When starting your journey in music theory, you may have looked at the road ahead with wonder and maybe a hint of self-doubt. There is a lot to learn so it may seem quite daunting at first. You’re not alone if your reaction is to ask: is music theory important or necessary?
Music theory is necessary for certain musicians, depending on their musical goals. A good theoretical understanding is important for aspiring composers, orchestral musicians, conductors, and teachers. Music theory is less important for casual players or singers, and hobby songwriters.
Keep in mind that, as the author of this article, I absolutely love music theory. I teach it, study it, read about it, and I write books about it. However, I will do my best here to have an honest look at both sides of this discussion. As we said, it depends on a person’s musical goals.
What is the Purpose of Music Theory?
Before we look at the 9 tangible reasons for why it is necessary, let’s briefly determine: what is the purpose of music theory?
The main purpose of music theory is to know how music works. It is any activity that dissects one or several elements of music (such as pitch, rhythm, timbre, or dynamics). Once examined individually, we then put these components back in context to see how everything works so beautifully together.
A common example is how we learn how to build a certain type of chord before looking at its most common uses. Perhaps we can then investigate how it sounds on a particular instrument played in a particular way, and later its role within the context of an entire song. This understanding, then, provides a stable foundation to venture off and learn more about how, and why, that particular chord progression works.
Besides, part of music theory is musical notation with its set of rules and guidelines like a common language for all musicians. As I say in the book How to Read Music in 30 Days, musical notation was a huge leap forward in the development of music. Music that is written down can be preserved and that means:
- A composer can come back to an idea later to refine and develop it
- A piece of music can be studied slowly through reading, rather than by listening over and over again
- Written music can be read at the same time by many musicians, allowing for ensembles and orchestras to play together
- A notated piece can be analyzed for how it works. As I often say here in these blog posts, musical analysis is an invaluable, hugely rewarding activity for musicians of all levels. (For me personally, the ability to examine a piece of written music for how it works was the whole point for getting into musical notation and music theory.)
Apart from notation, music theory also consists of a good number of specific terms. These words help musicians think about music on a deeper level than “that sounds really cool.” And it allows us to discuss really specific things too. Musicians talk about changing the key signature of a section, going up an octave, syncopate a rhythm, and so much more.
In a nutshell, music theory provides musicians with the tools to unravel the magical mechanics behind the music.
“Music theory provides musicians with the tools to unravel the magical mechanics behind the music.”Matthew Ellul
Why Music Theory Still Matters Today: 9 Practical Benefits
As I’ve been saying, music theory is about exploring the components of music individually as well as how they work together. And although it is often associated with ‘old’, classical music, it does not have to be so. Music theory is as relevant today as ever. I’d venture to say that it is even more important nowadays because of the infinite variety of artists and musical styles available to us at the click of a button.
Here are 9 very real, very practical benefits of learning music theory today:
Music Theory Eases Communication Between Musicians
In this article about why music theory is called “theory”, we discussed how music has its own jargon: a large set of terms that mean very specific things. These terms allow musicians to communicate effectively about musical issues, just like doctors discuss anatomy and disease, and mechanics know every part of a car by name, size, material, and so on.
Music Theory Explains the Nuances of Sound
In simple terms, music theory helps musicians make better choices when composing or performing. For example, when a songwriter understands why certain notes sound abrasive together, or when to pause for maximum effect, they use that knowledge to coax the appropriate responses from listeners.
Music Theory Speeds Composing and Improvising
Music theory helps composers write faster, backing the creative process with a deep knowledge for how it all comes together. An expert composer knows how to combine notes at the right time in the right context to achieve a certain musical effect. When experimenting with new sounds, they do so with confidence.
A beginner composer who is inexperienced in theory and analysis does not have this luxury.
Music Theory Can Inspire
Whether reading a written piece or listening to it on YouTube, a seasoned songwriter or composer can find inspiration. Even with a slightly better awareness for how music works, interesting ideas start to emerge out of nowhere. You may find that simply glancing at sheet music brings inspiration, or hearing an interesting chord progression on the radio triggers a curiosity for what else could have been.
Music Theory Helps Performing
Learning a new instrument such as the violin, piano, or clarinet, often goes hand in hand with a growing proficiency in theory as well. Technical exercises, for example, often consist of certain sequences designed to reinforce fundamental musical concepts.
For professional performers, a certain level of knowledge on why composers choose certain notes and not others is invaluable to interpreting their pieces. It allows a performer to understand what the composer was going for. In addition, musical theory can help us understand a challenging piece of sheet music quicker and with fewer stumbling blocks along the way.
The knowledge of why composers make certain decisions means that, if need be, a musician can adapt their performance without losing coherence.
This famous violinist, for example, had to adapt impressively quick when one of his strings broke mid-performance. He can do this only because of his proficiency on the instrument while knowing the Tchaikovsky piece intimately, note by note. It is even more impressive to consider that this could have happened at any moment within the concert and he would have probably been just as fast to react.
Music Theory Sheds Light on the History of Music
Musical trends change over time. Musicians, like all artists, are a product of their time and thus their art is a reflection of their culture. It is music theory that would help us analyze and discuss the differences between, say, the chants of the Middle Ages and the 12-tone technique innovation of the 20th Century. Music theory is essential in explaining the subtleties of how a style works and why.
Music Theory Sheds Light on Cultures
Related to the point above, understanding the intricacies behind music is not limited to the western tradition. Within musicology (the scholarly study of music), there are ethnomusicologists that study specifically the music of non-western cultures. It’s a fascinating field that teaches us, through music, about the differences and similarities between our contemporary culture and those from faraway places and/or faraway times.
And, I promise, you don’t need a PhD to enjoy this type of analysis. We don’t need that much, for example, to appreciate how ancient cultures used different scales and modes, or the variety that exists in the rhythms of different folk music.
For Professionals, Music Theory Saves Time and Money
Since music theory makes one more proficient in all and any activity related to music, it saves time and money. For a recording artist, for example, they get their recordings done faster, better-sounding, with less post-processing polish if they simply endure fewer takes.
Not only that but when musicians speak the same language, they simply communicate better and faster.
Musical Notation Freezes Sound in Place
I left this point for last but once we overcome that initial hurdle of learning the basics, musical notation can be a wonderful tool in our journey. As music unfolds over time, it would be very difficult and time-consuming to analyze certain aspects or certain elements. Notation freezes the notes in place so that we can scrutinize them. This is what makes everything else in music theory possible.
As we can see, the reasons to learn music theory are varied and wide. Some people learn music theory because they just want to know how music works. Some people wish to learn the history of music and how music theory helped shape musicians and composers through the centuries. Other people want to improve their current knowledge of music to increase their skills as composers or musicians, as well as simplify the creative process and performances.
So Who Needs Music Theory?
From the list above, we can deduce that the obvious answer is those who are pursuing a professional career in music. Anyone working with orchestras, ensembles and choirs, music schools and conservatories, engraving and creating sheet music, composing, arranging, and orchestrating require a higher level of music theory knowledge.
The genre of music is also a determining factor. Classical music, especially contemporary, relies heavily on complex structures and intricate theoretical concepts. On the other hand, there are countless singer-songwriters or EDM producers whose music theory knowledge doesn’t go beyond a few piano chords by name. They do just fine going by gut-instinct.
As to whether their art would benefit from a little more study is not for me to say. While music theory does not hinder creativity, this is every individual’s choice. The danger, in my opinion, is that without some background knowledge of what might be possible and what others have done before us, we end up:
- We anyway end up rediscovering what they did, it just takes a lot longer
- We might keep falling into the same old habits and familiar patterns, creating similar-sounding music over and over again
As you can see, music theory isn’t just for musical scholars. Anyone interested in music will benefit from it. Really, it is a shortcut to tap into the collective knowledge of musicians around the globe and throughout human history.
You don’t need to be an expert to start benefiting from it either. At any level, the knowledge adds an extra dimension to your musical activities. For example, those who join a choir for the community aspect of it, often find that some background in music theory makes the experience a lot more rewarding. It’s akin to a novice baker simply following a recipe or a professional one understanding the science behind the ingredients and baking before they begin.
“Music Theory is a shortcut to the collective knowledge of musicians throughout history.”Matthew Ellul
Can you be a musician without knowing music theory?
The issue of creativity brings us to our final point: what about playing music purely by ear? Can you be a musician without music theory?
You can be a musician without music theory, and there are plenty of very successful musicians that have never been through any formal or systematic training. Some musicians are naturally inclined to go by ear and simply follow their instincts.
However, going by instinct and learning music theory are not opposites. Unless the learning involves rigid rules that don’t allow any flexibility (not the right approach in my opinion), music theory should make one better at playing by ear. What it does is invite the logical and analytical side of the brain to work together with the emotional and instinctive side.
I often tell my composition students that before we can follow our instincts, we must nurture them. Music theory does not replace one’s intuition, it informs it.
“Before you can follow your instincts, you must nurture them. Music theory does not replace one’s intuition, it informs it.”Matthew Ellul
Here’s a crucial point, though:
Even if a seasoned musician doesn’t have any formal music theory training, they still know music “theory” on an instinctual level. An expert that plays by ear is still using the rules and guidelines of musical theory, even if they can’t explain why or how.
It’s like how many of us can speak a perfectly coherent sentence in English without thinking about the ins and outs of verbs, adjectives, tenses, syntax, and punctuation. We go by instinct, nurtured through years of experience. But if we wanted to write better, faster, and impact more people with our words, then why not learn everything we could?
Of course, a website dedicated to music composition and music theory is going to say that music theory still matters. That is somewhat predictable. Yet, I hope I’ve made my case clear:
Even just a little music theory can be hugely beneficial to anyone interested in making music. Start slow if you need to, but start!