself is your teacher.

Are you interested? If so, let me show you another way.

Stay tuned.