Five Reasons to Learn Music Theory
One of my favorite things to study while in college studying music was music theory. Music theory is the study of how music is composed and the elements needed to compose. You may believe that music theory is something aside from music performance. Not so. So why learn music theory? In no particular order…
1) Memorization: learning about the building blocks of composition will help you memorize music. I put form and analysis inside of the music theory box. Being able to identify chord structures, scalar passages, and overall form in a piece will help you understand what the composer was thinking when he composed the piece. Understanding the music from a compositional perspective will solidify seemingly random notes into larger fragments that are easier to memorize in “whole pieces” rather than “unrelated fragments” of music.
2) Improvisation: there is no way to improvise properly without at least a basic understanding of music theory. Playing by ear is often code for picking about at random notes until something sounds right. Improvisation is the use of music theory and a well-developed ear to spontaneously compose music and play around a given set of chords inside a genre. Sound difficult? It can be, but the better your music theory knowledge the easier improvisation becomes. Improvisation using music theory as a foundation allows musicians to know what fits “between” those chord symbols and downbeats. That knowledge separates the men from the boys.
3) Composition: nothing but music theory. Even if you play guitar and use three chords to write a short song, you’re using music theory. Songwriters I have worked with who do not have a good background in music theory end up very limited within their writing sphere. A good ear is not enough to be a good songwriter. A musician must be able to convey what he is hearing in his mind and translate that onto paper or instrumental performance. I liken composition and music theory to a carpenter’s tool box: you can’t limit yourself by only having a hammer and a couple of nails. Carpenters need saws, drills, vices, routers, glue, screws, wood, work benches, ladders and a myriad of other tools and supplies to build what they have imagined. Music theory is the composer’s tool box. Being a composer with three chords is like a carpenter with a hammer and two nails. Bring that wood.
4) Rehearsing: having to ask someone what a chord is in the middle of a rehearsal is embarrassing and a waste of valuable rehearsal time. Understanding music theory, at least what is necessary for your instrument, is key to being able to rehearse well and meet the requirements of a band or other ensemble. Many times I asked my band to play a piece in a different key – and that key was not the key of the piece in front of them. Luckily, my band where I lead worship for almost seven years was very talented so it was never a problem. Often in my recording studio bands or individuals will use up studio time discussing music theory or arrangement problems. That can get expensive quickly.
5) Learning other instruments: if you are experienced with one instrument and you have a good understanding of music theory you are going to be able to learn other instruments easier. I recently starting playing cello; With my knowledge of music theory and piano and bass learning cello is not nearly the bear I thought it would be. It is still very difficult, but understand theory has taken all the weight off that would have been there from learning to reading music, understanding tuning, scales, intervals, etc. That experience and knowledge have enabled me to concentrate on the dynamics of physically playing the cello and not being encumbered by a hundred other simultaneous music education fundamentals. I’ve completed almost two levels of the Suzuki books in six months and I accredit it almost completely to music theory and my experience with piano and bass.