Learning music theory usually sucks. I’ll just be blunt and put it in my own words because music theory isn’t easy, but, it can be fun if you approach it the right way. Just like with any subject you’re guaranteed to hit some bumps, find yourself stuck in a different areas, and it’ll be painful. But, the good news is that I’ve compiled a list of things to keep in mind to make the process simpler so that you can speed through the heavy ideas while still gaining the information. (Because trust me, this stuff can get really complex, really fast.)
First off, you need to identify your skills and strengths. You’d think teachers would find that to be obvious and therefore implement that into their classes, wouldn’t you? Somehow I’ve found that a lot of teachers only know one way to teach, and that may not be the best approach for everyone. The first step is identifying what you’re naturally good at, and the areas you need more practice in.
How’s your ear? Are you able to hear a series of notes and then play them on your instrument? Can you name a note when it’s played? If yes then you have an extremely excellent ear, and you should use that to your advantage.
What about your instinct? Maybe you’re not great at detecting pitch, but you’re great at feeling rhythm. Maybe you’re the kind of person to naturally pay attention to odd time signatures and syncopation.
The next thing to look for is technique. Can you play complicated patterns easier than your peers? Maybe some riffs are easier to you than they are to others. If that’s the case, then your strength is probably in the actual touch of playing your instrument.
Lastly, are you analytical? Do you approach music through a mathematical lense, and try to make sense of it all? If that’s you then I’d imagine music theory would be less of a pain to you, but there’s still some questions I’m sure you have.
Even if my examples were a little extreme, try your best to identify where those skills fall in line with yourself. That’s the first step to approaching music theory in a more strategic manner that suits you.
Now that you’ve got that figured out, here’s the number one rule of thumb: don’t take the traditional approach to learning music theory. Figure out what you’re naturally good at, channel that, and then view music theory in light of those natural abilities.
For those who have the natural ear talents, I recommend finding songs that relate to whatever it is you’re learning in music theory. For example, if you’re learning the modes, try finding songs for each mode and test them out with your ear first. Yes, learn the technicality as well, but also try to identify them beforehand and test your abilities.
If you pay close attention to rhythm, take advantage of that when learning to sight read. That’s a great skill to apply to sight reading, and once you can sight read you can eliminate a lot of other challenges in music theory.
Technique is always the skill that musicians are the most jealous of. Having the natural “feel” some have to work for is a really great skill, but I also should warn you to be cautious. You’ll gain a lot of attention at first, but if you rely on it too much in the long run you won’t be able to grow as quickly. Thankfully, if you put the time and effort into using those gifts as leverage, I think you’ll have an easier time navigating through it all.
And finally - for those of you who are most likely the “math geeks”- you have a huge advantage when it comes to music theory. So much of music theory is learning the technicalities, so you should be able to blast through it a lot quicker than most others can. However, I’ve found that there’s some debates going on in the music theory world that you might be interested in. I recommend researching by watching lectures, and learning by reading books. Different musicians have different takes on things, which someone like you may find interesting.
These concepts can apply to really anything that you learn. Finding your strengths and weaknesses helps a ton, especially if you’re able to see everything through that specific lens.