Why Do We Learn Music Theory?

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learn music theory

learn music theory

“Music theory” — a scary term for many musicians. But for musicians who understand theory, they know the scariness is just the entrance fee into a whole new world of making music.

It’s best to start with the basics of music theory and gradually go deeper from there. So for this post, we’ll keep it super basic. Really, we’ll talk about the theory behind learning (or not learning) music theory.

So…why do we learn music theory? In this blog we’ll cover:

  1. What exactly is music theory?
  2. Do you need music theory?
  3. When you don’t need music theory
  4. Music experience before theory knowledge
  5. Can I teach myself music theory?
  6. But do I really need music theory?

What Exactly Is Music Theory?

Music theory is a set of rules and guidelines that are meant to help musicians make good music more easily. It’s the “how” behind the music — it explains the way music is made and why certain chords, melodies, and harmonies work well together.

In music theory, you learn how and why you build chords a certain way, you learn about intervals and scales, how melodies and harmonies work, key signatures, and a bunch of other stuff. We won’t get into the details of music theory, but just know it’s a sort of foundation for creating music.

Granted, plenty of musicians make great music without knowing an ounce of music theory. But are those musicians outliers? Shouldn’t every musician know theory?

We’ll talk about why you may need music theory and about when you don’t really need it.

Better understanding the theory behind songs helps you understand why they make you feel a certain way. A great song makes you feel things, we all know that. With music theory, you can see why certain notes and chords put together make you feel those things.

Do You Need Music Theory?

The first reason you’ll need music theory is to make you a better musician and songwriter. I’m not saying you can’t be a good musician and songwriter without music theory, but it really helps. It gives you a foundation upon which to stand.

For example, if you’re writing a guitar solo for one of your songs, it’s going to be much easier if you know the scales and where you can play things on different parts of the guitar. You won’t have to guess until you find the notes you want.

This takes us to another way music theory can help: it allows you to do things on purpose instead of just stumbling into them. Now, sometimes some of your best work will come after you’ve stumbled into something. But knowing music theory makes it easier to make better music intentionally.

Having a head knowledge of music will also allow you to better understand other artists’ songs, especially if those artists used music theory to create the songs. You’ll understand why they chose the seemingly random chord progression or how they came up with such intricate melodies and harmonies. Your appreciation for and understanding of music will grow.

Better understanding the theory behind songs helps you understand why they make you feel a certain way. A great song makes you feel things, we all know that. With music theory, you can see why certain notes and chords put together make you feel those things.

And once you understand the why and how of music, it can seriously help you move past writer’s block. If you know in your head what notes in a scale will work over a chord progression, the music will come more easily. If you’ve ever had trouble figuring out what chords you can play next or if you’ve struggled to come up with a melody, music theory can help you find your way.

When You Don’t Need Music Theory

Although music theory can be a savior in times of creative inspiration and constipation, it’s not always necessary. There are actually times when you shouldn’t learn music theory.

The first and most obvious time to not worry about music theory is as a beginner. If you’re just starting out, just learn the basics of your instrument. Trying to learn the Circle of Fifths or the difference between a Largo and a Larghetto will just confuse you.

Many beginners feel they should learn music theory, but that’s exactly when you shouldn’t. You should learn music theory because you want to, not because someone says you need to. And, yes, I realize the irony in this reasoning — I’m saying “should” and “shouldn’t” in regard to when you should and shouldn’t learn music theory.

Basically, don’t feel pressured into learning it, just learn it because you’re interested in it.

Another way to think about music theory is as a map. You wouldn’t want to just look at the map and memorize the city if you’re not going to visit it. You first would visit the city, experience the culture, and use a map to help you navigate your experience.

Music Experience Before Theory Knowledge

The theory about theory is that it works best after experience. In other words, it’s better to experience music first and then learn music theory to better understand your experience.

It’s like how you experience gravity before you learn what it is or how it works. Gravity would make no sense to you (or just be super difficult to comprehend) if you had only lived on the moon. You’d think, “Oh, so that’s why I’m stuck to the earth’s surface!”

Starting at experience and moving toward head knowledge makes you have “aha” moments. It makes you appreciate the experience even more.

So it is with music theory — learning to play an instrument before learning why what you’re playing makes sense. This seems to be the better way. You learn how to make better music while appreciating the music you make.

Another way to think about music theory is as a map. You wouldn’t want to just look at the map and memorize the city if you’re not going to visit it. You first would visit the city, experience the culture, and use a map to help you navigate your experience.

Experience before theory.

Can I Teach Myself Music Theory?

So if you’re ready to learn music theory — you’ve been playing music for a while and want to deepen your understanding of how and why it works the way it does — you can start right now.

But if you have little to no knowledge of the technicalities of how music works, you’ll need to go gradually. Thanks to the internet, you can start from scratch and go at your own pace.

So start with YouTube videos. Search ”music theory basics” or something along those lines and you’ll get a bunch of videos perfect for someone who’s new to theory.

If you’re more of a reader than a video watcher, you can start with books like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory or Music Theory For Dummies. Reading about theory can be nice because if you own a music theory book you can pull it off the shelf any time you have a question or need clarification.

For those who are more serious about getting into theory — those who want to move from splashing in puddles to neck-deep music theory — higher education is a solid option. It’s a big commitment, both financially and time-wise. But earning a music degree that involves learning music theory can go a long way, especially if you plan to work full-time in the music industry.

But Do I Really Need Music Theory?

As you can probably guess, the answer to “Do you need music theory?” is both yes and no. It depends on where you are as a musician and why you want to learn theory.

Beginner musician? Don’t worry about it.

Advanced musician looking to improve? Yeah, theory could really help you.

Musician looking to impress people with your music knowledge? Nope.

Songwriter looking to overcome writer’s block? Go for it.

So if you want to learn music theory for the right reasons, start with the basics and go from there. And don’t forget to enjoy the experience and privilege of making music.

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Caleb J. Murphy

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