How Much Music Theory Do I Really Need To Know?

Bassist Thinking

Q: How much theory do I really need to know? Reading, modes, roman numerals, and symbols… I keep trying to get into it, get frustrated, put it down for a few weeks, feel guilty, pick it up again and repeat the cycle.

A: I feel your pain, friend. The honest answer to your question is: none (sort of).

There are plenty of phenomenal players out there who don’t really understand what they do in a technical, theoretical, or mathematical way. The alternative to theory is ear training development. If you can’t read the music, don’t understand how a line relates to a given tonality or scale….you best be able to hear things and pick them up quickly (and have a great memory).

There is no one ‘way’ to get to musical nirvana and understanding. It usually comes down to passion, hours put in (in the thousands before things even really start to click in a meaningful way), and experience.

(Here comes the big “BUT”):

BUT, the more you understand what you are doing, the easier it is to foster development. It’s like not learning how to read a language. Technically, you can get by in the world but you’ll come up against obstacles in your day to day life that needn’t really be obstacles. It makes existing in the world more difficult.

Of course, it all depends on your musical path. I’ve said before that I don’t believe EVERY bassist on the planet needs to learn their melodic minor modes and be able to play inversions through changes, etc… If you have a band that gigs, you all learn and write things and memorize them together, you tour, make a splash, and live out the van/airplanes for the next 30 years. Yeah, you don’t really need to learn how to read music and anything you developed outside of your band’s needs would be for your own sake and sense of development.

It’s important that you foster the skill sets that align with the idea of your musical self. Who do you want to be (musically) in 5 years (10 years, 20 years)? What kind of players do you emulate? What kind of gigs do you want to play? Do you want to make a living playing bass with an assortment of bands, doing the local bass hero thing and getting called for anything and everything? Reading would help. Understanding chord construction would help.

Is it a 100% necessity? meh… I know a few well known, world-class players who can’t read a lick. But those guys that can’t read still understand harmony and harmonic function. They have to, in order to play the gigs they play. They also have had to foster damn-near eidetic musical memories.

The more you know, the more versatile you are. The more you know, the better you understand it is that you are doing. There’s really no excuse to not learn everything you can about your instrument/music IF it’s what you are truly passionate about and especially if you want to make a living at it.

Do architects need to learn to draw by hand if they are learning CAD? Do digital artists need to learn how to paint with a brush? No, but I can almost guarantee that the best of them understand both mediums because one informs the other.

When I have students who want to become professional musicians, I try to reinforce the belief that you no longer have the luxury of apathy or procrastination. It takes dedication to become a real contender in any medium and there’s a lot of great players out there. Don’t put off the things that you will wish you had done, later in life.

It seems like you may need to introduce some kind of context into your studies. If you are just reading a book on theory and then trying to play scales through a jazz standard, it may just seem too vague and… less than helpful. You need to connect it with something engaging and/or fun. Whether that means finding like-minded students, like you, who are working through this stuff and running exercises and tunes together or finding albums/songs that you dig that utilize some of what you are wanting to learn and transcribing, playing along with, examining deeply… You’ll have to find what works for you and figure out how to engage your brain and endorphins while actually studying something as well.

A good teacher can make all the difference in the world here. If you can find somebody to help explain things in clear language while helping to guide you through the necessary steps to come to your own revelations, that is worth its weight in gold.

If there’s nobody locally, think of your favorite players who understand some of this stuff and hit them up for Skype lessons. Join an online community.

There are no lack of resources these days and it’ll all come down to how badly you want it, in the end. It’s really not that difficult, once you understand a few key concepts. It then becomes a matter of hours in the shed and muscle memory (and then, ultimately, musicality and having good musical instincts). The best teacher of all, though? Experience! Get out there and make music with people and find folks to work on this stuff with because, yeah… if you just sit at your desk and try and memorize a bunch of modes without understanding why or how you’d ever use them? forget about it…

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Alan James Long

    Learn a bit of piano. It really helps to visualise chord construction, scales and ultimately, modes in a more graphic way than the fretboard. No need to be a Liszt or Chick Corea but it helped me enormously.