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Music Theory - A necessary evil?

When you put the word 'music' and 'career' together, all manner of things begin to come to mind. Whether it's slaving away in the garage with your band perfecting your sound, winning the X Factor, spending hours locked in your room practising 170 bpm alternate picking till your forearms burn or spending your entire childhood practising to be a concert pianist, we all have certain things we share both as people and as musicians. Despite this however, one important aspect of what we do, at some point, will raise its head and polarise opinion between musicians and that's THEORY.

Knowledge of theory, and its application to what we do, is one of the aspects of music that polarises opinion and inspires great debate. I've met extremely talented musicians and educators who can sight-read scores, name the notes of a Gsus4 chord in seconds and compose music for huge numbers of people. I've also met and worked with people who are terrified by the mere mention of theory, yet can improvise (impressively) to jazz backing, have startling technical proficiency at their instruments and people who can write incredible, effective songs with just 4 chords.

It's been nearly ten years now since I first put my hands on a guitar. It's been a bumpy ride, as taking the plunge and deciding that you want to try and make a decent living by hitting strings with a bit of plastic and shouting into an SM58 can be a tough career choice to justify, to yourself more than anyone. Nevertheless, I eventually made that choice, and now I am studying musical performance at University and playing in a band that I love a great deal. However, one aspect of my development as a musician that has let me down is my theory knowledge. My degree was the first bit of 'formal' musical education I've received, and I arrived at uni knowing not much more than what the spaces in the bass and treble clefs were.

After a lot of cramming and a bit of luck, I managed to pass my first year theory exams; not by an excellent margin, but as far as theory is concerned, it was good enough for me. Whatever path you choose as a career, there will always be times where you wish you could go back and tell yourself to do "a little less of this" and "learn more of that". Maybe if I could go back to my teenage years I'd tell the younger me (who was super busy not getting laid, sat in his room with a metronome practising sweep picking and trying to be John Petrucci) to pull his head out of the clouds and learn some damn theory, just to make things a little easier, but you can't turn back time!

Despite this however, I'm content. I'll probably never be able to get onstage in a tux with a jazz band, a sheet in front of me and NOT ruin a lot of people's evenings by playing in the wrong key, pretending that my guitar's cut out and bailing out the back door. I do know however, that I can meet up with my band with ideas I've come up with and within a few hours, we can have a pretty decent sounding song come together, that people will (hopefully) enjoy.

Throughout my musical education, I've discovered there are people out there who are perfectly happy to make an excellent living by transcribing and arranging music then teaching others how to do it with their expert knowledge of theory. However, some of the incredible musicians who have managed to create music that inspired me, (and countless others) tour the world, live the dream that so many of us crave and yet are remarkably candid and open about their lack of theory knowledge, while others (who they may have toured with) went to Berklee, or Juilliard.

I'm not advocating the argument either way. If I could spend the next ten years studying theory exclusively to become a walking directory of musical knowledge, I would. But I'm getting older, fatter and hairier, and I'd rather spend the time growing as a musician in the way that suits me, which to another, could be spending those ten years with their head in a book.

While I may wish sometimes that I could sight-read a score and play what's on the page flawlessly, there's great joy to be had in widdling around on the guitar and all of a sudden, playing something that you think sounds brilliant. You may have no idea what the hell you just played and why it sounded good, it just did. That's good enough for me, for the time being.

Andrew Hill from Indigo Sky

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