Nassim Nicholas Taleb on the Theory of Theory

Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Find more here. Enjoy!

“Theory is too theoretical for humans.” 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The words “music theory” can evoke a wide range of responses in guitarists. Some folks spark up and get curious. Others feel reverent, as if standing before an ancient text of wisdom.

And others feel confused and overwhelmed.

So it leads to the logical question: Do we need to learn music theory?

And this question is valid. But it’s not the only question. Follow-up questions are: When? and Why?

Music theory is all about context. It gives language to the relationships between notes and chords.

And the more advanced and mature we become as musicians, the more we can appreciate and use these contexts.

However, at the beginning of the musical journey, music theory can be TMI (too much information).

When we first learn to drive a car, we don’t need to know how fuel injection or disc brakes work. It’s not necessary, and we won’t use the information.

Instead, we focus on the skills used in driving. We keep our attention on what is practical for the current stage of learning.

Later, we can enrich our understanding as we navigate more complex paths. Or not, as we choose.

It’s the same in music. Music theory is a conceptual construct. We create this to better understand how music is put together. And as we advance, we can learn to use what we know to make musical decisions.

Music theory can help us shape our phrasing and expression. It can help us memorize music more quickly.

But music theory alone does not make a musician. First, we need our fingers to do what we tell them. And this takes intentional physical practice.

Scott Young, in his book, Ultralearning, writes: As the saying goes, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is.”

So should we study music theory? Yes, eventually. But as well as, not instead of, physical practice.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

I am truly enjoying the growth and challenge that the Woodshed material provides.  I look forward to working hard and learning much in the years ahead.  Thanks for all the effort and care that you have taken in providing these lessons and resources!


~ Mark Whitsett

-Mark Whitsett
I just started level 1C...I was able to look at a Carulli piece, albeit a simple one, and understand it. And that understanding allowed me to play it much more easily on the first run through, and I expect it will allow me to make it fully musical at tempo quite soon. That's a huge personal victory for me. Until very recently my mindset was: "Notes on a page. Jimi didn't need them and I don't either." But I ain't Jimi, and now I want those notes on a page.
My work in CGS, even at these early levels, got me to that personal breakthrough. And that's given me more confidence that continued work will get me to greater places in due time. So to answer your question: yes, I absolutely feel like I'm making headway and moving forward in my playing. Thank you for that.
~ Matthew Ecker


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