Make sense of theory?

I have a bit of a learning disability where I can’t connect the dots as people assume A leads to B, which isn’t how my brain seems to work.

An example.

Imagine knowing the alphabet and a dictionary full of words, but not how to form a sentence with them that has any meaning, just word salad is all you can come up with. An acute lack of understanding, and connecting the dots to form an understanding of the material.

Can anyone help me find the connections to put me on a path to understanding?

I feel the information I’ve learned lacks any kind of context over the last 35 years and it’s a puzzle I’ve not been able to make sense of or apply any meaning to.

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Are you asking how music theory is actually useful? I’m not really sure, but if you find out, kindly share it with me!


Yep, I mean what’s the point of it if it’s just an after the fact thing, why bother? I doesn’t exactly give me ideas and so far has been very little help to me, and I think it actually stopped me from being creative in some ways because I started thinking I have to be in key rather than just playing what sounds good.

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Well, there are applications like scholarship (publishing papers, etc.). I suspect it’s also useful in methodically trying to figure out why something might not be working, and perhaps to give ideas to help bump something forward… but the Greeks were very clear, great music comes from the gods, where the muses whisper into the ears of a composer. I’m sure that there are some good theorists here that will give more elaboration about the value of theory.

With this in mind, sounds like you’ve maybe learned theory/harmony as ummm trivia perhaps? In that case there’s no context, and therefore it’s not too useful. There’s lots of folks out there much more versed in the arcane harmony arts than I, but I might suggest perhaps giving yourself an actual reason to learn theory and maybe make it somewhat more situational, and “cause and effect” if that makes any sense.

Often times, following your instincts and playing “what sounds good” is just what the doctor ordered. Rge "theory part of that is giving what you think sounds good some sort of name. Lots of the greatest musicians in history didn’t exactly know “correct” theory but if you pay attention to what sounds good, and observe patterns I think you might be on the right track.

Ask lots of questions, play a lot and try to document/transcribe what you play and you’ll be in great shape in my opinion!


Perhaps try thinking of theory less as a set of rules, and more as a way to describe, and therefore repeat, what sounds good to you.

For instance, let’s say you’re jamming over an E chord, and you randomly play 11th fret on the B string and then bend it up a half step, and you like the result. By using basic theory, you can figure out that you bent from a #4 to a perfect 5th - now you can use that same idea over a different chord without just relying on your ear. Over an A chord, you’d know in advance that bending D# up a half step to E would have the same sort of sonic effect.

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Yeah I think that’s part of my problem, I don’t look at the fretboard and think “this fret is this note on this string”. To me thats too slow and gets in the way, sorta like playing fast and chunking, you can’t sit and think about it like that, or at least I can’t think of it like that.

I learned the notes, and pentatonic, blues and diatonic scales, made up some of my own pentatonic scales using intervals and that was literally the first time I used theory to create something new that sounded interesting to me.

I see jazz and fusions players just don’t seem to care about any of it and just play notes that sound good over whatever chord they are playing.

I tried to learn classical stuff because I so love Randy Rhoads, but the way they teach with boring unmusicial sounding exercises drove me not to play at all. I mean imagine picking up a Mel-Bay book in this day and age, it just doesn’t work.

I think theory needs something like Cracking the Code to have it all make more sense, instead of just memorize this information type of teaching, its incedibly boring for someone with ADHD and has nothing to do with music when it’s presented without any kind of context.

Someone probably has already thought of this, but where to find it?

Guthrie Trapp and Tomo Fujita are two highly respected guitar educators who both emphasize the importance of mastering triad shapes up and down the neck and being aware of what chord degree corresponds with each note within a given triad shape.

In this first video, John Mayer (who has taken lessons from Fujita), talks about mindset and philosophy around learning enough to be able to deconstruct things you like and “rip me off in more fundamental ways”:

On to meat and potatoes, the video below by youtuber Jack Gardiner might be a little overwhelming, and at times perhaps a bit intentionally so in order help him sell his paid content. But it does the best job I’ve seen of concisely yet thoroughly explaining the basics of triads. Some pausing and rewinding might be necessary to digest everything that’s here, but there’s a lot of good information crammed in. (jump to 1m47s)

A less detailed video where Guthrie Trapp talks passionately about the importance of learning to apply triads: (jump to 4m50s)

Tomo Fujita on applying triads: (triad details start at 4m35s, but watch from the beginning for context)

Longer and less structured video with Fujita and youtuber Brett Papa talking about how knowing some jazz and theory can help you play better:


I found Frank Gambales video on what chords to put under what modes… I’m honestly surprised no one has ever relayed that information before. I think that’s what I meant by assumed knowledge, people expect you to know this and forget what it’s like.

I’ll check those Frylock, except the JM one, I really can’t stand him. Thank you, the more the better.

I bought Beato’s stuff last year, it’s such information overload and no context again…

Yep, I mean what’s the point of it if it’s just an after the fact thing, why bother? I doesn’t exactly give me ideas and so far has been very little help to me, and I think it actually stopped me from being creative in some ways because I started thinking I have to be in key rather than just playing what sounds good.

The issue here is that you think that music theory is prescriptive in that it tells you what to play.

There are no rules in music theory, contrary to what you might think. All music theory is is a description of sounds we’re hearing in real time when we’re listening to music.

Think about it, there’s no theory of music if there’s no music to begin with.

To use your example, you were worrying about staying in key, rather than playing what sounds good. Here’s what will blow your mind, what sounds good is in key.

Don’t overthink it. A hallmark in music theory is if something sounds good, we want to know why it does so that way we can make use of it in our own music.

I think theory needs something like Cracking the Code to have it all make more sense, instead of just memorize this information type of teaching, its incedibly boring for someone with ADHD and has nothing to do with music when it’s presented without any kind of context.

I have ADHD, and I agree it’s important to teach music theory in its proper context, because you can see applications of it immediately. Problem is, whomever you learned it from might not have been well-versed in it.

For example, all chord progressions live and die by two chords: The Tonic and Dominant.

The Tonic is the chord everything resolves to and revolves around, the Dominant is the most tense and dissonant chord in the progression that points you back towards the Tonic.

Simply play an E7 chord moving to an Am chord. Notice how all that tension from the E7 chord was resolved when we moved to the Am chord?

This is what music theory is all about. We’re not arbitrarily picking out goofy sounding names from thin air, we’re hearing things and ascribing a name to them so that we can call upon them later.

If you find things are too complicated, or you get overstimulated, I suggest tracing back to the absolute basics. If you don’t understand the basics, the more advanced material won’t make any lick of sense.

But the proper context for music theory isn’t a set of arbitrary rules handed down from on high. The proper context is to remember that all it is is a description of what we’re hearing when we listen to music.

Music theory is more like “Patterns of Music” or “General ideas and tendencies of music” than it is “Thou must play this or else!”

I hope this helps recontextualize things for you. :slight_smile:


Music theory describes cool-sounding things that people did after the fact. That’s how it works, it’s like linguistics, as far as I know. It’s still good to learn, because it adds to your “dictionary,” but treating it as a set of rules is a trap.

Edit: I was tired when I wrote this, didn’t realize everyone else was already saying the same thing. Oops!


Ok. I’m going to go against the grain here.

Let’s say you want to weave a basket, but you don’t know what weaving is. What do you do? Maybe you trying tying some knots, twisting some strands together… that’s all fine. But you’re not weaving, so you’re not really going to get anywhere.

Then someone teaches you a set of rules. Weaving. A set of rules for movement. An algorithm that let’s you manipulate each strand in a particular geometric space, which through repetition creates the higher level texture.

Now you’re weaving simple baskets. At first you have to pay attention to your basic algorithm, otherwise you make a mess. Then these movements became more automatic. You learn a few alterations or variations on the algorithm. Now your creations are more complex, and you can make creative and stylistic choices. The “rules” aren’t so much rules as they are internal tools for expression.

Plenty of people will say things like, “so & so never learned any rules”. This is a confused view. People “know grammar” without studying grammar. That’s part of what it means to know a language. Without this grammar, there is no language, and no meaning.

Now, music theory is an attempt to get at these grammars and algorithms which give music its structure.

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A lot of guitar players get caught up in the fantasy that if they don’t “bias” themselves by learning the fundamentals of weaving, they’ll have the mental freedom to come up with amazing new baskets of a type nobody has ever seen.

I’m reminded of comments by a retired MMA fighter who was responding to the suggestion that an untrained person can defeat a trained fighter one-on-one by simply “fighting dirty”. His take was along the lines of: “professional fighters know how to break the rules too, and we can use our knowledge and experience to put ourselves in a position to break them more effectively than you can.”

Contrast this with the old Mark Twain bit, which sounds nice and poetic, but may be of dubious applicability in the real world: “The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do: and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot.” That line of thought may be useful as a cautionary tale for the expert not to take any opponent lightly, but it’s hardly a mandate for choosing ignorance as a viable path to success.


From what I’ve heard, this is actually the party line in the HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) world. Raw aggression in swordsmanship puts yourself at risk, but is very difficult to defend against.

However, in general I agree that learning music theory teaches you what rules to break: I’ve known people who didn’t want to learn music theory so that they could weave beautiful new baskets, and the end result was that they simply didn’t know what rules they were following and everything they wrote sounded the same.

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When I was super young I had similar thoughts - and they definitely slowed me down. We should all take a page out of Newton’s book “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants

How in the world are you gonna know if your idea is actually new if you don’t take time to learn and appreciate the ideas that came before you? Art is about creatively applying all these powerful tools that previous generations built for us. To the extent outsider art is successful, the artist was someone with a strong ability to absorb those tools without formal education in them.

To the point of the thread though, I think this is a huge part of the whole thing
What @ScottyB said about how Chords and Modes go together - that’s a massive part of the battle.

Being able to hear a chord and know what it sounds like when you play each of the possible arpeggio extensions over it (Maj 7, Add 9, Add 6 etc) - then further understanding how to build chord progressions, how to build them like Bach across multiple keys that permutate until you arrive back on the original, when a jump from one chord to another is going to sound jarring and how to make it seem more of a smooth transition.

Every scenario has a bunch of options and tools that could work, and knowing all those tools intimately is going to let you translate what you hear in your head to paper much much faster.

That said, it’s really not easy to internalize all that stuff, and it takes months and years and lots of playing around with the ideas until they become second nature.

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My favorite method of ‘studying’ theory is to use ye olde looper pedal. It does wonders for clarifying what relationships exist between notes in any given context. But much like ‘studying’ with one’s high school sweetheart, the learning session might not have the sustain that leads to further learning. It’s fun to loop a G chord and then pitch axis all the modes on the G string, for instance.

The opposite approach would be reading Arnold Schoenberg’s Structural Functions of Harmony, made more accessible today by kind souls who have provided the musical examples in it on Youtube. It is still a weighty tome. Far from being too stimulating, this is the sort of book that I have read when my actual aim was to go to sleep.


Thank you all for your thoughts, I have new things to think about and different ways to view it now. Much appreciated.

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For me, theory made sense (or, I made sense of theory) when I started to write songs and when I needed to play solos in them. In both cases, I couldn’t learn from records or videos or books because there were no books or records or videos of songs I hadn’t written / recorded yet. Duh. So I was on my own. But not entirely because I had heard a lot of songs already. I knew ones I liked and ones I didn’t (even if I didn’t know why). So that’s where I started and over time, my knowledge increased.
Also, you need some way to communicate your ideas to other musicians. If you write a song and want your band to play it with you, well, they need to know what key it’s in and what the chords are. What is a key? What is a chord? How do chords move? What’s a progression? None of these things is that complicated. You just need to create the context in your own musical journey for them to be meaningful and memorable.


Hey! I’ve actually stumbled across some great, straight-forward books around guitar theory recently. I’m completely self-taught, with no music education. I’ve avoided theory, but mainly because it seemed overwhelming. Especially when looking at the fretboard maps/etc. The best book/series that I’ve actually gone through so far, and really gives what you need to succeed in a straight forward way, is this: Music Theory for Guitarists, the Complete Method Book: Volumes 1, 2 & 3 of the Music Theory for Guitarists Series in a Single Edition

Not sure if anyone else has read it. But within a few days, I noticed my creative jam sessions, where I’m just hanging or watching tv and putting together different songs/melodies/etc has gotten far better and more fun within just a day or two into the first section/book in the volume.

I’ll check it out, thanks.