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Learn how music works – the easy way

If you’re a guitarist or teacher who wants to know more about how music works – what’s known as music theory – this is the site for you.

Students often come to me with a plea to “get them through” Grade 5 Theory. (With some exam boards you must pass Grade 5 Theory before you can take higher grade instrumental exams.)

These students have got their “practical” and their “theory” out of step. They’ve been taught how to play their instruments, but have little understanding of what they’re playing and how music works. That’s a bit like trying to have a conversation in a foreign language where you don’t know the words, or the grammar, or basic phrases.

abrsm guitar exam book

So then students plough through all the theory in one go, when it should have been part of learning to play.  It makes it tough – and more importantly it’s not a great way to learn.

Imagine if you took that approach to eating! Would it be good to have no food for seven days, then all the week’s meals in one sitting?  You may be able to put a tick in the box that says “all the week’s meals consumed”, but you’re not going to thrive that way.


So it is with music theory. Playing music and understanding how it works aren’t two separate things. They should happen together. And music theory isn’t just about writing music down on manuscript paper. It’s about understanding how music works, and you can do that best by relating it directly to your instrument.


The problem with Theory

Let’s get one thing straight right away. I don’t like the word “theory” in connection with music. It makes you think of things like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, or Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. These are abstract scientific/philosophical ideas that are meant to explain things and allow us to infer what happened in the past and what might happen in the future. Music theory isn’t like that.

It would be more useful to call it “musicianship”, or “music craft” or something of that kind. We’re talking about the fundamentals of how music works, from such basic skills as reading music and understanding performance directions to more advanced practices and techniques like harmonic analysis and composition.

So it’s more like the kind of “theory” that you have in the UK Driving Theory test. You can drive without knowing the stuff that’s in the driving theory test (though not legally on public highways) but it won’t be long before something awful happens. At the least you’ll get lost. And you’ll soon lack confidence that you have a clue what you’re doing.

As with driving, so with music.

Why “Strings and Dots”?

Music theory absolutely should not be divorced from aural skills and playing – they are all part of your musical development and they all reinforce each other. That’s partly down to the teacher, who should be making sure it’s happening. But it makes some sense to focus on knowledge and understanding (in other words music theory) in the same way that you focus on practising the skills needed to play your instrument or to develop your aural skills.

Here’s the challenge: there are many good books about music theory but they tend to relate everything to the piano keyboard. If that’s not your instrument it can be a problem.

That’s why this site is designed specially to help guitar students (and teachers) by:

  • using the layout of the guitar as much as possible to show how notes relate to each other
  • relating learning particularly to the pieces in the ABRSM, Trinity Guildhall and Rockschool guitar exam syllabuses, so that an understanding of music and an ability to play it go keep firmly in step

Even if you don’t plan to do grade exams you’ll find this learning really useful. But if you are planning to do them, it’s vital; and to help you the site is organised by grade. There’s also a foundation section going over some of the basics. Just do to the “Start here” menu and work through the sessions. The first shows you how easy it can be to find the natural notes anywhere on the fretboard. Even if you already know some theory it’s worth making sure you’re absolutely sorted on these basics.

Have fun!

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