The Importance of Music Theory

Musical students often view music theory as a chore, and some musicians wear their lack of music theory knowledge as a badge of honor. There is a reason that all music students generally take at least four semesters of basic music theory. It is because otherwise, we cannot communicate musical ideas to each other. While in school we learn how to read and write English, but when it comes to music, most of us only know how to read it and have little to no idea how it works. That is the point of music theory: to explain how music works.

What Is Music Theory?

Many bitter music students view music theory as a set of bizarre, antiquated rules that prevent people from writing the music they want to write. However, this is simply not the case. Western music theory was developed to describe the music that had already been written and to describe the common “rules” or trends that all music seemed to share. It also allows people to have a common language through which they can better and more efficiently express just what is going on in a piece of music.

Importance of Music Theory

Why Does It Matter to Me?

Obviously, if you are a composer, music theory is incredibly important. What if you play a chord that sounds good and want to use it in a piece of music, but forget how you played it, and only remember how it sounded? If you’ve studied music theory, you will be able to identify the type of chord and better be able to find it again. Many composers build up a “vocabulary” of chords that they’re drawn to and tend to use in their music. With music theory you’ll be able to better understand and appreciate the sounds you like.

But what if you’re not a composer? Even if you are an instrumentalist or a singer, you will become a better musician through studying music theory. As a singer, you can’t expect to sight read well from sheet music if you don’t know your intervals. Singing becomes more of an exercise in memorization than anything else. When I was at Vista College, I was accompanying a singer who had a cold and needed her song transposed down a few half steps for the evening. Without music theory, I wouldn’t have been able to identify the notes and chords in the song, and certainly wouldn’t have been able to recreate it in a lower key. Additionally, knowing music theory allows for much more improvisational possibilities. How can you improvise over a bass line if you have no idea which notes and chords will sound good?

 How Should I Begin?

A great way to begin learning music theory is to learn some basic piano, if you don’t already have keyboard experience. Piano is a particularly useful instrument when it comes to music theory as it allows you to visually see intervals and the structure of the chords that you are playing. Certain concepts such as inversion become much clearer when you have them laid out visually in front of you, and unlike most other instruments, you can essentially reduce any piece of music for examination on the piano.

Music theory can greatly improve your versatility as a musician. Don’t think of music theory as a chore, but instead as a useful tool that provides us with a universal communication method for describing Western music.


Author: Scott Huntington

  • David F Daigle

    A musical composer is an explorer, his/her talent is equivalent to the compass, music theory is equivalent to the map. Without a map an explorer will not be able to pick and choose where he/she wants to get to, nor will they know where they are (musical piece), making it much more difficult to find the best route from one piece to another.