What is Music Theory?


What is Music Theory?

Sometimes when I tell people what I teach, they look at me slightly blankly and then ask (if they are brave!) “but what IS music theory?”

what is music theory

Music theory is the subject which examines how musical pieces are built. Nobody knows when human beings began making music – but it was probably tens of thousands of years ago. As soon as people invented a method of writing down the music they were making (a system called musical notation), just a few hundred years ago, other people have been picking apart those compositions, to see exactly how they were built. Back in the day they didn’t ask “what is music theory?”; they were probably asking “how come this piece sounds so great?!” or “what is it about this piece of music which makes it so memorable?” or even “why does this piece sound rubbish?!”

I have often heard people with a very negative view about learning music theory. Lots of people say things like “if you learn music theory you’ll stop being creative” or “music isn’t about rules it’s about emotion” or “music theory is difficult/boring/pointless”. I think these people are missing the point. When we study music theory we are not making a list of rules and telling musicians to abide by them. Music theory is descriptive not prescriptive, which is just a posh way of saying

music theory describes how people create music (it’s descriptive)

music theory doesn’t tell you how you have to write your own music (it’s not prescriptive).

So who and what is music theory for?

Knowing about music theory is useful for three types of musician – the composer, the performer and the listener. The chances are you fall into at least one of these categories if you are reading this article. (Some would argue that a listener is not a kind of musician, I would disagree but I’ll defend my view in another post!) Let’s begin by asking what is music theory for the listener…

What is Music Theory for The Listener?

There are two types of listening – active and the passive. A lot of the time we listen passively – we put music on and then do something else (hoover, play computer games, read and so on). In those circumstances we are not really listening, we are just aware that there is music in the background. But when we listen actively, we are giving the music our full attention.

The more you know about music theory, the more you will appreciate the music you are actively listening to. That is not to say that you can’t enjoy music if you don’t know music theory, of course. But when you are able to identify certain elements of the music, you appreciate it more. What sort of elements am I talking about? It’s almost an infinite list.

  • At the basic level, you would be able to identify what instrument(s) was playing, whether the music was fast or slow, major or minor.
  • At an intermediate level, you would be able to detect a probable time signature (how many beats in the bar), whether the music changes key or not, whether certain snatches of melody or rhythm are reused in the piece or possibly what some of the underlying harmonies (chords) are.
  • At an advanced level you’d be able to do all that plus you’d be able to identify some chord progressions with fancy names (Italian 6th?), name a likely composer based on the instruments , the harmonies and the rhythms used, and compare and contrast the piece to others from similar or different time periods.

Why would you want to do that? Well, the most fundamental reason really is that it’s enjoyable! Most people like knowing about stuff – whether it is about the rules of football, how to get to level 387 of World of Warcraft or how to speak Swahili. Learning about things makes you feel clever, and there’s nothing wrong with that! It’s also immensely satisfying to be able to say to yourself “I like this piece of music because XYZ” rather than to admit you like something but you don’t know why.

What is Music Theory for The Performer?

what is music theory for a performer?For the performer, a sound knowledge of music theory is essential. If you perform but don’t compose, you must be performing music written by others. To do this, you need to be able to read and interpret what they have written down.

For classical musicians, this means understanding musical notation in depth, being able to interpret the foreign words and strange symbols on the musical page, and also having an appreciation of the styles of music written through the ages so that the black dots can be transformed into beautiful sound.

Knowing what the theory behind the music is also helps when it comes to memorizing music. If you can remember that bars 17-32 are the same as bars 1-16 but in the dominant key, you will be able to remember how to play them with a lot less effort than learning them from scratch. If you look at bar 67 and instantly recognise the scale of Db major starting on the supertonic, you will be able to play it without thinking about it. Knowing about music theory helps to divide the music up into workable sections.

Knowing about music theory with a historical context will make your performances more authentic. Knowing about the music theory of the 19th century doesn’t mean you have to perform everything authentically though, of course – but you would at least have the choice and would be able to make an informed comment about how other people interpret the same music.

For the non-classical performer, it’s just as useful to know what music theory is all about. Even if all you do is read chords from sheet music, if you know how those chords work in the whole scheme of things, you will become a more flexible musician. If you get yourself a new singer in the band who needs everything transposed down a minor third to fit his voice, you’ll be able to do it without a problem.

What is Music Theory for the Composer?

what is music theory for the composer?Knowing about music theory for the composer is like having a super-deluxe tool box for the builder. If you don’t know much about music theory you can still compose, and you can even make a good job of it. But imagine if you knew some secret techniques like how to invert a chord to change its flavour, or how to twist a melody out for an extra two bars to increase the tension, or how to change the time signature in the middle of a piece to surprise the listener and create a totally unique rhythm… What is music theory? It’s power. It’s like having a magic wand. You don’t have to use the wand, but when you’re in the mood you can wave it and maybe produce something sensational.

What is Music Theory? Music Theory is Knowing About…

  • Instruments: their names, their range, their colour of sound, their history…
  • Types of Music: from the Jig to the Symphony, the Rhapsody to the Mass…
  • Musical Form: How pieces are organised whether it be Verse-Chorus-Verse or Exposition-Development-Recapitulation…
  • Tonality: Major, minor or something in between; scales, arpeggios and intervals between notes…
  • Harmony: How chords work to accompany a tune, why certain chords sound great when placed next to each other, why Mozart used different chords to Fats Domino…
  • Counterpoint: How several melodies can be woven together simultaneously to produce coherent music…
  • Rhythm: time signatures, note values, syncopation, what works for dancing, what doesn’t…
  • Notation: how we write our music down today, how they used to do it in the past,  which bits are more open to interpretation…
  • Acoustics: how sound is produced, why choirs sound awesome in churches but not in the open air…

And you should always remember, that Music came first, then theory!




What is Music Theory? — 8 Comments

  1. New problem: I see the Grade 6 section of your page now has lessons with A followed by a number and lessons with B followed by a number. However, you have exercises only for the A lessons. Do you plan to add exercises for the B lessons??

  2. Yes I do Jimmy – but everything takes time of course! The exercises for grade 6 part B will be added next, followed by part C which is a general knowledge section. If become a free member of the website you’ll get an email whenever anything new is added to the site.

    • Hi Jimmy – there is no reference to them in grades 1-5 because they don’t appear on the syllabus. The link you’ve posted is for grade 6. The grade 6 course is not finished yet – sextuplets will be explained when I publish Part C of the grade 6 course, which covers everything under the umbrella term “general knowledge”. Sorry that there is nothing on the site yet – I’m just one person doing this on my own and I’m only human! 😉

  3. Great Blog! You also have a great website with lots of useful resources.
    My students would do well if they visit your website so I will be recommending your website to them.
    Thanks for sharing!

  4. this site is awesome, i am inspired to inspire others. I will visit this site more often. God bless u victoria.

  5. Excellent article! I think you’ve explained the crucial point perfectly: that music theory isn’t a restrictive set of rules which musicians should feel obliged to study. In fact, it’s about explaining what’s going on in music, so that you can understand what you hear and enjoy it more.

    Whether you’re a performer, composer, listener, or all three, music theory enhances the way you experience music.

    Thanks for sharing this, Victoria.

    I hope this post will help more people get past the notion that theory is intimidating or restrictive and take advantage of it for what it is: the key to understanding and enjoying music more!

  6. Hi there! This post really made me understand that I need music theory (my dream is to be a famous musician, but i’d like to write good songs, not just catchy songs) Thank you, now I’ll be glad to learn music theory!!

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