Music theory. As musicians, it’s something we always kind of know that we’re supposed to take the time to learn, yet few people bother to dive deep into it.
This is completely understandable. We start learning to play an instrument, well, to have fun playing the instrument. Considering that you can get quite far without ever bothering to learn music theory (heck, even The Beatles claim that they couldn’t read music) it’s understandable why you would want to put it off.
Just like how you continued taking English classes long after you were able to speak, read and write English, there comes a time where in order to grow as a musician, you’ll need to study at least some music theory. And quite frankly, you’ll be glad that you did. Not only does it make you a better musician, but it will allow you to have far more fun with your instrument as well.
In this article, we’re going to show you why you should be excited about music theory, the benefits it can provide, and why it’s worth the time to learn it.
Before We Begin
Before we begin, I want to briefly touch on some things you might have heard people say as to why music theory is pointless.
Some argue that it takes away from actually building skill on your instrument, while others say that approaching playing with music theory in mind forces your music to become ‘robotic’ – fitting into a set of rules that make it sound like everybody else.
Neither of these have any real truth behind them. Understanding music theory helps you to bring out the most in your playing. While it makes you aware of the common patterns that musical compositions tend to follow, you aren’t confined to them. In fact, having an understanding on why things sound the way they do gives you the power to break those rules when you choose to do so – and that’s what makes music sound lively and interesting.
You should break the rules – but great composers know the when, why, and how of when to do that.
Music, after all, is all about self-expression. There is no harm that can be done simply by knowing more about it, and having more conscious choices of what to play next.
With that, let’s continue onto some of the other benefits.
1. Understanding Music Theory Will Add Diversity To Your Playing
If you fool around with your instrument a lot, you’ve probably found a few little pieces that sound quite good.
This is an exciting thing to happen! However, the issue arises when we find ourselves drawn to that same thing over again. For example, the same key or chord progression. You may expand upon it and play a lot of different music in that same style, but it’s so easy to get stuck in the trap of playing it over, and over again.
Think back to when you were first able to read or write – you were able to demonstrate the meaning behind your sentences and convey your intention, but your vocabulary was limited. As you grew older, your ability to express yourself in unique or intricate ways grew as well.
It’s kind of like that when you learn music theory. You’re able to pick out just the write ‘words’ to use – the exact key, chords, and tactics to build the exact style of music that you’re going for.
This is useful even if you plan on only playing music in one genre.
2. It Saves A Ton Of Time
As you continue to practice your instrument, you’ll gain an intuitive sense on what notes sound good together, and what to play next to continue the melody or chord progressions you’re building.
In fact, to my guitar students, one of the first things I recommend buying is a looper pedal for this very reason. Soloing over your own chords is a fantastic way to build this skill naturally, even without studying music theory through a website like this one.
Of course, there will be times when the right note, chord or technique just won’t come to you. You can hear it in your mind, but you’re just not sure what to do to bring it out. This is a situation where music theory can usually give you the answer.
This is particularly useful for those who enjoy improvisation. For example, if you know that the song ends on a C Major chord, you’ll know that you almost certainly can’t go wrong ending the note on a C, while a C# probably wouldn’t sound very good.
You don’t need to know every note you’re going to play while improvising, but having a general idea on which notes are the most important to hit gives you a lot of freedom to play around, while still having a cohesive and enjoyable solo to listen to.
Additionally, if you are someone who enjoys sitting down and notating music, music theory is critical to building your piece the same way it sounds in your mind, as well as fixing problem areas.
As a guitarist, I have no problem sliding around until I hear that I’ve landed on the right note, but trial and error while composing can make things take much longer than they need to.
3. Music Theory Makes It Easier To Learn Music By Ear
Here’s one benefit you can’t say isn’t fun!
If your goal is to be able to play songs by ear, understanding music theory is one of the most effective ways to build this skill.
Even more exciting, you do not need to be that advanced in music theory to be able to play most songs you’re already familiar with – in fact, being able to understand just keys (the 8 notes that make up most of the song) and intervals (the distance between two notes) will allow you to quickly piece together most songs that you hear. And because most music follows the same common patterns, this skill does not take long to develop.
For example, let’s say you’re playing around on a piano to a song on Spotify, and you hear the note E-flat (or D-sharp.) You play an E-flat major chord (E-flat, G, and B-flat) and discover that it fits perfectly in the song.
You now know that the song is almost certainly in the key of E-flat major, or C minor (which both share the same notes.) You also now know that the notes that likely make up most of the song are E-flat, F, G, A-flat, B-flat, C, and D, so your melody probably doesn’t consist of notes that aren’t a part of these 8. There are of course exceptions to this, but this will take you 90% of the way to playing a melody for any given song.
Once you know the key, it is also easy to discover other chords that fit with it. For example, C Major probably wouldn’t be it, because it consists of the notes C, E (which isn’t in the previously mentioned notes), and G. However, C Minor, consisting of the notes C, E-flat and G would work – and is a common chord in the key of E-flat major.
If this sounds confusing now, don’t worry. Just know that with a basic understanding of music theory, it becomes much easier to discover the key of a song – along with the notes and chords that go with it. This makes it much easier to play music by ear, even if you aren’t an expert at reading sheet music quite yet.
4. Broaden Your Horizons
One of the most interesting things about learning music theory, at least to me, is how we associate different things with different styles of music.
For example, if I asked you to picture what Eastern Chinese music sounded like, you may be able to hear it in your head, and picture how it sounds different than the Western style of music you may be most familiar with.
So, you can hear a clear difference – but what exactly makes it different? Not only the instruments used, but the actual notes themselves?
Why does some music sound ‘Latin’ or ‘Arabian’ or ‘Asian?’ Why does some music invoke certain feelings – not only happiness or sadness, but anger, uneasiness, or fear? Can you explain exactly what changes in order to create the different styles?
Music theory provides the answers to all of these questions as more. When you take the time to understand it, you’ll gain a better understanding on how to make your piece carry out its intended effect on the listener.
5. You’ll Be Able To Pick Up New Instruments Easier
Finally, another added benefit is that you’ll be able to pick up new instruments much easier, than if you knew no music theory at all.
Becoming a true master of an instrument takes years or even lifetimes of practice. However, many of the aspects of playing an instrument and making it sound good translate directly over to new instruments.
I believe that playing an instrument isn’t a single skill – it’s a collection of skills. Timing, rhythm, selecting the right notes – these are all things that carry over. Sure, playing a new instrument requires you to learn the technique to make the notes intonate and play like you want them to, and you’ll need to memorize what to do to play each note, but I would argue that much of the work is already done.
To me, this is part of what makes music so exciting. There is always something new to try out and learn, there’s always room to grow and further progress your capabilities as a musician.
Learning music theory isn’t a necessity to enjoy playing music, and there are certainly people who have built incredibly successful careers without it.
However, you’re intuitively building your music theory skills every time you practice. Having a conscious knowledge on how things fit together gives you even more options, and allows you to grow as a musician even further. Therefore, we consider it to be worth it for every musician to learn once they reach a certain level.
What are your thoughts on the matter? Have you found your music theory training so far to be worth it? Are you still not sure whether you want to invest the time? Let us know using the comment form below. We’d love to hear from you!
Wishing you the best,
– The Musical Sanctuary Team