After you've been playing music for a little while, it's easy to feel like you don't need theory to help you at all. Or that perhaps you are too old to start taking on something new. Is there any truth in this? Or are you only holding yourself back by putting it off?
Lately I have noticed a pattern happening throughout various online discussion boards when it comes to guitarists who've been playing for a while or have learned everything they know by ear. You'll see them ask a specific question about a certain aspect of their playing and receive a lot of great feedback. But then there's always one or two people who let them know that a just a bit of basic theory could easily explain everything they are having trouble with.
This recommendation is usually followed by responses such as...
• "I wish I had started early. I'm an old man now so.... lol" (later it transpired that this person was 45)
• "I wish I could understand it, but you can't teach a new trick to an old dog" (this person was 37)
• "I'll be 63 next spring, and just don't have enough good years left to absorb and profit from it."
These kind of excuses always threw me off as some of my best students have been over 75 years old. What gives people the idea that once they reach a certain age that they no longer have the ability to take in new information? Or that learning theory won't actually do anything to progress their playing?
You might be sitting there with a few chord progressions under your belt feeling like there's no need to really push your learning any further. But let me tell you about a composer named Nick who also got by pretty far without any theory knowledge.
Even though Nick knew practically nothing of intervals or what made up chords and chord progressions, he was able to compose a few tunes that went on to get played by an actual orchestra. This was accomplished through a convenient mix of having an ear for melodies and also having connections to others in the music industry.
These tunes were able to draw him enough local attention that he actually was offered a position at a conservatory as a Professor of Orchestration and Composition. His knowledge of musical theory at this point was still quite basic, so he focused all of his practicing on studying music theory books in order to stay ahead of his classes. After he began getting the hang of it, he even went back and revised some of his older tunes and found a great appreciation for theory.
You probably think this whole story has been made up as an elaborate ruse to trick you into becoming a theory lover such as myself. But you can read up on everything I said by googling Nick, full name Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, also known as the guy who whole Flight of the Bumble Bees (as well as many other famous compositions).
Sure, you probably wouldn't think that 27 sounds particularly old. But consider everything he accomplished before he included theory into his practice. This was a man who already reached a decent level of fame for his compositions and orchestrations, and he still decided it wasn't "too late" for music theory. Whether your a complete beginner or even a famous professional, theres always something more worth learning.
You might be thinking, "Thats a nice story about a 27 year old, but I am definitely older than that guy."
Fair. Let's talk about another musician named Josh. This isn't another story about a famous composer, but instead a student of mine who began lessons with me at 60 years old.
Josh played guitar and bass in a number of bands and came to me with quite a bit of skill already. Besides a little technique work he needed to do, he had a solid foundation in playing. What he came to me for was to work on his theory practice. He needed to get the basics down in order to audition into a well-known local band. And after a few months of hard work he was hired by the band and now spends most nights playing well-attended shows and having fun doing it.
Josh has told me on a number of occasions that he definitely would not be able to keep up in that band if it wasn't for his theory practice. Knowing theory not only makes him a more capable player, but a more confident player too.
So can an old dog really be taught new tricks? If its not abundantly clear yet, the answer is an absolute yes. There isn't a person too young or old, too expert or novice, to start learning music theory.
Often times people think that music theory is something that needs to be picked up at a young age and takes years to understand, but often times it's the adults that have a better time grasping the concepts. Older students are usually quicker to experiment and find fun and exciting ways to start using theory in their every day playing. And it also helps to have a longer attention span and greater dedication to practicing.
Don't let yourself fall down the "I'm too old for this" hole, because it's almost never the case. Just ask my eldest student who decided to pick up a guitar for the first time at the age of 88. She has been having a great time with it!
If you ever see someone try to play the age card to get out of anything musical, feel free to send them this article. Hopefully it will be just the boost they need to try something new and have fun doing it. No one is ever too old to learn!