Learning music theory will make you a more versatile musician, vocalist and songwriter. Understanding music theory is an important foundation, as it will deepen your ability to understand the structure of music. However, there are plenty of musicians who have had successful careers with no (or limited) knowledge of music theory.
Music theory can be complex and complicated, and you don’t necessarily have to understand it in order to make beautiful, exciting music.
Many people are put off learning music theory as they believe it is too hard. Learning anything for the first time can be difficult, but it will become easier over time as you keep practicing. The process of learning music theory can be made easier if you have lessons with a mentor or teacher who can make the concepts clear and digestible.
Benefits of music theory
There are many benefits to understanding music theory, from being able to be a more versatile performer to saving money on recording sessions to understanding how to communicate with fellow musicians.
There are many phenomenal musicians who don’t understand their craft in all its technical and theoretical detail. There is no one way to become a great guitarist, pianist or vocalist. It comes down to the hours of graft, dedication and passion. However, the more you understand what you are doing, the easier it will be to develop your skills and talent.
In the real world, musicians are always competing with others, whether it’s in music competitions, session work or auditions. Learning how to read music and having an extensive knowledge of your industry can accelerate your career and make you stand out from the rest.
Why do I need to know musical theory?
Music theory is the study of the concepts and rules that enable you how to express yourself with music. It’s a set of rules and guidelines that help musicians understand the way sounds are made. Although a key part of music theory is to build chords, learn signatures and create scales, it’s much more about understanding how to express ideas and emotions with sounds.
The more you know about music theory, the more you can accurately express your specific ideas, emotions and influences. If you’ve found yourself getting into a creative block, learning the processes and patterns that form sounds and rhythms can help inspire your work. Learning why certain notes make listeners feel a certain way can help you understand what connects with audiences.
Having a theoretical knowledge of music means that you will be able to produce more creative, innovative and complex work. Once you know the fundamentals, you will be able to spot the weaknesses in your own music and understand what you need to do resolve the issues.
How much you want to learn depends on your musical path. If you are a gigging musician or in a band that regularly plays gigs and your method is to write things and memorise them, you don’t need to learn how to read music. There is no need for you to develop outside your band’s own musical method, especially if you are someone who memorises music and melodies easily.
Think about the skills you want to foster for the future. Where do you want to be musically 10 years down the line? Will learning musical theory help land that role you want, help you make a living playing music or allow you to follow in the footsteps of your heroes?
You may remember reading that many iconic musicians can’t read music but they may still understand harmonies or have an almost supernaturally perfect memory for music. If you’re passionate about music, your instrument and your career why would you not want to learn everything about it?
What do you learn in music theory?
Musical theory is often described as the grammar of music. It examines the elements that form a piece of music, including chord progressions, key signatures and timing.
You generally start by learning the musical alphabet, sounds which are represented by a letters called notes. There are only 7 notes in this musical alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F and G.
Although there are only 7 representative letters there are 12 notes in total. The additional notes that fall between those letters are either flat or sharp notes. These notes are either a half-step lower or a half-step higher.
These notes are like building blocks that create scales. There are different types of scales but most are created by arranging steps and half-steps in a certain pattern. Scales act as a framework for determining which notes are used in melodies and chords. Understanding the scales and how they are constructed is a solid foundation to understanding why notes are used and why they work in a piece of music.
Next is chords. Chords are what give songs their moods and feelings. Then there are intervals, these are the foundations of both melody and harmony in music. Intervals are the distance from one note to another. All harmonies or melodies are considered a sequence or layering of intervals.
These might all sound scary to a beginner but once you’ve gotten the hang of all the terminology and theory, you’ll find it second nature. It has the potential to transform the way you understand and play instruments, make music and write songs.
Benefits of learning music theory for guitarists
Learning how to read sheet music will allow guitarists to familiarise themselves with the foundations of chords and how tablature looks on a score. Understanding how this works will allow you to pick up chords quicker in the future. Understanding progressions will make reharmonizing simpler, allowing musicians to cover songs in different styles and be more versatile in their arrangements.
Understanding how chords are put together is more than just a hack to picking up chords quicker. The relationship between tones is hugely significant as a musician, there’s no way to better get a grasp of this than learning scales and modes.
A knowledge of individual notes and which strings can play them will allow guitarists to learn and write riffs in different tunings. Guitarists will be able to improvise better if they know the scales that can be played over every chord. Scales might be the most important piece of music theory to learn because chord progressions, harmonies and melodies are based on scales.
Benefits of learning music theory for drummers
Drummers rarely play in isolation, their place in the band is, generally, to complement the melody and harmony. The drummer needs to understand song form and structure as much as they need to understand rhythm.
To be a good drummer, you need to be able to follow chords, key changes, and melodies. To have a good sense of rhythm, it would benefit a drummer to understand time signatures and chord structures.
Understanding music theory will enable a drummer to properly communicate with other musicians and take their own rhythmic direction within the song.
Benefits of learning music theory for pianists
Learning piano is a focused and easy way to understand music theory. A popular way to simplify music theory is to visualise the black and white keys on a piano or keyboard. Learning how to build and understand scale, chords and intervals is much easier to do on a piano than on drums or guitar.
If a pianist knows how to play their first scale or chord, they have a basic understanding of music theory.
Benefits of learning music theory for songwriters
Knowing how the construction of music works allows songwriters to arrange their songs. Having a sound knowledge of theory allows songwriters to transcribe by ear, identify chords and key changes without needing the sheet music.
Even if you have a good ear for music, learning music theory will help improve it even more. The quicker and easier it for you to identify what you hear, the quicker and easier it will be for you to be inspired by, or replicate the sound within your own music.
If you are struggling to communicate your musical ideas with producers, band mates or fellow musicians learning musical theory can simplify expressing your ideas with others. Learning music theory will give you a wider range of music-based vocabulary, allowing you to identify and label techniques, styles and comparisons. Being able to clearly communicate with others will shorten the time it takes to record and write, especially beneficial when hiring out expensive recording studios.
Benefits of learning music theory for vocalists
Understanding music theory can make you a more versatile vocalist. Learning simple pop songs may not require musical theory but if you want to tackle jazz, classical or soul, it may require some knowledge of how music works.
Some vocal auditions, competitions and scholarships are partly based on a music theory exam or assessment. If you intend to go to a music school or study a music related subject at university, it would be wise to learn the basics of music theory. It will open up opportunities for you, not just as a vocalist, but also as a student and competitor.
When in a recording studio, which will often charge you by the hour, you and your band can save time if they understand music theory, as it will make communication more efficient between yourself and the producer. Booking out studio space can be expensive, it’s a place where you want to make sure that you and your band or the studio musicians you are working with, are on the same page.
Benefits of learning music theory for performers
A deep understanding of how music works will make it easier for a performer to memorize music. Performers across all genres are required to perform music from memory, with many of them relying heavily on motor or muscle memory.
However, this can be an unreliable form of musical memory. It’s not uncommon to see a performer miss a note and then freeze on stage. Because the performer has remembered the performance in an order, one mistake can derail that performance. Understanding harmonies will allow performers to store larger sections of music and notes, making on stage slip ups more minimal.
Do you need to understand music theory in order to make music?
Music theory provides an insight into why certain music sounds good and gives names to sounds and techniques that you’re probably already familiar with, explaining how they are constructed. The best comparison for music theory is looking at it like a language. Kids will only learn about verbs and nouns after they have developed basic language skills. Grammar is taught so children can gain a greater understanding of the language.
In the same way, you won’t necessarily learn how to be a great artist by learning theory alone. However, learning music theory will improve your understanding of concepts that you’re already familiar with. It will answer questions such as: Why do these chords sounds so good together? Why does that melody sound so dark? Why does this rhythm make people want to dance?
Famous musicians who never learnt music theory
Music is so much more than notes on paper. Some of the greatest musicians of our time from Jimi Hendrix to famed composer Danny Elfman and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello never learned how to read or write music.
Miles Davis, one of the most innovative and celebrated jazz musicians of our time, was enrolled in the prestigious performing arts school Juilliard. He dropped out because he felt that the formal music theory was limiting his creativity. It’s hard to deny he made the right choice, as he went on to make some of the most genre-expanding records in music history.
Foo Fighters frontman, Dave Grohl, admits he never learnt how to play guitar and still doesn’t know how to play the chords to some of the band’s famous songs, including ‘Everlong’. “I only know what happens when I put my fingers there. But that riff is a good example of how I look at the guitar.”
Well-respected lead guitarist of Guns N’ Roses, Slash, can’t read music and plays by ear. “I try to make what I want to hear, sometimes in my head, come out of my hands and into my guitar. When I write music, I usually write on my own at least to start,” he told Snakepit Magazine.
So in conclusion, learn as much music theory as you feel relevant to the music you make and the career you want to have. There are many benefits, no matter what your instrument of choice is but it will never be as important as writing and making music that connects with you and the audience.
So how much music theory do you know? Let us know in the comments below!