Why Learning Music Theory Without Learning Songs Is a Terrible Idea

Why Learning Music Theory Without Learning Songs, Is a Terrible Idea

I once had a student who felt that he’d rather spend lesson time on learning theory than on learning the songs we had covered in the past lesson. He had just learned Crosstown Traffic and the riff to Message in a Bottle. He felt that learning songs didn’t bring him the same joy and motivation to practice.

Here’s why learning music theory is pretty useless when it’s not combined with learning songs.

(As explained to that student)

Songs ARE Theory, Applied.

Songs ARE theory. Songs are applications of theory. Without application, music theory is merely “academic matter not put to use”.

Learning “Crosstown Traffic”, enriches your theoretical and overall musical knowledge with, for example, that very important and heavily used fingering of the F#7 chord, that jazz, and blues guys use all the time, or that Bm7 fingering played with the thumb over the neck, that is heavily used in minor blues, or the E7b9 and Ab7b5 chords, which are very much theory, and heavily used in jazz.

If I had just taught you an E7b9 chord as theory or a new to learn chord shape, would you have known how to use it? Now you do: Crosstown Traffic showed you one of the ways you can use this chord in chord progressions.

Message In A Bottle enriched your theoretical knowledge with how to play a sus2 chord and showed one of the ways you can use it. The sus2 chord would have been just a lesser useful standalone piece of information if you had just learned that chord shape, without seeing it used in a song.

Songs Train Other Necessary Musical Skills That Theory Doesn’t Cover

Both songs also trained your technical proficiency and dexterity.

That is the reason why ALL music schools also teach students how to play songs, in addition to theory, ear training, and so on. The songs teach and show ways to apply the knowledge/theory. Without that, one can end up having a ton of knowledge one doesn’t know what to do with.

Moreover: songs also train the technical and physical proficiency one needs to be able to apply the theory. Remember how you found that certain physicality of certain fingerings or hand motions in both songs were challenging to pull off? That’s really good because that is how you find out that you lack the dexterity and technique to put your knowledge to good use.

If you know a lot, but you can’t play it well, or don’t have the physical skills trained well enough that you need to pull off that knowledge, or don’t know how to use all that knowledge (which songs show and teach you), you find out that you choke when you’re put on the spot by a friend who says “Oh cool, YOU PLAY GUITAR?? Play something.”

It sucks to feel stuck not really knowing what to do or what to play after a friend at a party hands you a guitar to entertain your buddies.

So much knowledge, yet nothing to play. Here’s what ultimately always follows: when that person, under the pressure of being put on the spot on a social gathering (where it’s always assumed you will play guitar for them haha), finally figures out something he CAN do/play on guitar, it always ends up being the same old simpler things he’s always done, way less colorful and way less below his knowledge level.

I am not kidding you — I have been at parties where I heard musicians just strum Bob Dylan songs for their friends, while I KNEW they knew waaaay more theory than is required to strum simple Bob Dylan song chords. They just couldn’t get themselves to come up with way more colorful sounding guitar work and rhythm parts, because they lacked song training and musical ideas. Hence, despite all their knowledge, the best they could come up with was “Hey Mr. Tamborine Man” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” 🙂

Think about how one must feel who knows he has a great deal of knowledge and theory insight but sounds like he’s at a lower intermediate level the moment he tries to play something. It’s interesting to note that you can’t “show” or “show off” theory knowledge. (Unless you start reciting it out loud at a party or in a jam session) 🙂

Theory Has Its Place, But Needs to Be Seen in the Right Perspective

The only way you can show how much you know is when you use it while performing. For example: coming up with really cool sounding chord progressions in a jam with friends, that have 7b9 or 7b5 chords or 7#9 chords (or any cool sounding chords really). By themselves or taught as theory, none of these chords have any meaning. But seeing them applied in a song you learn (like Crosstown Traffic which has those chords), suddenly you know how to use them AND as a result, you actually also WILL start using them.

Expanding theory knowledge without covering songs that show you cool ways you can put that knowledge to use, is like studying for and going to the DMV to do your theoretical road rules and traffic signs exam, but then never learning how to drive a car. It’s useless knowledge. It’s a bit of a waste.

You know what they say — Knowledge is not power: applied knowledge is power.

When you’re hanging with friends who play other instruments and want you to jam with them, they will not want you to play a Lydian scale or solo in the 4th mode of Melodic Minor, or play a voice-leading cycle with triads on strings 234 haha, or perform exercises for them.

They will LOVE it when you play cool, exciting, interesting chord progressions and rhythm parts. This requires that you implement your knowledge into coherent sounding musical offerings, which because of the richness and colorfulness of that knowledge, will sound really amazing and colorful. That is how you blow anyone away with how good you really are.

If all you have is knowledge without application, you really have nothing to show for.

My quick 2 cents as a guitar coach. 🙂


Hit me up anytime at vreny@zotzinmusic.com if you have any questions, or if you would like to book a lesson.

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