Music theory & Music playing: Common misconceptions debunked

Though playing music for quite a long time, I still need to admit that the advanced music theory does drive me crazy! The calculations I was taught to make in music theory class don’t translate into a comfy approach. In the article below, I lay out a series of statements that people have made about music theory. Also, you can find here surprising facts against common sense about playing music in general.

musical81 Music theory is about “how to read music”.

Music theory actually explains the whole system that enables you to listen and reproduce a melody on your instrument.  I do understand how torturing it is sitting through 2 hours of music class going through all these concepts of intervals, scales, triads, etc. without actually playing or at least listening to it on real instrument! Imagine learning a new foreign language and you’re told: “Learn grammar first, then you can speak later.” That’s insane. Your ability to speak will be stunted forever.

musical81Music theory is complicated and overbearing.

I hardly can articulate whether it’s true, since I do, well, feel that way about how music theory is taught: not with an instrument in front of me, but a blackboard or book instead. Says, though able to locate perfectly the correct pitch on the piano, I still struggle with “decoding” it on paper. I may be familiar with the classical training method, but it is far from being my preference. Just like music playing, music theory can be learned both in a classroom setting (as a left-brain way), or in hearing and playing in a performance setting (as a right-brain way, which made my learning much enjoyable).

musical81 You either learn tabs/sheets or by ear.

Music is actually inherent in you. It’s in every tiniest detail, every daily activity you carry on in life. Look far beyond the tablatures, notations, or sheets. Find the music in you. Recall that melody and try reproducing it without printed music sheets. However, a combination of all these tools: tabs, sheets, your ear, recording, videotaping, and live mentoring will benefit your music learning greatly. Perhaps you can now stop “picking sides”, both methods are rewarding and valuable.  I have met several musicians whose playing skills are so on the top, they have never been trained formally, but their intuition in music has led them far beyond what an officially trained musician may have reached. Ideally, you need both.

musical81If music is the game of intuition, why should I bother learning all these technical skills?

“Non-musicians perceive music in the right hemisphere because they are not analyzing what they are hearing; they simply experience it. Musicians, on the other hand, have analytical knowledge about what makes music work and they approach music more intellectually; therefore, they use their left brain to a greater extent. (Read on here)

Musicians tend to perceive the experience of music primarily in the left hemisphere because their training and experience makes them inclined to think about the music they are playing or hearing. Non-musicians, on the other hand, usually do not analyze music, but simply experience it, in which case they are using the right hemisphere. The non-musician majority, that tends to perceive the experience of music in the right hemisphere, is more interested in how the music makes them feel, than how intellectually profound it is. A common thing for a non-musician to say is: “I don’t know much about music, but I know what I like.””

Musician and nonmusician

In fact, music engages both hemispheres of your brain. To develop your musicianship, aim for a well-rounded method. It will not only make you a skillful but also expressive player.

musical81Don’t manipulate your fingers on an instrument. Play it.

Manipulation is very tactical, left-brained wired while playing leaves space for freedom, improvisation and is right-brained wired. However, sooner or later you’ll reach a learning plateau that the only way you can surpass is to learn to manipulate your fingers. Jazz players can tell you exactly what happened when they started learning improvisation. Don’t underestimate Manipulation, you actually need both.

musical81Make music, not sound.

Is that why you give up on playing music? For fear of being wrong? Though I did emphasize on how important is it to get it right at the beginning, don’t let it stop you from trying. Trials and errors are inevitable. What I’m saying is, in any case, don’t make a mistake of rushing into a new piece and neglecting the methodical process of learning.  The slow, steady, reflective practice will help you acquire the desired outcome.

pen icon To note:: Start with an instrument that you feel most comfortable with. I used to sit through a one-and-a-half-hours music theory class with professional guitar players and suffered all the chords progression explanations. To simply put, the guitar isn’t my most proficient instrument. I had a hard time visualizing the advanced scales, and that slowed down my understanding of the music theory being taught.


star-iconOverall, music playing requires a fair balance between the aural ability and technical skills. The appropriate way to approach music is to tackle it as a language, and music theory needs to optimize your practical learning experiences, not making it any harder.

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  1. I’m a pianist and I want to be able to play anything by ear. Is it useful to train my ear without the instrument or should I practice with it?

    Yes it is possible to train your ear that way. Meanwhile, this article may give you a better idea on how music theory can actually help improving your learning by ear. You don’t have to choose either of them. Both helps! http://www.thedabblersjourney.…

  2. Pretty nice post. I simply stumbled upon your blog and
    wished to mention that I have truly loved surfing around your weblog posts.
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  3. Good day! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I truly enjoy reading through
    your posts. Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that go over the same
    topics? Thanks!

    1. Thank you for dropping by.
      If you’re especially interested in music theories, you can follow these links:

      There are so many resources out there for many instruments. I don’t know what do you particularly look for, so hope this helps :). If you could give me more info, I’ll come up with further suggestions.

      Enjoy reading!

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