Is Music Theory Too Hard?

I Play Music By Ear; Is
Music Theory Too Hard
For Me To Learn?

Music theory’s really not that difficult. The problem is that it’s often approached as if it is the actual music. I tell people that theory is the “Map”, not the “Territory”. I mean, you know the difference between your street and a MAP of your street, right?

The dots and symbols on the paper represent the SOUNDS that make up the music that we all listen to and enjoy. It’s that simple. Learning these things can only enhance the talent you already have.

If you learned to play your instrument by ear and reached pro (or semi pro) level without any formal training, it’s quite likely that you could find the whole idea of music academia (Theory, Harmony, Reading Music, etc) intimidating. This could leave you in an approach/avoidance conflict. Feeling inadequate for not “knowing enough” but not beginning to actually cure the problem by studying/getting a good teacher. This problem can go on for years.

It did for me.

It doesn’t have to for you.

What Is This Music Theory Stuff, Anyway?

Any theory exists to explain NATURE. Gravity has always existed but it took Sir Isaac Newton to RELATE the apple falling on his head to the concept and principle of gravitational pull.
Even those of us who aren’t physicists can grasp that simple idea.

If we feel like it, we can then study the mathematical formulae to gain another level of understanding. If you wanted, you could learn the theory first, of course.
I’m just explaining what my own musical path was.
I “picked the fruit” first, then “studied the roots”.

So, you just have to find a way of linking the theoretical stuff to
what you are already naturally hearing.

So, Mike, How Did YOU Start Learning Theory?

I should point out, I wasn’t musically trained in school. At 16, I learned by ear in my bedroom and watching other players…didn’t even own a Bass for two years, just mimed in the air (yes…air Bass…it’s a thing!) and I didn’t read music properly till late 2009 
on the “Thriller Live” World tour.
On that tour, I locked myself in the hotel straight after every show and looked at THE SAME piece of music over and over, (so many well-meaning players advised me to look at DIFFERENT music every day. Well-meaning but erroneous advice, I’ll get into why in another post) choosing two or three pitches that I could recognise. When I could find them on the Bass, I chose two or three more.

Just clarifying that I didn’t have it all put together early on, I had some talent, of course, and that got me to play with my favourite players, (Billy Cobham, Jeff Beck, Pee Wee Ellis, Eddie Harris, John McLaughlin, Bill Bruford, etc) but even with the talent, I lost a LOT of opportunities because I couldn’t read and didn’t know theory that well. I could play most things I heard…if I had time to learn them… but (back then) put a chart in front of me and I was frozen, unable to perform.

So I decided to get that stuff (theory, reading, etc) together. I took my first Bass lessons in 1995…
AFTER I’d played with most of the musical legends mentioned above.
I’m still a work in progress. The journey continues in my late forties and I’m loving it!

What Should I Start With?

Find a good teacher.

Ear Training is a good place to start. Familiarise yourself with the SOUND of chords and their movements. If someone plays you a chord and tell you its name, you may not know the name or construction of a diminished chord…but you might say; “that chord reminds me of horror movie music”
or “Phrygian mode sounds like Flamenco”, “Mixolydian is Bluesy”, etc.
Essentially, link the theory to what you already know.

What does it SOUND like?

Next (or simultaneously), study harmony from the standpoint of CHORD TONES
rather than SCALES.
Chord tones CLEARLY STATE the harmony with the appropriate TARGET NOTES of the chord, whereas scales, because they include notes to be avoided, are ambiguous and only IMPLY the harmony. Your teacher should be able to help with this.
If not, find another teacher!

Hard work to begin with, yes. But much better than feeling 10 or 20 years of frustration and fear.
It’s not too late. It’s not too difficult.

I did it.

You can too.

In Summary

1) If you get the (basic) skills together now, you’ll have more time and energy to create, rather than trying to catch up with it all while dealing with children/mortgage and other possible life pressures.

2) That said, it’s NEVER too late to get stuff together and no one has EVERYTHING hooked up…even if they sound amazing!

3) Find a good teacher/mentor. This will speed up your process.
Legendary musicians Mike Stern, Herbie Hancock, Jeff Berlin, Michael Brecker and others
continue to study with great tutors like Charlie Banacos, Garry Dial and others.

Is your talent so outstanding that you couldn’t use some guidance? You can learn a lot on your own, of course but trial and error takes much longer than having proper guidance.

4) Just START! Now is ALWAYS the time to begin your future!

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Leave A Reply (7 comments so far)

  1. Pete Truin
    6 years ago

    Brecker is still studying? I mean, I knew he was good, but I didn’t know he was beyond-the-grave good…

    • Mike
      6 years ago

      Pete…he’s that good…

  2. Nikki Yeoh
    6 years ago

    Great clarity, you explain this stuff so beautifully man!

  3. Zara
    5 years ago

    Even though Paul McCartney has enejoyd some success using the pick (AKA plectrum) on bass, I use the index and middle fingers to strike (as well as to pluck and claw) at the strings. This is, beyond the shadow of the doubt, the best way to play through most music categories (i.e., Classic Rock, C&W, Folk, Gospel, etc.).A lesser used method of attack is the slap and pull method. The theory behind this is easy enough to grasp, by developing and putting it in practice is challenging.I would like to add the slap and pull method and expand my horizons as a bassist.I’ve been playing both electric and upright bass for probably enough years that an admission would give my age away. I will say that You have great approach to the electric bass. It’s practical and real.

    • Mike
      5 years ago

      Hi, Zara,
      thanks so much for your comment.
      It’s ok to give your age away;-).
      Western society views age as “limiting” on either side of the spectrum;
      Too old for this, too young for that. I hope you’re not too caught up in
      that and can enjoy learning and growing at whatever age you are.
      I’m 50 and I feel like I’m just getting started! 😉

      Anyway I have to say that I don’t really have a rigid view about
      pick/fingers/slap, etc.

      Ultimately, they are just techniques; tools to help us express
      what we need to on the given instrument.

      I’ve always approached technique ergonomically, though I wasn’t
      familiar with the term at the time. The approach came to me intuitively,
      meaning I instinctively knew by observing other players which techniques
      flowed naturally with the body and which ones forced the body into
      uncomfortable or impractical posture.

      Most instruments (piano, guitar, etc) are designed with the human body in mind.
      In other words, they were designed to make the playing of them as easy as
      possible to the human hand.
      It stands to reason that if you keep your hands in as relaxed and natural a
      position as possible, you’ll not only execute clearer and better sounding
      notes but you’ll stand much chance of hand injuries like carpal
      tunnel (disclaimer; I’m not medically trained. Just observation, folks!).
      Zara, I’d be very interested to see and hear a clip of your playing if
      you have any and I’d be happy to answer any further questions you may have.



  4. Dan Farrant
    2 years ago

    Just stumbled across your article Michael! Great stuff. Nice to see you Rob Cope’s filming the other day too albeit too briefly!

    • Mike
      2 years ago

      Hey, Dan!

      Yes, it was a fleeting meeting!
      The docu on Rich was amazing! Rob did such a great and respectful job.

      Thanks for stopping by here. I endeavour to post some more stuff soon.
      Update of site coming up!

      Take care,




Michael is a freelance Bass Guitar player, who studied at the much lauded

Bedroom School Of Music.
(just means he's self-taught, don't panic!)

He began his professional music career in 1983, playing Bass Guitar with his brother, drummer Mark Mondesir
(John McLaughlin, Jethro Tull,
Glenn Hughes),
forming a trio with guitarist

Hawi Gondwe
(Amy Winehouse/
George Michael).

Since then he has performed with
artists as diverse as;
Jeff Beck, Billy Cobham, Ginger Baker, Eddie Harris, Jack DeJohnette, John McLaughlin, Oumou Sangare, Usher, Whitney Houston, Imogen Heap, Sir George Martin, State of Bengal, Hermeto Pascoal, David Garibaldi, Jan Hammer, Ty, Zoe Rahman, Jim Mullen, Ronnie Wood, John Serry, Andy Summers, Django Bates, Gary Husband, Chante Moore, Lulu, Nitin Sawhney, Lenny White, Chad Smith, Courtney Pine, Jocelyn Brown, Jason Rebello, Brice Wassy, Neneh Cherry, Nikki Yeoh, Bernard Purdie, Iain Ballamy, Bill Bruford, Julian Joseph, Leni Stern, Mory Kante, Keith More, Trilok Gurtu, Aster Aweke, S-Club 7, Talvin Singh and Pee Wee Ellis.

Michael entered the Pop, R&B, Funk and Dance music world, composing tracks on albums by funk trombone legend Fred Wesley and singer/songwriter, Lewis Taylor.

In September 2009, Michael joined the
Thriller Live world tour.
He is currently part of the visiting faculty of various education establishments including the Royal Academy of Music, Rhythmic Conservatory of Copenhagen and British Academy of New Music as well as teaching privately at home
(schedule permitting).

Michael Mondesir uses:
Yamaha Basses, Costalab Pedals and Elixir Strings.