How to Use Music Theory to Become a Creative Guitarist and Composer

When it comes to music theory, there is a myth that some people like to subscribe to, which goes along the following lines: Learning music theory will make me less creative as a guitarist and composer.

In this article, we’re going to look at why this is a myth and why learning music theory will help you become more creative guitar players, not less.

What is the purpose of music theory?

Let’s start with a brief look at what music theory is.

We can view music theory is as a set of tools for creating a desired result.

Here are some examples of using music theory to accomplish a particular result:

  • Do you want an ending to your phrase that sounds final? Then using an authentic cadence would be a good idea.
  • Do you want the ending of your phrase to sound unfinished, or like it wants to continue? Then a half cadence would be a good idea.
  • Do you want your melody to sound intense? Then you may want to consider using 16th notes, or a secondary dominant harmony.

You can see that music theory gives us tools to create certain sounds… or emotions, in our music.

Music theory gives you a set of tools for accomplishing different compositional goals you have when writing a piece.

This applies at the micro scale (for example, writing a melody) and the macro scale (form, arrangement etc).

What is Creativity?

There are two types of creativity:

  • Synthetic Creativity
  • New Creativity

What is Synthetic Creativity?

Synthetic creativity is taking two different ideas and putting them together and is the most common type of creativity.

While this is the most common type of creativity, it is the least appreciated.

The great thing with synthetic creativity is that it can be learned and trained.

Let’s say you have studied form and harmony. Here are some ways you could apply synthetic  creativity, to create ideas for writing new compositions:

  • Combine a sentence with secondary sub-dominants, to write a sentence that contains multiple secondary sub-dominant chords
  • Combine a phrase with sweep picking to compose a 4 measure piece of music, where the accompaniment guitar is sweep picking while the main guitar plays a melody 
  • Combine the passing tones and secondary diminished chords to write a melody 

These are three ideas that I came up with off the top of my head.

By studying music theory, you create a library of topics and ideas that you can combine together in almost limitless variations to create new and interesting musical ideas.

So by studying music theory and applying it with synthetic creativity, you can become creative - even if you have never written a single note of music in your life!

It is simple a matter of combining different music theory topics together, and seeing what happens.

Hopefully you can see, that by studying music theory in greater and greater depth, you open up a world of creative possibilities with what you can compose.

In fact, a 10 minute brainstorming session could easily lead to enough ideas to start composing an entire album.

What is New Creativity?

When people think of creativity and creative people in general, this is the type of creativity that is thought about.

This is the “flash of inspiration” that some geniuses are credited with, for example, ‘hearing’ a symphony in your mind and then writing it down ala Mozart.

However, very few people have this type of creativity. 

And even then, this isn’t to say that those credited with New Creativity didn’t study, for example, while Mozart was a creative genius, he still studied the basics of music theory, in excruciating detail.

Further, very few creative works that we enjoy are the product of this type of creativity.

The vast majority of all creative works are produced from synthetic creativity.

Sometimes people feel that they are not creative because they don’t experience this type of creativity and this simply isn’t true.

For the majority of people, studying music theory and having someone guide them through the process will enable them to be creative.

Does Learning Music Theory Inhibit Musical Creativity?

So why do some people think that learning music theory will inhibit their creativity?

I think there are two reasons, insecurity and a misunderstanding. 

Let’s talk about the misunderstanding first.

Common misunderstandings of music theory

When you first learn about music theory, you’re confronted with a lot of things that you “can’t” do:

  • You can’t use dissonant skips
  • You must use these particular notes over this type of chord
  • This chord tone in this chord must move in this way to the next chord
  • Etc. 

You are bombarded by what can seem like a lot of restrictions.

And all these restrictions can feel like you’re being told what not to do all the time.

I think this misunderstanding stems from how music theory is presented.

Rather than being presented as a draconian set of rules, music theory should be presented as a tool kit, that helps you achieve your compositional goals faster.

When you start to think of music theory in this way, it goes from being restrictive, to freeing your mind to quickly use contextually appropriate rules, or guidelines, that help you write your music.

As a side note, restrictions are key to creativity, the more you embrace restrictions the more creative you can be, but this is a topic for another article.

Music Theory and Insecurity

Some guitarists don’t like music theory because it makes them feel insecure, which is understandable.

It is a complex subject, and like a lot of subjects, it is often taught badly, meaning that a lot of students struggle to come to grips with it…

And knowing that they don’t really understand is can leave a student feeling they are inadequate, or stupid.

Good courses and teachers will help you navigate music theory in a way which makes it understandable, applicable and practical for you and your compositional goals.

If music theory leaves you feeling insecure, then don’t give up!

Remember that there is no such thing as genetic talent, and keep trying.

Keep trying, search for teachers that help you understand and answer your questions, and with effort, you will come to understand music theory much better.

How Can You Use Music Theory to be More Creative?

After all this discussion of music theory and creativity, how can we use music theory to become more creative as guitarists and composers?

Is it possible for music theory to help you be more creative?


Once you have a deep understanding of the various areas of music theory, you can compose music by experimenting with different ideas.

For example, let’s say you want to write a sweep picking lick. 

You could experiment with using:

  • Secondary dominant chords
  • Compound melodies
  • 7th chords
  • Reaching tones
  • Alternating time signatures
  • Etc

Once you understand music theory, the options you have to compose with are almost limitless.

You could combine these ideas with different aspects of form and harmony.

Writing down a few restrictions, or combinations of ideas, will quickly give you the frameworks for writing several interesting pieces of music.

What types of guitar player benefit from using music theory?

Having said all that, not everyone needs to learn music theory.

It’s perfect fine to be a guitar player that doesn’t know any music theory, as long as it doesn’t hold you back from accomplishing your goals.

There are two types of players that benefit from learning music theory:

  • Those that want to understand the music they play
  • Those that want to compose music

A lot of intermediate level players develop pretty good chops without learning any music theory, and this can leave them feeling unsatisfied.

They can move their fingers around the neck and get a good sound out of their instrument, but they don’t understand the significance of what their fingers are doing, or why a particular song they are learning has, for example, a set of chords in one order, but another song has the same chords in a different order.

Developing an understand of music theory can help guitarists feel more connected to the music they play, as they start to understand the musical choices that were made in composing the songs that they love playing.

For anyone interested in composing music, music theory is a must. 

While you could sit around and noodle for days on end to create a piece of music, understanding music theory will allow you to write much faster, more expressively and more creatively than you can probably write by yourself.

Why do I need to learn music theory, when said they don’t know any theory?

A common “rebuttal” that some people use when the discussing the necessity of learning music theory is that XYZ famous player doesn’t know any theory.

And that is true… sort of.

While that player may not have studied music theory, you will find that what they are playing can be described using music theory.

What you usually find in these examples, is that the player in question has derived (some of) the rules of music theory by an enormous amount of trial and error.

So sure, you could implicitly learn the rules of music theory yourself, trial and error… or you could study the rules.

I know which I would prefer to do!

Further, if you are able to use music theory that you know to explain why their music sounds the way it does, you will be able to write music in that style.

Do I have to learn music theory to become a good guitarist?

One question that is worth is exploring is, do you have to learn music theory in order to become a better guitar player?

The only correct response to this, is that it depends on what you want to do as a guitar player. 

If you want to play songs and develop your technique, you don’t need to learn music theory. You will probably find that learning the basics, such as where the notes are on the neck, the major scale and how chords and scales work will be beneficial, but it’s by no means necessary.

If you want to do anything vaguely compositional, such as improvising, writing licks and solos, writing, riffs, writing your own songs; then learning music theory will definitely help you.

In fact, the more composing you want to do, the more theory you will benefit from learning.

So to summarise, you don’t have to learn theory to be a good guitarist, but if you are interested in anything creative or compositional, you will definitely learning theory.

Why re-invent the wheel, when you can stand on the shoulders of giants?

At its core, music theory says “do this musical thing to achieve this musical result”.

It’s a set of guidelines to direct our creativity.

There is a section of guitar players that strongly favour being self taught and view being a self taught guitarists as something of an achievement, or accolade.

I disagree with this notion. 

If someone wants to be a self taught player, there’s nothing wrong with that… but why re-invent the wheel?

If you want to write melodies… why go through the trial and error of learning what’s notes do and do work?

Why go through the process of developing a mental framework, from scratch, when an effective framework already exists?

Whether or not you should be self taught depends on your goals.

If you want to be self taught because your goal with the guitar is not to develop an understanding, but to play around, then being self taught would work for you.

If you want to understand the guitar, understand music , be able to communicate musical ideas with other musicians and write music; then being self taught will cripple your ability to grow and develop as a musician / composer.

This is a strange argument, at it’s core the argument advocates that every musician should rediscover all the rules of music theory themselves, from the ground up.

And when you state it like that, you can see that argument as being completely nonsensical.

How to learn music theory

After discussing some of the ideas around whether or not it’s appropriate for you to learn music theory, maybe we should turn our attention to how you should go about learning music theory.

We discussed in a previous article various pros and cons of different methods that you can use for learning to play guitar.

Most of these will apply to music theory.

One thing that is important to understand is that the term “music theory” encompasses a collection of subjects, which broadly include:

  • Basic theory
  • Melody
  • Harmony
  • Counterpoint
  • Form
  • Orchestration

Exactly what you want to learn will depend on your goals and what you want to achieve with your musical endeavours - not all subjects will be relevant to everyone.

There are several effective ways to learn from books to courses and instructors.