Where to start with theory

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Paul7926Paul7926 Frets: 136
New to all this however I've come to the conclusion that I'm the kinda guy that needs to know how things work before it makes any sense.

I mean I can follow tab but it feels far too much like monkey see, monkey do. I don't know why my fingers are supposed to go where the tab shows. I'm sure if I could grasp that it would help.

I mean if I've got this right for an open e chord I'm playing E B E G# B E  (tried to figure that out on the fly so could be wrong) Even if it's right I have no clue why those are the notes and not any others.

Any suggestions on internet resources or books or even where to start with all this.

Thanks
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  • StavrosStavros Frets: 82
    I would start here: https://www.justinguitar.com/categories/practical-music-theory

    Also, I found The Practical Guide to Modern Music Theory for Guitarists by Joseph Alexander very helpful.
    I love my brick
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  • FuengiFuengi Frets: 756
    I feel you brother! It's like learning another language without having your own language to refer to! 

    The single useful piece of information that nobody tells you is that a Key and a Scale are basically the same thing.

    So if something is in the Key of Em that means it's using the Em scale and the notes within. It took me 18 months to work that out. 

    Take your open E Chord, from the E Major Scale which is  E, F♯, G♯, A, B, C♯, and D♯. 

    The root is the E, the 3rd is the G# and the 5th is the B. If you play those three notes you make a E Major Chord. Any major chord is made up of the 1 / 3 / 5 of its scale. 

    For a minor chord you sharpen the 3rd. 

    That's a start! 
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  • For a minor chord you flatten the 3rd.
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  • FuengiFuengi Frets: 756
    For a minor chord you flatten the 3rd.
    That's what I meant!!  :o
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  • Paul7926Paul7926 Frets: 136
    @Stavros Thanks for the link and the book suggestion.  May well be putting that on my Xmas list.  :)

    @Fuengi Ah, so that's why, for example, a 12 bar blues progression in E (I,IV,V) uses the E, A & B chords I guess.  Thanks for handing me that piece of the puzzle.


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  • vizviz Frets: 5093
    edited November 24
    I’ve thought about this so much, and I know i: a controversial point of view, but to my mind the best approach is to go through the ABRSM theory syllabus, step by step, until you are grade 8. 

    Failing that, I would cover the following points, in order. I hope it is clear this is a ‘listening’ approach to music theory, not an ‘abstract’ approach. 

    1) Find the home note of a song. Try to sing or whistle the song’s “note of repose”, its root, the keystone where the song is grounded. It’s not always the last chord’s bassnote, and certainly not always the first chord’s bassnote, but it quite often is so that’s a good place to start. 

    2) Hear the difference between major vs minor. Be able to identify without fail whether music is in a major key or a minor key (or whether it’s ambiguous in the case of some rock and blues). It’s said major is “happier” than minor. Can you detect that?

    3) Explore the concept of a ‘scale’ - both major and minor scales. Hear the interval between the root and each scale degree. Learn the names for each of the scale degrees. Tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant, leading tone, octave. Look up why each has its name. 

    4) Familiarise yourself with what a 4th sounds like. And a 5th. And the octave. These are ‘perfect’ intervals. They are the same for major and minor scales.

    5) Listen to the other intervals, especially the 3rd which has a major and minor version and determines whether the key is major or minor. Same with the 6th, and to a lesser extent the 7th. Also the 2nd, though this is the same for major and minor scale. Understand Tones (T) and semitones (s). Be able to hear the difference. 

    6) As well as the intervals between the root and each note in the scale, listen to the intervals between each note in the scale. Major is TTsTTTs. Minor is TsTTsTT. 

    7) Learn about and play the chords built from the tonic. The major and minor triads (1-3-5 chords), and the extensions major and minor 7 chords. 

    8) Discover “harmonising the major and minor scales”. Realise that for each of the scale degrees (eg subdominant), there is a chord (a 1-3-5-7 chord) built off that note. Hear each chord - hear whether it has a major or minor 3rd, whether it has a perfect 5th (or a diminished 5th); listen to the 7ths - are they major or minor 7ths? Contrast I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-viidim-I (major scale) with i-iidim-III-iv-v-VI-VII-i (minor scale)


    You now have all the vocabulary. Now start with harmonic analysis. 

    1) understand the main progressions. The V-I progression (“perfect cadence”). Listen to songs with I-IV-V-I progressions and ii-V-I progressions. Listen out for perfect cadences. Explore the ubiquitous I-V-vi-IV-I progression. That has a IV-I progression (the “plagal cadence”). Listen to your favourite songs and understand whether they are major or minor, and write down the chord progressions. 

    2) Look at chord sheets that show songs’ progressions. Notice when songs use chords from within the key (that you learned from harmonising the scales above) and when they borrow chords from outside the key. Look into how and why that works.

    3) Explore minor progressions that should have a minor v chord. They sometimes borrow a major V chord. Why is that? Learn about “harmonic minor”. 

    Then you can go into melodic theory and after that you can explore things such as relative major and minor, circle of 5ths, sharps and flats, key signatures, inversions, modulations, modes, secondary dominants, substitutions and all sorts of other stuff. But the steps above will get you a long way. 
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  • Paul7926Paul7926 Frets: 136
    @viz Thanks, means nothing at the moment but cut-n-pasted for future reference
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  • vizviz Frets: 5093
    edited November 23
    Paul7926 said:
    @viz Thanks, means nothing at the moment but cut-n-pasted for future reference
    I think you need to take it at the pace you need. Slow is good. Wait till you fully understand point (1) before moving on. It took me 8 years to get to grade 8; it can’t race ahead of one’s playing really. Well it can, but then it’s really too theoretical, imo. 

    It will unfurl in front of you. No sweat. 
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  • My teenage son is doing his music theory grades, I think it's grade 5 he needs to get to demonstrate enough knowledge to apply for the university courses he wants. He's not particularly academic ( no I don't know why he wants to go to university...) but seems to be getting on fine so it's a doable thing. 

    I think there are two basic problems with learning theory and both are easily overcome:
    - lots of different explanations and even names for the same things. Find a course, follow it, come back to online conversations much later.
    - the belief that theory will tell you what to do. Theory explains what you have done and gives you a language to communicate to others . Once you grasp it's that's way around you are freed up to make music, supported by and not restricted by theory. 
    Dum dum dum, dum dum de dum, dum dum dum, dum dummmm.
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  • AlexOAlexO Frets: 235
    Fuengi said:
    I feel you brother! It's like learning another language without having your own language to refer to! 

    The single useful piece of information that nobody tells you is that a Key and a Scale are basically the same thing.

    So if something is in the Key of Em that means it's using the Em scale and the notes within. It took me 18 months to work that out. 

    Take your open E Chord, from the E Major Scale which is  E, F♯, G♯, A, B, C♯, and D♯. 

    The root is the E, the 3rd is the G# and the 5th is the B. If you play those three notes you make a E Major Chord. Any major chord is made up of the 1 / 3 / 5 of its scale. 

    For a minor chord you sharpen the 3rd. 

    That's a start! 

    I've been playing guitar for 15 years and I didn't know this haha. I've never seen it explained as simple. Great work. Wisdom awarded.
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  • JalapenoJalapeno Frets: 3439
    Doe a deer, is actually not a bad start !
    Imagine something sharp and witty here ......

    Feedback
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  • Paul7926Paul7926 Frets: 136
    @EricTheWeary My personal driving factor is that I'm very much a 'but why' sorta guy.  I'm plodding along at the very start of my learning journey and somehow just being told 'put your fingers there, play those string' means I'll eventually get the right noises but I don't personally feel like I've learned anything.

    It's difficult to explain but to me it's a bit like the difference between learning your times table by chanting them until they are in your brain against learning how to multiply and being able to do that for any two numbers.


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  • RolandRoland Frets: 2174
    Jalapeno said:
    Doe a deer, is actually not a bad start !
    I prefer the Simpson’s version:
    Doh. A beer. A beer I drink
    Ray. The bloke I drink beer with
    Me? I’ll have another beer
    Far. A long way from my beer.
    So. I’ll have another beer
    La-ger is the beer I drink
    Tea? No thanks I’ll have a beer, which will bring me back to ....
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  • RolandRoland Frets: 2174
    @viz ; That’s an excellent summary. With music the experiential approach is much more useful than the dry theoretical. After all, the theory is only created to try to document and explain what is actually there.
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  • vizviz Frets: 5093
    Roland said:
    @viz ; That’s an excellent summary. With music the experiential approach is much more useful than the dry theoretical. After all, the theory is only created to try to document and explain what is actually there.
    Thank you, and exactly; what I have written there is called music theory but it’s really an aspect of music appreciation.
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  • @EricTheWeary My personal driving factor is that I'm very much a 'but why' sorta guy.  I'm plodding along at the very start of my learning journey and somehow just being told 'put your fingers there, play those string' means I'll eventually get the right noises but I don't personally feel like I've learned anything.

    It's difficult to explain but to me it's a bit like the difference between learning your times table by chanting them until they are in your brain against learning how to multiply and being able to do that for any two numbers.


    I think there might be two things going on here. One is music theory ( if it's an E chord what makes it an E chord?) and the other (for want of a better word) is technique ( of all the possible ways to create an E chord why should I put my fingers here?). Hopefully a guitar oriented theory course will go some way to addressing both of those, or at least give you the knowledge to work out the reasoning.

    Music theory is developed from a background that isn't always an easy fit with modern popular music of the last seventy years. It's a simpler fit with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star than it is with a Muddy Waters riff even though you might find the Muddy Waters riff easier to play. So you may be making arbitrary decisions about when not to focus on theory so that you can actually play something on the guitar. 
    Dum dum dum, dum dum de dum, dum dum dum, dum dummmm.
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  • FuengiFuengi Frets: 756
    If your mind works like mine you'll never be able to learn a riff without learning some (probably quite a lot) of theory first.

    You're the guy who reads the installation manual through before building the IKEA wardrobe! 
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  • Paul7926Paul7926 Frets: 136
    Fuengi said:
    If your mind works like mine you'll never be able to learn a riff without learning some (probably quite a lot) of theory first.

    You're the guy who reads the installation manual through before building the IKEA wardrobe! 
    Nah. I'm the guy who doesn't read the manual because I've already researched wardrobe design principles. Wardrobe wood selection. The engineering properties of various hinges and other wardrobe related hardware and watched multiple you tube videos of master craftsmen creating wardrobes from scratch in fully equipped workshops.

    Yeah. I have a bit of a problem.  :)
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  • FuengiFuengi Frets: 756
    Paul7926 said:u
    Fuengi said:
    If your mind works like mine you'll never be able to learn a riff without learning some (probably quite a lot) of theory first.

    You're the guy who reads the installation manual through before building the IKEA wardrobe! 
    Nah. I'm the guy who doesn't read the manual because I've already researched wardrobe design principles. Wardrobe wood selection. The engineering properties of various hinges and other wardrobe related hardware and watched multiple you tube videos of master craftsmen creating wardrobes from scratch in fully equipped workshops.

    Yeah. I have a bit of a problem.  :)
    I prefer learning theory to playing. 

    Enjoy the ride! 
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  • vizviz Frets: 5093
    Jalapeno said:
    Doe a deer, is actually not a bad start !
    Very true indeed - that simple song has so many interesting elements to it in terms of music theory. 
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  • I look at it this way:

    Modes (E box shape, basically fill in the minor pentatonic patterns)
    Modes (three notes per string)

    Most of these feed into each other - have fun with it all though :)
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  • I think there are two basic problems with learning theory and both are easily overcome:
    - lots of different explanations and even names for the same things. Find a course, follow it, come back to online conversations much later.
    - the belief that theory will tell you what to do. Theory explains what you have done and gives you a language to communicate to others . Once you grasp it's that's way around you are freed up to make music, supported by and not restricted by theory. 
    ---this, in spades. So many guitarists don't get this. 
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  • m_cm_c Frets: 422
    I've been working through Justin Guitars practical music theory book for a while*, and I'd recommend it. Theory isn't something you'll learn quickly though, as you really need to gradually learn and understand it in stages, otherwise you can end up 'knowing' something, but not really understanding it.

    One thing that I'm sure really helped me, was I know my way around a piano/keyboard, so I already knew where the sharps/flats go, which is the kind of thing if you don't know well, will hamper the next stages like learning chord construction, as rather than thinking about what the I, III, V are, first you're having to think where the sharps/flats go.

    *By a while, I mean for a couple years! I generally learn a bit, then get distracted/frustrated then ignore it for a while, however I'm very gradually working my way through it.
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  • beed84beed84 Frets: 1275
    Get the AB Guide to Music Theory by Eric Taylor, the Music Theory in Practice Grade 1, and some past papers to practice with. It's just one of those things: start at the beginning and work your way up.
    "We are all just actors trying to control and manage our public image, we act based on how others might see us" – Erving Goffman
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  • FuengiFuengi Frets: 756
    m_c said:
    I've been working through Justin Guitars practical music theory book for a while*, and I'd recommend it. Theory isn't something you'll learn quickly though, as you really need to gradually learn and understand it in stages, otherwise you can end up 'knowing' something, but not really understanding it.

    One thing that I'm sure really helped me, was I know my way around a piano/keyboard, so I already knew where the sharps/flats go, which is the kind of thing if you don't know well, will hamper the next stages like learning chord construction, as rather than thinking about what the I, III, V are, first you're having to think where the sharps/flats go.

    *By a while, I mean for a couple years! I generally learn a bit, then get distracted/frustrated then ignore it for a while, however I'm very gradually working my way through it.
    I found a keyboard or a xylophone is brilliant for visual reference to theory where a guitar isn't. Worth having one around.

    Michael New does some really good keyboard based theory lessons on YouTube which helped me grasp a few concepts. 
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  • vizviz Frets: 5093
    Fuengi said:
    m_c said:
    I've been working through Justin Guitars practical music theory book for a while*, and I'd recommend it. Theory isn't something you'll learn quickly though, as you really need to gradually learn and understand it in stages, otherwise you can end up 'knowing' something, but not really understanding it.

    One thing that I'm sure really helped me, was I know my way around a piano/keyboard, so I already knew where the sharps/flats go, which is the kind of thing if you don't know well, will hamper the next stages like learning chord construction, as rather than thinking about what the I, III, V are, first you're having to think where the sharps/flats go.

    *By a while, I mean for a couple years! I generally learn a bit, then get distracted/frustrated then ignore it for a while, however I'm very gradually working my way through it.
    I found a keyboard or a xylophone is brilliant for visual reference to theory where a guitar isn't. Worth having one around.

    Michael New does some really good keyboard based theory lessons on YouTube which helped me grasp a few concepts. 
    I don’t know how anyone can understand theory without a piano keyboard / picture of one. 
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  • What @viz said.

    If you want the detail, try this

    Start with C major. No sharps no flats.
    For each note of the scale
    do
            write out the notes from C major starting on the note you chose until you have covered an octave
            calculate the interval of each note from the note preceding it in your scale
            calculate the interval of each note of your scale from the note you chose as its root
    done

    You have taken the modes of C major. Note that two of them are only one note different to a major scale.
    Answer this: In those two, which note would you sharpen or flatten in order to turn that mode into a new major scale starting on its "root".

    Ok, for those two, take the modes from the new root and do the same thing as you did with C major. You should get similar results (structurally), but starting and ending on different notes.

    If you repeat that for long enough you will generate all the key signature there are. Each time round you collect an extra sharp (or flat). You will see that the last sharp in each key signature is on the leading note of the major scale that the key signature is for. You should also see that the last flat in a key signature is on the 4th degree of the major scale that the key signature is for.

    Don't bother trying to lean key signature by rote. Generate them from first principles.

    Remember: inclusive counting of note names for intervals, use the major scale as a yardstick to tell you whether you have a major or a minor interval. Don't mix sharps and flats in a key sig. You must have exactly one of each note name present in a scale. If it looks like you need (eg) an F and an F#, the chances are you need an E# and an F#. Perfect intervals become augmented or diminished when modified.

    "Working" software has only unobserved bugs. (Parroty Error: Pieces of Nine! Pieces of Nine!)
    Seriously: If you value it, take/fetch it yourself
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  • Bygone_TonesBygone_Tones Frets: 1310
    edited November 27
    Another vote for this: 



    That was the book I used when doing my classical grades. The blue Part 2 book has the very advanced stuff in it, you probably wont need unless you get really into it.

    Fwiw I dont think music theory is something you can just read from a book and learn. You have to implement it into your playing for it to stick. So that means reading from sheet music, start with basic grade 1 song books and increase in difficulty.  Ideally get a teacher who can help you through them. Consider doing the ABRSM grades.

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  • Nothing wrong with AB Grades, Eric Taylor's book is excellent, but IMO it
    • doesn't get you to generate scales and key signatures from first principles (It either teaches by rote or assumes you know why the circles of fifths/fourths is the way it is)
    • doesn't go a whole lot on commonly-used chord progressions (I vi IV V, ii V I, I IV V etc)
    I think the first is a bit of a drop-off. The second is to be expected because it is not primarily aimed at the readership for which those chord progressions are significant.
    "Working" software has only unobserved bugs. (Parroty Error: Pieces of Nine! Pieces of Nine!)
    Seriously: If you value it, take/fetch it yourself
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