Glasses and a pen on sheet music

Music Theory: If You Don’t Think It’s Important, You’re Wrong

It can be difficult to understand the point of learning music theory. I’ll admit that when I was younger and first studying the subject with my piano teacher, I thought it was a waste of time. It seemed like it had nothing to do with what I really cared about, which was making awesome music on the piano.

In this post I’ll go through a few arguments I’ve heard against studying music theory and try to convince you that music theory is, in fact, an integral part of becoming an accomplished musician.

You Already Know Music Theory

Cat outside in a yard

When I was in college studying music composition, I remember talking to a non-major musician friend. He stated confidently, “I already know all of music theory.” I looked at him in disbelief. I, who was in my 2nd year as a music major, was painfully aware that I was just barely scratching the surface of this huge subject.

It turned out that what my friend thought of as “music theory” was what one of my music professors once said should really be called “music fact”. This is the subject matter that doesn’t change over time and cannot be argued.

It’s notation, rhythm, key signatures, chords, etc. It technically still goes under the music theory umbrella, but is only the most basic aspect. It’s like what arithmetic is to math.

Many people don’t realize there is much more to music theory than just knowing how to read the notes.

The Wikipedia article about it is pretty illuminating. It explains that music theory encompasses not only the elements of rhythm and notation as mentioned above, but also analysis of music throughout history and discussion of what the composer may have been thinking, what they were doing musically, and why.

Enough study of this can result in an eventual understanding and even fluency of the building blocks of music. However, it’s pretty much impossible to ever know “all of” music theory. This is because music is constantly changing as time goes on and new ways of making music develop.

You Just Want to Make Music

Cat standing under a piano

This was how I felt for many years early on. It felt to me like making music was one thing, and music theory was something else completely. Music was creative and emotional, whereas music theory was technical and boring.

To put it simply, the better you understand something, the easier it will be to learn and improve.

Think about it this way: Imagine you’re memorizing a poem in a language you don’t understand. You don’t know what the words mean or even what the poem is about. You’re just memorizing the different sounds of each word–The vowels, and consonants–And hoping you’re pronouncing them correctly!

Now imagine the poem is in a language you do understand. You know what each word means and how to say it properly. Even if you forget the exact words to the poem, you know the overall meaning so you can still get the general idea across very easily.

Isn’t it so much easier when you actually understand what you’re learning? That’s why I believe music theory knowledge is useful for any musician. Learning is cumulative, and often the more you know, the easier it is to learn even more.

Music Theory Will Diminish Your Creativity

Cat covering its face

I’ve met some people who believe that learning music theory sets limits on their creativity. They think that if they study what others have done with music it will then inhibit their ability to come up with something new and different.

While I can understand this argument, I whole-heartedly disagree. It’s true that it’s hard to avoid being influenced by other music and musicians. Unfortunately, it’s also unavoidable unless you live in a cave your entire life with no contact to the outside world.

As things are, we are surrounded by music almost all of the time. It’s playing everywhere we go–Restaurants, stores, in our cars, movies, on TV, etc. Again, unless you live in a cave somewhere and never come out, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid coming into contact with music.

That means you are already being influenced by what you hear all the time, whether you know it or not. However, if you don’t understand what you’re hearing, then it can be difficult to recognize its influence in the music you play.

If you don’t understand music theory, chances are high that at least some of the music you make is simply copying whatever music you’re used to hearing. This is because if you don’t have any way to describe the music, it’s much more difficult to distinguish different aspects.

Have you ever heard that some dialects of the Eskimos have over 50 words for snow? I, for one, don’t think I could distinguish 50 different types of snow, but that is quite possibly because I don’t have the vocabulary to do so. Similarly, if you don’t have the words to describe different aspects of music, it will be much more difficult to even be aware of the differences.

Those are my main arguments for why music theory is important to any musician. I hope I’ve convinced you and inspired you to work hard on this aspect of your musicianship. I intend to write many more posts on music theory to help you on your way!

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Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

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2 thoughts on “Music Theory: If You Don’t Think It’s Important, You’re Wrong”

  1. Hi Heidi,
    I appreciate your input i like it a lot the way talk and the way you you explain about piano music theory. This is one of my downfall i start and I don’t finish.
    Do you know a good way to start without giving up. I love classical and would love to be able to get some sheet music and play. I think my problem is not to have any direction and steps of learning theory.
    I have been playing, practicing for more then 30+ years. Practice, playing 3 hrs a day 7 days a week. I wind up playing the pieces i know. I like Eric Satie music Gnossiennes
    Gymnopedie i play from his sheet music
    His music to me is so beautiful, don’t you agree?
    I thank you for you follow up.
    Have a great day.
    Jack Krystek

    1. Hi Jack, I’m so glad you enjoyed this article! 🙂 It can definitely be tricky to stay motivated with music theory, especially when learning on your own. I would recommend starting by getting a good music theory workbook and setting aside a little of your practice time each day to work on it. Luckily with your 3 hours per day practice schedule it shouldn’t be hard to set aside 20-40 minutes of that for music theory! Unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to check out all of the self-study music theory workbooks out there but I’ve read that Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory is a good one to start with. You also might enjoy my articles on Music Notation and Rhythmic Notation. Good luck and let me know how it goes!

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