When deciding to learn music, you have several options, such as taking up an instrument, voice lessons, or learning how to compose your own songs. One of the avenues you might choose is music theory.
While the word “theory” may make it sound intimidating on the surface, you will find that music theory pervades all elements of music, from the most basic to the most complex.
What is music theory?
Music theory is the how and why music works and sounds the way it does.
How do all the difference noises and sounds we create through our voice and through instruments come together to make the songs we hear on the radio or at a concert? Why does Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 in C minor (the famous “da da da duuum”) sound so dark and intimidating while the William Tell Overture is exciting and has us on the edge of our seats? By breaking down the musical elements of these songs, we can find the answer.
When you hear the word “theory,” it may sound like this is only something for advanced learners. This could not be further from the truth. As will be discussed in this article, any who begin learning about how to read music or how to play it will be faced with the very concepts that form the foundation of music theory. Understanding how those concepts work together is music theory itself, even on a basic level.
While music theory does concern the analysis and philosophy behind music’s inner-workings, it is also a matter of practicality. The answers to the above questions can certainly be about why a certain note is pleasing to the ear or why Beethoven made certain artistic decisions. However, there are also more fundamental answers that even beginners to music can comprehend and apply.
It is important to remember that this article will be exploring the basics of “Western” music theory, and not all music. Different cultures around the world have their own approaches to playing and making music, but we will focus on the most common approach here.
Is learning music theory necessary?
Focused study of music theory is not a requirement to learn music. It is possible, for instance, to learn how to play an instrument by ear without being able to read music notation or understanding why the music sounds the way it does.
However, in most cases, you will learn the basics at a minimum as part of learning how to play or compose music. This can be something as fundamental as learning how to read the notes on the page or how loud and how fast to play a certain song.
Let’s say, for example, you have decided to learn how to play piano. You look into music tutoring and find the right instructor for your needs. Within your first few lessons, your tutor will have you familiarize yourself with the keyboard.
The keys on a piano correspond to one of twelve “notes,” referred to by either a letter (and an additional qualifier for five of them) or through the solfege system (which you may be familiar with as “do re mi”). Each of these notes includes several pitches that sound high or low depending on how it is played or sung.
To take it one step further, these pitches can be written on paper with “musical notation.”
The same notes on the piano keys before are now written on the lines and spaces of a “staff.” By translating the fingerings on an instrument or the sounds that you hear into a written format, the music can be easily understood and recreated.
This knowledge alone is the foundation of music theory as a discipline. From there, you will learn how to combine these notes into structures such as scales (one of several specific sequences in which eight notes are played), chords (multiple notes played at the same time), and other such fundamental skills.
Advanced music theory is not necessary to learn other fields of music. While the basics are all but essential, any music teacher can provide you with instruction on those skills alongside the primary music goals you are pursuing.
Why music theory is important
Music theory helps you make informed decisions when you play an instrument or sing or compose. Playing and appreciating music is not simply about pushing down the right keys or making certain sounds.
When you first get started in music, you will be introduced to the basics, like music notation (such as those written above). However, there are a myriad of elements that impact the song beyond what sound you make and how long that sound is held: the combination of sounds played simultaneously or as a sequence, how loud or how soft the music is played, the speed of the piece, to name a few.
Music theory is also an excellent way to discuss the intricacies and details of music with others. If you like songs that are sad or melancholic, then you may enjoy “Minor” keys as opposed to the comparatively positive-sounding “Major” keys. When dancing, maybe you prefer a waltz to a tango. Understanding how the music is constructed can tell you why.
If you attend an orchestra concert, understanding what makes each piece different makes it easier to tell others why a song impacted you. Music has its own unique terminology and language. By studying music theory, you can put those feelings and thoughts into words that fellow musicians can comprehend and relate to.
For those of you who want to create your own music, studying music theory gives you the tools you need to do so effectively. Understanding how existing songs work and what combinations other musicians and composers used to make that effect will inform your own artistic choices. Knowing the theory also provides a boost to your ability to improvise and make music on the spot!
Ultimately, music theory is important because it gives you a deeper understanding and appreciation for music. No matter how you choose to apply it — going to concerts, playing an instrument, creating your own songs — the skills you learn will be a boon to achieving your goals.
Do you need an instrument to learn music theory?
Strictly speaking, no. There are plenty of people who learn music theory using voice or recorded sounds to relate the concepts on paper to the sounds we hear.
However, while an instrument is not exactly required to learn music theory, there is no better resource. Just as an instrument is a key aid to learning music theory, music theory is important for learning an instrument.
Consider chords, for instance. A C Major chord is composed of three notes (at any pitch): C, E, and G. One person alone cannot make all three sounds at once with their voice and so must turn to another source to hear the notes together.
The most common instrument used in learning and applying music theory concepts is piano. Many other instruments, such as a trumpet or a flute, require changing the shape of your mouth or the way you blow air into the instrument to create the different pitches. Most trumpets only have three buttons (called “valves”), but there are dozens of pitches to be made with those valves in combination with how you blow into the instrument.
Piano, by comparison, is incredibly straightforward. A full-size piano has eighty-eight keys, all of which make their own pitch. No more and no less. You do not have to take concentrated piano lessons (although it will make it easier) in order to take the concepts you learn in music theory lessons and apply them to a keyboard, and you can make multiple sounds at once on your own.
Guitar is another common option, as it is considered an accessible instrument and can also play multiple sounds at the same time. While it pales in comparison to the piano as a visual aid, it is still a good choice if you are looking for an instrument to accompany your music theory studies. Resources and sheet music for both instruments are available to an almost limitless degree.
Is music theory hard to learn?
At the start, music theory is not difficult. Learning how to read music, understanding what a scale is, how to count the rhythm, and other topics are approachable for beginners. Consistent practice and studying is key.
Like all skills and disciplines, there are more advanced topics that build on the basics that can be difficult to grasp and take longer to master. However, with a sufficient understanding of those basics, they will appear much less intimidating. The section below covers a handful of music theory terms that encompass the overarching concepts that you will use time and time again.
Basic music theory concepts
These skills, among others, will be fostered through learning music whether you sit down to focus specifically on music theory itself or not.
- Music notation: how music is written down
- Pitch: a specific tone or sound
- Scale: a group of pitches arranged into a specific order
- Chord: a group of pitches played together at the same time
- Rhythm: the patterns made by the sound (or silence) in a piece
- Meter: the division of sounds within the structure in a piece
- Sharps (♯) and flats (♭): pitches in between the seven named notes (ex: C♯ is between C and D)
- Key and key signatures: the group of pitches (including sharps and flats) that will be used to form the basis of the piece
- Melody: the main tune (ex: the sung part of songs you heard on the radio)
- Harmony: sounds that complement and bolster the melody
Intermediate to advanced music theory concepts
By taking those concepts as building blocks, we can start to explore more complex ideas. This is the start of what might be considered the “theory” behind music theory, as the unique combination and usage of these concepts gives us a much deeper understanding of why certain music evokes different feelings and images.
- Intervals: the musical space between any two given pitches
- Modes: a reorganization or rotation of a scale
- Chord progressions: the order in which chords are played
How to find a music theory tutor
When striking out to learn music theory, finding the right tutor will help you start off on the right foot. While it is possible to learn music theory on your own (there are certainly a seemingly endless number of resources available), having someone steer you in the right direction is the most efficient path.
A music theory tutor can help you sift through those numerous resources to help you find the ones you need to reach your goals, and answer any questions you may have. Use Wyzant to connect with expert music theory tutors for every budget and learning style. Reach out to one today!