Finding a good music theory/practice balance

You probably know the old riddle, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” The answer of course is that there is no answer.

Music theory is kind of like that. Is it better to learn the theory first and then gradually put it into practice? Or is it best to “dive right in” and figure out how to play before painstakingly “catching up” with the theory?

While each of these options has worked for some great musicians, I’ve seen a “middle ground” approach works best for most people.

Learn a little theory, and then immediately put it into practice, applying it to as many tunes as you can. Then learn a little more theory and repeat the process. Or you can start by figuring out something by ear or intuition. And then spend a little time studying how what you’ve learned can be explained theoretically. And so on and so on.

This balanced approach will take you far with your music.

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2 thoughts on “Finding a good music theory/practice balance”

  1. I find that it is extremely difficult to find material that applies practical experience into the theoretical aspect of playing. When you are learning from a book, I can’t tell you how many times that a concept is introduced and the author instructs you to play something totally foreign to the idea that has just been introduced.
    It’s almost as if they don’t ever want you to be comfortable with the material. I think that this is a monumental mistake. Billy Strayhorn played one chord progression for two years! He would regularly go to Central Park and write the arrangements for the entire Ellington band in his mind and his contribution to the Jazz catalogue is immeasurable.
    Some people attribute his musical feats to genius and I am not totally discounting that explanation but the teacher in me can’t help but acknowledge his band director at Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse High School. Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jahmal and DoDo Marmarosa also attended school there further validating my point.

    • That’s exactly right about Billy Strayhorn, and thanks for the reminder about the high school they all went to. BTW, there’s probably a good reason why Louis Armstrong never wrote a book on how to learn jazz improv!


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