The best way to begin learning music theory is probably to ignore music theory books as much as possible. Along with books I’ll also include Youtube tutorials and blogs – most of them, anyway. Though for the time being, do please continue to read this one.
Use your ears
As a foundation I’d always advise learning the musical alphabet – which might sound a bit obvious but you’d be surprised how many musicians haven’t done this. A picture chord book at the start of your musical journey can also be invaluable, as it helps you to see how chords are put together.
Apart from that, you learn much more by using your ear. Sit down with your instrument and put on a recording of a song you want to learn. Be patient; play back any tricky sections and with time and persistence, you’ll get it.
If you find playing by ear difficult, then put in extra work. There are many good tutorials on Youtube that can help in this area. Get hold of a song book or chord chart that has the chords for particular songs you’d like to learn but don’t become too reliant upon song books either. I would also say avoid all apps like the musical version of the plague – not just because they get things completely wrong at times, but because you aren’t using your ears. Your listening ability is the most important skill you have as a musician (apart from avoiding being financially ripped off), and there are no short cuts.
Drawbacks of theory books
Music theory books basically do this: They will look at a selection of pieces of music. It’s then noted that many composers at a certain time were using particular kinds of chords, rhythms, approaches to melody etc.
Music theory books usually say something on these lines: “This is how a chord progression works. This chord is always followed by that one…” Unfortunately, what most of these books don’t tell you is that musicians have always CONSISTENTLY broken or ignored these ‘rules’.
Imagine how confusing it would be to learn loads of music theory, and then try to learn and understand a song. It would be even more confusing for someone to write a piece of music, having never used their ears.
So, when SHOULD you learn music theory?
First of all, you should only learn it if you think it’s really going to help you, otherwise do what works for you.
I think it’s best if you start once you’ve got enough experience of learning songs by ear under your belt to begin with.
In general, sheet music, music theory, and video tutorials on youtube can be useful, in moderation. Their number one flaw is that they each fail to develop the listening skills.
You can learn all the rules of grammar in the world, but that on its own can’t teach you how to write or tell a great story. The same goes for music theory. This is why there are so many instances of artists who haven’t gone through academic music training that have come up with brilliant tunes.
There are some things you can only learn by doing, by putting the books to one side and putting the ears to work.