Musical Theory - A Bad Thing???

Kenny's Tip of the Day - Musical Theory - A Bad Thing???

This is a very interesting topic for me. Although, trumpet was my first instrument and I did play it for decades in a classical setting (reading music) I never really studied music or musical theory.

In fact, it’s one of the things I regret about learning the trumpet as a first instrument. I believe that everyone’s first instrument should be piano. It has everything. It requires rhythm with both hands, it teaches bass lines, chords and melody all at the same time.

Whereas a trumpet can only produce one note at a time. Very limited for understanding what you’re playing and how it fits with the other instruments. But I am self taught on many other instruments and use the term ”jack of all trades but master of none” as often as possible. I’m not the studio musician most people should be hiring.

My point is that I did take up songwriting at a very early age. And you can’t write songs without a little bit of musical theory. Although, instead of actually learning or studying any of it, I “stumbled” upon it. I used all of the common progressions and chords that most popular songs used, I just had no idea what I was doing. I just did what sounded good. I was merely influenced by other records.

When I did start writing with other more educated musicians, they would point out what I was doing and sometimes even why. This would seem to be helpful but it also had its flaws. I point this out because I fear that others might struggle with a similar situation.

Coming from an uneducated place, you might feel the need to fight the idea of coloring within the lines. I know I did. Once I learned what I was doing, I realized I was being pretty predictable. So I started to fight it. I would write more complicated progressions for no other reason than I felt kind of lame being so predictable and cliche.

Not because this made the song better, but because I was trying to resist simply doing the same thing over and over again. I would replace chords with odd chords or accidentals as I thought that would make my songs more interesting.

That in itself isn’t a terrible idea but I was purposely painting outside the lines to be some sort of fake musical intellectual. I wasn’t feeding or nurturing my songs. I was fighting against them. Against what they wanted to be.

This is the fight people (like me - who are self taught) have with refusing to learn musical theory. They feel it will limit their creativity. And, as you can see, it can.

But what I realized later is that I was viewing music theory all wrong. I was looking at it as a “book of rules” to be followed. You can break them, but you’re not really supposed to. These rules were written for a reason. You should follow them most or all of the time.

This wrong. Instead, I view them as a language. A changing bendable language that can change at any point. It’s not there to tell you what you should do. It’s only there so that you can communicate with other people or musicians about music. It’s decribing what you do. Not dictating it.

We’re already playing this progression. Let’s give it a name. So the rules didn’t come first. The music did. Music Theory is just here to describe what already exists. NOT to change it or to force you to obey anything.

So make the music you want to make. Don’t be bound by rules. But when you want to communicate to other people about music, feel free to use the language. Learn the language. The language of Music Theory.

You can learn more by watching my videos at

I hope this message finds you well. Kenny Gioia