Teaching music theory - role/importance of learning terminology


Yeah, you really have to already understand what he’s teaching to be taught…

Major issue with music. It’s not self explanatory. It’s got stupidest names for the most basic concepts.
A reform of musical terminology really needs to happen.

People see this mass of words they’ve never heard or herd used in that context, and just say fuck it i’ll just do this excersise for another hour.

A true failure in education, an robbing real musical understand from billions.

Yngwie Malmsteen's new lessons

In my opinion it is not the terminology that is to blame (I find it fairly straightforward except for the weird names of the modes - but 7 names is not too many). In my opinion, what drives people away from theory is this widely spread belief that learning theory = losing feeling, or something along these lines.

Re Malmsteen, I have this impression that he doesn’t enjoy teaching too much :smiley:

@TheCount, @Troy , I think I am hearing some swipes in that pedal tone lick, in the “ascending outside” picking as perhaps is to be expected. Do you get the same impression? I may be hearing what I want to hear :slight_smile:


From my own personal education at least, I only been playing 5 years, but the confusing names are THE roadblock. And most beginners I’ve talked to.

We have an intuitive understanding of music, it’s so simple. Yet due to the mumbo jumbo names and description we are utterly unable to put music into words, or rather Music.

It is Exactly like learning a new language, and most are just not prepared for that.


Yeah, this has been my experience, as well, too many people just refuse to learn theory because they don’t want to be “limited.”

I mean, as far as languages go, music isn’t a hard one. Maybe it’s more like learning SQL than learning French, I guess. There are a few things that are a little unintuitive, I guess - the fact that some degrees are major or minor, others are augmented and diminished, and still others (the 7th, for example), can be minor OR diminished, if they’re dropped an additional step… but, that’s the kind of thing where, well, I just explained it pretty concisely in a single sentence, so it’s not exactly impossible to internalize.

Beyond that, I always thought harmony was pretty intuitive, and I only really started learning theory as a teenager, which comparatively speaking is a very late start.

Idunno. If there are specific things you’re hung up on, I’d be happy to answer questions for you, and I’m sure a whole bunch of other folks here would as well - this is a pretty helpful group, in my experience.


Thing is, when you don’t know the full extent of something, you naturally assume there is far more than you’re seeing. Like a non guitar player being amazed by a very simple display of a few chords. (I’m not talking about good simple compositions) Because they assume there must be a whole lot more than what’s displayed.

Same with the confusing words. Not only is it a knee jerk reaction of “fuck this”, but an assumption that there is far more to it than there is.

I appreciate the offer, really🙂 Though I’ve a relatively solid grasp on what to work on atm (Which took me years to understand, sift through, categorise and basically translate into english) I really need to stick to what I’m currently working on.


I mean, I’m trying to say this as nicely as possible… But, that sounds like a student motivation problem, more than it does a material problem. Is it daunting when you don’t know anything about something? Sure it is. Was I amazed by a few simple open chords at first, before I knew how to play? Absolutely. But, you know what? I decided playing guitar was something I wanted to do, as did you, and we both set our minds to it, worked hard, and did it. There absolutely was a lot more to learning guitar than I thought as a kid who didn’t know any better, but I was motivated to get good at it, so I did. So, I assume, did you.

Music theory is the same way. Of course it’s daunting when you don’t understand it. Everything is, when it’s new to you. But if you’re motivated to work hard to learn it, I’d say most people can learn how to harmonize chords from a scale faster than they can learn how to sweep pick. I don’t think the subject matter is the problem here, because it’s really not THAT complex.


People have to put levels of importance on what they spend their time on, a simple english version of theory would open it up to so many. You learnt as a teen, that’s still young and your brain has a grasp of it. People underestimate how complex things appear from the outside when they understand concepts and learnt them long ago.
When you’re unsure of information your brain forgets it.
So many will attempt to grasp a bit of info, but because uncertainty is there, it’s not solid, not self evident, the brain drops it.

Something as simple as saying if you flatten the 3rd degree of a major chord it becomes minor, is utterly confusing to a beginner.
What’s flatten? Degree? Major? Minor? 3rd? wtf.
It’s not a description of what’s happening unless you understand all the stuff behind it.

And we forget most info that has uncertainty to it.
It’s not complex, but it raises stress levels in a beginner as they try to comprehend and remember whats being said. They give up unless they really want to learn. Those stressful uncomfortable feelings are long past in someone with knowledge of the subject. And creates a big miscommunication between student and teacher.

Perhaps it’s just me, though I know it’s not because I’ve spent two years with students also trying to learn. It’s really going to help me when I start teaching myself, as I’m going through the beginner stages as an adult.


This seems to be the crux of it, and it applies to pretty much anything worth doing. And it won’t change by renaming all the terms.

Yes, you have to learn the basics before the cool stuff, just like anything else. Yes, there’s a fairly steep learning curve at first. You’re right, music theory is not self explanatory and the terms can be unfamiliar. But explaining music in plain English isn’t realistic. What’s the plain English term for an interval, a minor seventh, a sixteenth note, syncopation? They don’t exist because only musicians (ie. people who know the terms) talk about these things.

With all respect, I agree with Drew. This sounds like a motivation issue. In my experience, the biggest predictor of successful learning is motivation. If you aren’t really interested in the subject, it will be difficult to learn, but if you desparately want to know something, learning it becomes much easier.


I’ve just started and then deleted a response three times now, but the gist is, what about this is complex? Or, maybe a better question, how do you think it should be made simpler than it already is, without sacrificing any context?

The established system of scale degrees and modifiers (natural fourth, sharp 6th, etc) conveys a ton of information in a very concise form, not just pitch but musical function and context, and I’m legitimately curious how you’d make it better. A diatonic scale (diatonic drawn from two greek roots but essentially meaning “seven tone”) has seven pitches. We refer to them with numbers. The overall “key” of the music is the first pitch in your seven note scale, which by convention is called the root. Then it’s just second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh. When you ascend one more scale degree and return to the root, but sounding higher because it’s now at twice the vibrational freqency, that’s called the octave, which it’s not a coincidence that the word is drawn from the Latin and Greek word for eight. But, importantly, every scale degree is a way to define that note with respect to how it relates to the “tonic” or the root, the central tone or key of a peice of music.

So, you have your scale degrees, which are simply named based on the order they fall within the scale. Then there are modifiers which describe their “quality.” I get it that the difference between “perfect” intervals which do not have major or minor tonalities and become augmented and diminished as you raise or lower them a half step, and imperfect ones which DO have major or minor tonalities is a little odd at first, but that’s based largely on their sound and is an attempt to describe what you hear - if you play a major 6th against the root, and a minor 6th against the root, you can kinda hear what I mean. The terms to describe a pitch’s quality are an attempt to describe their sounds, by sorting them into a couple broad buckets.

And then you just assemble them into chords. In conventional tertiary (third based) harmony, you basically just stack thirds on top of each other to form chords. A major third interval with a minor third interval on top of it gives you the root, major third, and perfect fifth, and is a major triad (or three-note chord). It sounds happy and uplifting. A minor third with a major third on top, meanwhile, gives you a root, minor third, and perfect fifth, and is a minor triad. It sounds dark and moody. If you were to raise the third of a minor a half step from minor to major, then it becomes a major triad, and it changes, pretty significantly, the overall sound of a chord.

Idunno, man. Maybe it helped I had some familiarity with latin from high school so I recognize all the roots, and so a “triad” being a collection of three pitches is something that just makes sense to me… but, I didn’t take my first theory class until 19 or 20, and the whole way of understanding chords as stacked thirds wasn’t presented to me until quite a ways after that, possibly after college (I don’t remember). I’m not sure where your mental block on this stuff is, but it’s really a pretty straightforward system to describe how pitches relate to the overall tonality. Maybe it’s the relational side, that referring to a third isn’t an attempt to define a pitch, but to define how far a pitch is from the root note and how it relates to that note?

I mean, that said… If you’ve got an easier way to talk about how notes relate to each other, then I’d legitimately be curious to hear it. Not to be flippant, but nothing is “a description of what’s happening” if you don’t understand the stuff behind it.


I mean, I guess the tl;dr version of what I just wrote is this - the system of naming notes by scale degrees, with terms to modify them based on their quality, is a fairly simple but incredibly effective way to talk about how notes relate to each other and to the root note of a piece of music.

It’s not especially complex - compared to, say, calculus, or even algebra - but much like algebra, once you learn what the notation means, then you can start learning how to use it to do incredibly powerful things. But, also much like algebra, you have to put some work in to learn it, not because we as musicians are trying to erect artificial barriers to make it hard for other people to learn, but because for it to be a truly useful system, it has to be robust enough to capture some nuance.


I’ve to much on hand to start simplifying it excessively here. But for example.
Degree? Should be Number. The simplest thing like that adds uncertainty to a beginner.
There are loads of examples like that, that add unnecessary uncertainty and complications.

The current system is not based off english.
If various terms were changed from their foreign words to english the beginner can start to have common ground.


It sounds like the real issue you’re describing is people trying to absorb “intermediate” material before they’ve learned the basics.

Most people learn to sing the major scale by rote before they’ve turned 14, whether from a rudimentary music education program at school, or from the movie “The Sound of Music”, or any of the zillion other places it pops up in popular culture:
“Do re mi fa so la ti do”

That’s the most accessible starting point for people, IMHO. So you can start easing into rudiments of theory using that as the basis. Starting with: “Hey, the first Do and the last Do sound sort of the same, even though one is higher than the other, let’s talk about that…” From there it’s not far to: "For reasons from physics we can get into someday down the road if you’re super curious, the music that we listen to divides the steps between a low “Do” and a high “Do” into 12 different sounds we call “notes” and each one has a name. To make stuff sound more like music, we usually don’t use all 12 notes in one song, or at least not in the same part of a song. By skipping some of the 12 notes but including others, we get something more musical sounding, which we call a “scale”. You already know one. “Do re mi fa so la ti do” is the most famous scale there is, and it’s called “the major scale”. There are other scales that leave out different notes from the 12, but for now, lets talk about the major scale. Instead of calling each note “Do”, or “Re”, etc., we can refer to them by the order they come in. Do is “one”, re is “two”, mi is “three”, etc. until we get to the high “Do” which is “one” again, because of the way it’s similar to the low “Do”. And if you play notes 1, 3 and 5 together, it sounds really nice, and we call that sound a “chord”, etc…


How long does it really take to explain that the “degree” of a pitch is the number of pitches away from the root it is in a diatonic scale? How long did it take for you to learn that? Is it really an excessively complex concept? To me this seems like window-dressing more than it does a major source of confusion.

And you’re right, the current system ISN’T based in English. It was based in Greek, Latin, and Italian, for the most part, because those were the languages that the people who created it and first used it spoke. Thankfully, English borrowed liberally from all of those languages, so a lot of those words have familiar roots, and thankfully, because of the long tradition in musical notation indicators like pianissimo and forte are pretty universally understood by musicians, no matter what language they speak. Switching to English would lose that common ground.


That’s not the point.

If you try to understand a sentence that has many words you’ve never seen used before or in that context before, that vastly slows your progress. And it means the student then has to go on a long trail to understand a basic concept, there’s a reason why it seems so simple looking back. You already get it.

Any uncertiny you add to information is like speed bumps.
You say how hard is that, but you’re not the billions that gave up. You’re the one who went through all that crap to really understand.

What I’m saying is if music were translated into peoples native tongue, far, far more people would have a greater understanding of theory.


Common ground for a beginner and the material.

Not international communication.


Idunno, you’re saying we need to simplify the system we use to describe pitches when talking about music because it’s too much of a barrier to entry for beginners, when said system is already simpler than the ones we use to describe numbers in algebra or calculus, or describe grammar in English, or to describe types of financial instruments in finance, or describe various sets of muscles and bones in human anatomy, or describe parts of a car in, udunno, car mechanic-ry, etc etc. F-stops are kind of a confusing way to talk about aperture and shutter speed in photography, until you understand them, but that doesn’t stop millions of people from becoming good, fully aware photographers, and if you want to become one, you can and should learn. I’m a pretty serious cyclist, and as an American it doesn’t bother me that “derailleur” and “cassette” are french words, or that wheel sizes are all in metric for road bikes but imperial for mountain bikes, because the modern road bike was an European invention but the mountain bike was American.

I mean, this stuff is pretty normal. All pursuits have a framework that needs to be learned when you first get into it, and if it’s something that was first popularized or modernized by a foreign country, then odds are a lot of the common terms will be in that language. If you want to understand it, then you learn the terms. Music terminology really isn’t all that complex, and if you disagree, then maybe start reading up on option pricing models or something. :rofl:

End of the day, if you think the language we use to describe music is too complex and needs to be simplified, well, I disagree, strongly, and think that it takes no more effort to learn than does the terminology for any other comparably complex pursuit, and in fact is easier than most.

If what you’re saying here is you think we should have a two-tiered system, a “dumbed down” set of terms for beginners, and then the regular ones for anyone who’s actually serious, then I disagree with that as well. All that’ll do is waste a beginner’s time learning one set of terms and concepts that they’ll then have to un-learn before they can have discussions about music with serious musicians, or make heads or tails out of anything in a book about music theory that isn’t specifically written for beginners using a dumbed-down vocabulary. Long term, you’re just INCREASING the barriers to comprehension.


The smallest of changes make the biggest difference.
As to your second section, you yourself said

Two separate systems right there.
I’m saying flip that around. Don’t give a foreign word then explain what it means in english.
Say it in english first.

If the student wants to learn the foreign words for their mother tongue, they can take that second step.

This way the entry level to music theory is lowed, the student has some common understanding to grip hold of. And can focus on the things that matter, rather that translating words.

We’ll just have to agree to disagree.
Topics about Yngwie right :grin:


Not at all. Calling that two separate systems is no more true than saying a “strikeout” and “when the batter is out because he got three strikes before he got a hit or four balls or hit by a pitch” are two systems.

If you want to learn something, then expecting to have to learn the terminology people use to discuss it is not an unreasonable expectation, and is the case for every single other discipline I can think of. Creating some sort of alternate “beginner” terminology will just ultimately disadvantage musicians, because it’ll make it harder for them to understand the terminology all the serious musicians are using.

There are no shortcuts in anything, and there’s no substitute for the commitment to put the work in.


I agree with you on work ethic.
I’m talking about teaching students in a more understandable way.
Not everyone’s as dedicated as you.
I’ve seen musicians just blank out when learning theory. I’ve seen it first hand for two years in college and my own experience.


This precisely what introductory material does, and is how beginners learn the vocabulary. The problem seems to be that you want to skip that step and jump straight into the intermediate and advanced concepts without learning the vocabulary first.

Either that, or you want people to replace technical terms with descriptions when discussing music. Eg. ‘Hey bass player, play the note 3 pitches away from the root in the diatonic scale,’ instead of ‘play the third’. I don’t see this catching on.