Critical Period for Music Theory

I play the guitar occasionally, but I’m not very good at it because I don’t practice often enough. Anyhow, I always loathed music classes in grade school because they didn’t seem scholastic enough. I’d like to pick up some music theory, but I can’t make sense of any music theory textbooks–there’s too much jargon. Is there a critical period for learning music theory, similar to the critical period that exists for natural language? Have I missed the boat completely?

Music theory is a completely intellectual pursuit and is not directly related to learning to actually play music. Music theory is like learning physics to understand how a basketball bounces. Michael Jordan probably doesn’t know his F from his ma.

I don’t know what books you are using, but you do realize that music involves specialized language. But a good theory book will introduce and teach all the terms before just blasting them at you.

What kind of music do you like to play? I might be able to recommend something if I know what direction you’re going. Theory applied to rock, jazz, and classical have a lot of overlap but different emphasis (in rock you won’t care as much about voice leading, chord extensions, etc.) I play jazz and some rock and have taken a couple of classical theory courses, and studied jazz theory extensively on my own (although still have trouble applying it!).

I play rock & roll, so I’d like to learn scales and those kinds of things. You know, to be able to improvise.

My suggestion, which will make it both more fun and practicle, is to take a group guitar class. Private lessons would work well too, depending on what you are looking to get out of it, but a guitar class at a local community college would teach you a lot of the basics in a way that is directly aplicable to what you are doing on the guitar. Once you have the fundamentals down there is no limit to how far you can take your education, but I found the fundamentals much simpler to grasp when show how they work in practice.

Basic sight reading, scales, simple blues improve etc are all things that should be taught in one of these classes.

Textbooks are probably too academic for your needs. There are websites that offer the info in more easily digestible forms.

Here are my suggestions for what to look for and learn:
[li]The chromatic scale. It’s like knowing the alphabet if you want to read and write. Know it backward and forward, and commit it to memory.[/li][li]The definition of a major scale. Commit to memory.[/li][li]Actual major scales. Ideally in all keys, but certainly in the keys you play in.[/li][li]The definition of a minor scale (the natural minor is the one to go for). The concept of a relative minor scale and a relative major scale.[/li][li]Actual minor scales in the keys you play in.[/li][li]The definiton of various chords (i.e., what notes of the scale they are composed of).[/li][li]Common chord progressions.[/li][li]The cycle of fifths.[/li][/ul]

If you tackle these one step at a time, I think you’ll find that you can learn it easily enough.

Add to that Pentatonic scales major/minor. These are the 5 note scales that most blues and rock leads are built around. Diatonic, or standard scales, are the traditional seven note scale, and are good to know also. And if you are feeling really ambitious, some modes.

But recognize that this list contains a couple of years worth of study material. Again, I think that a class or private lessons will get you on the road.

I appreciate your suggestion. The only problem is that I’ve looked some of this stuff up online and many of the definitions and explanations are too self-referential.

I would add to Gary T’s nearly-thorough post the pentatonic scale, which is the basis for most guitar riffs and solos.

Music theory is not a completely intellectual pursuit, and is sometimes (but not always) closely connected to learning to actually play music. Michael Jordan doesn’t need Newton, but putting a satellite into orbit, or making a top-quality basketball, requires a bit of theory.


It’s true that a lot of the terminology in books tackling classical theory will be of little relevance to the music you are wanting to play. Some, however, will help, especially as there’s many borrowings from one system to another. Always bear in mind that music theory is not an abstract concept, but a way of codifying and describing how a particular type of music works, i.e. describing some of its defining features. Even with the most simple examples which may be presented to you, try playing them, be it on the guitar, or on a piano if you’re able. The way this then builds up into the structure of chords and of harmony will then have an aural basis as well as a pen-and-paper one.

Also, if something in particular is really stumping you, don’t be afraid to post questions here, even if you feel like they’re stupid ones!! We promise we won’t laugh, we’re happy to help out :slight_smile: (and possibly then, but only then, descend into some obscure argument :wink: )

See if these are more helpful:

OK, let me try a few, sidestepping some of the historical reasons for things existing…
Chromatic scale

First of all, we’ll take a natural phenomena, which is that two notes, one with twice the frequency of the other (e.g. by halving the length of a guitar string), fit together quite nicely. They sound ‘the same’, but higher/lower than one another. We’ll call this an octave.

Let’s make twelve equal steps from one note to the other. Never mind the maths involved in working out the frequencies, or how to tune instruments, other people have done that for us. This is what gives us the keys of a piano, or the frets on a guitar. We’ll name the notes, in a way which will prove very convenient, even if it’s a little strange to start…

A sharp/B flat (Yes, one note with two names. Don’t ask.)
C sharp/D flat
D sharp/E flat
F sharp/G flat
G sharp/A flat

After that, we get to the upper of our two initial notes, so we call that ‘A’ again, and we can build another octave above this one.
Definition of a major scale

Tone = two steps along the chromatic scale

Semitone = one step

(Don’t ask why, at the moment.)

Major scale = Tone Tone Semitone Tone Tone Tone Semitone = TTSTTTS

The major scale is a fundamental element of the way our music works. Again, there’s reasons, and again, trust me, it’s easier to just learn it for now :slight_smile:
Actual major scales

Go back to the chromatic scale. Remove all the sharps/flats, and you have a C major scale (tone tone semitone…) (Remember that when we get to A we can start again with the same pattern in the next octave.) This corresponds to the white notes on the piano.

If you put all the sharps/flats back, and choose another starting note, you will have to move up to different subsequent notes if you want to follow this different major scale. When we come to the notes with two names (known as ‘accidentals’), the principle is that each letter is used only once in any one major scale. So, starting on F, we move to G then A, but the semitone step is to B flat (not A sharp), followed by a tone to C.

On a guitar, each fret provides the next semitone, so it’s easy to use the TTSTTTS pattern to go up one string, and you can figure out for yourself how to play the same notes across the instrument.

That’s as much as I can face in one go, let me know if it makes sense so far!

While this is correct in a common-sense way, I foresee potential confusion from use of the word “step.” A tone is often called a whole step, and a semitone a half step. Since that use of the word step is well established in discussing music, I would suggest using an alternative.

Ahhh, transatlantic confusion, good point. I’m trying to think of a suitable word, which also has no other meaning also with the potential for confusion, and failing.

On the other hand, anybody at any level is going to encounter half-step vs. semitone, quarter-note vs. crotchet, measure vs. bar, so it perhaps makes sense to be able to point things out here in this way.
(How about we say what the heck, and go with ‘banana’ and ‘sliced banana’? :smiley: )

I took music theory in my 20’s, so I’ll say no to the critical period question.
eta: and did well

A talented musician can learn to play his instrument without learning any theory or being able to read music; I was contrasting the talent of being able to play vs. the rigor of knowing what notes you’re playing and their relationships.

I have an instructional video by Scotty Anderson, who is a gifted player. At one point, he shows you how he plays this chord, and says, “And this…I think this is a 6th; I really don’t know much about theory.” OTOH you can learn everything about theory without ever actually picking up an instrument.

I didn’t mean theory is useless, only that learning theory is a different process in the brain than learning to play music, to explain that it’s not too late to effectively learn theory (unlike the way that it is difficult/impossible for an adult to learn a new language as well as his native language).

There is a huge amount of free content on the Internet on this.

I would start by searching for “blues scale” and look for diagrams of how it’s laid out on the fretboard, and learn it in as many keys as you can. Also look for Dorian Mode, which is pretty big with Carlos Santana.

I could explain how they are derived but I don’t want to take up thread space giving lessons when lessons are readily available.

Another thing you should do is train your ear while you’re learning. Pick a note on the 6th string and then play a major scale–do re mi fa so la ti do. You could just look the patterns up online and save time but you’ll learn a lot by exploring all up and down the neck with this.

I’ll do a little looking around and try to recommend a good web site and maybe a book. Mel Bay books are usually pretty good, not sure what they offer on theory today. I seem to remember something like “theory for the rock guitarist” but not sure.


My dad is a K-12 music teacher and what he says is that while music theory is important, he says it can actually be a detriment to improvisation. Improvisation is not about having cerebral knowledge of how music works. To learn how to improvise, you need to just play, play, play, play, play. You need to make your instrument like an extension of your body, and playing it like walking. You need to be able to ‘audiate,’ a technical term used by Dr. Gordon which IIRC basically means being able to internally comprehend music like a language, making it flow naturally and basically feel like a part of you.

While the Gordon Method is best for young kids, take a peek at his site and see if you find it interesting.

I think this will do better in Cafe Society. I’ll move it there for you.

General Questions Moderator

As a self-taught jazz saxophonist who’s been “audiating” his ass off for 30 years but only recently tried his hand (abortively) at serious music education, I am of the opinion that you don’t necessarily need theory to play well - especially if you have a strong natural ear - but that it is an important part (in jazz anyway) of the “ticket” you need to be respected, listened to, and hired.

I put it in the category of “paying your dues.” There is a structure and a rigor that people will listen for in your playing, and it’s founded in the ability to internalize and apply theory.

This is just my observation because I have actual formal training, but it seems to me that when I hear the great self taught musician get interviewed about their music, that they may not have traditional music theory under their belt, but they end up learning the theory in their own way. They may not know what the interval is, or exactly what chord they are playing, but there is an organization to their music that fits into the backbone of traditional music theory.

To Auto’s comment on his dad’s improv theory, this is something that I hear a lot. People don’t want to learn theory because it will mess with their songwriting or improvisation skills. But like I said, most of the great blues and jazz players have some sort of system, even if it isn’t the traditional theory. I know that many (not all) classically trained musicians can’t improvise, but I think that improv is something that you need to be taught in order to be able to do it well, and it just isn’t taught as part of classical training.

If you don’t learn theory you have to teach yourself everything, but if you have the theory you can use that as a foundation for learning to improvise or write songs or anything else. And you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Also the theory can help break you out of ruts. I play blues guitar and have for almost 15 years (more than half my life time, I am 26) and I know that when I play after a while all my solos start to have a ring of sameness to them. When this happens I usually sit down and deconstruct several songs in styles that I am not familiar with and start intentionally incorporating bits of them into my solo. It sounds like crap for a little while until I internalize it, but then they become another tool in my arsenal. I can more or less play what I think at this point, but sitting down with theory helps me expand what phrases I can come up with. It’s just like any other form of education.