Maybe you’re taking instrumental or vocal lessons simply because you love music and enjoy making music. In your mind, focusing on learning music basics and technique is what you need to improve as a musician and excel as a performer.
But now, your music coach is introducing music theory, and you’re starting to get bogged down in the details. After all, you’re there to learn how to sing or play an instrument, and you’re wondering how important is music theory to become an excellent singer or instrumentalist.
We believe music theory instruction is vital to becoming the best musician you can be, and we’ll give you 11 reasons why. Learning music theory is an endeavor that can be challenging, but it’s one that will pay off in the end.
Table of Contents
- What Is Music Theory and What Does It Include?
- Why Is Music Theory Important To Learn? 11 Reasons To Make Music Theory a Priority
- Who Should Learn Music Theory?
- When Should You Learn Music Theory?
- Northwest School of Music: Combining Music Lessons and Music Theory Instruction in an Enjoyable and Creative Way
What Is Music Theory and What Does It Include?
Music theory — the words alone can intimidate even the most avid music students, not to mention beginners. When most people think of music theory, they think of vast amounts of complex and unfamiliar music language that should be reserved for professionals.
But music theory has benefits for every musician. Let’s start by defining it so we can approach it with less apprehension.
Though music theory can include some complicated elements, music theory generally includes the most basic components of music.
Known as the language or vocabulary of music, formal music theory includes the essentials, like the notes on the staff and kinds of notes, along with more involved concepts like chords and harmonies.
Music theory also includes:
- Time Signatures
- Key Signatures
- Accidentals (flats, sharps, naturals)
- Chord progressions
- Major and minor key harmonies
- Roman numeral chord analysis
- And more
Can You Learn Music Theory on Your Own?
You can learn basic music theory on your own. There are plenty of music theory books on the market to choose from, as well as a plethora of online resources and videos.
By all means, learn as much music theory as you can on your own.
But if you’re taking music lessons, a music teacher may be able to fill in the gaps and help you go deeper in your understanding.
At Northwest School of Music, we believe the importance of learning music theory is paramount, and we also believe in making music in fun and creative ways. That’s why we blend in music theory training naturally with all of our music classes, whether you’re learning to play the guitar or violin, singing in a choir, or taking individual vocal lessons.
Why Is Music Theory Important To Learn? 11 Reasons To Make Music Theory a Priority
#1: Improves Music Writing and Performance
Having a firm grasp of music theory can give musicians freedom when it comes to creating their own music. Understanding how the musical elements fit together gives them the ability to take those individual pieces apart and put them back together in a different way.
Most musicians, if not all, memorize their pieces — at least on some level — when they perform. We’ve all been to performances and watched with amazement how a piano virtuoso plays a ten to twenty-minute-long concerto entirely from memory. How do they do that?
Apart from hours and hours of practice, a comprehensive knowledge of music theory puts accomplished musicians in a place where they can:
- Recognize patterns
- Understand structure and form
- Internalize harmonies
- Embody counterpoint
- Understand phrase structure
- And more
All of this leads to highly developed performance skills.
#2: Improves Improvisational Skills
Improvisation involves more than just randomly playing additional notes to build on an existing melody. Being able to predict chord progressions, understanding how harmonies can be substituted, and understanding different musical forms are valuable skills when it comes to improvising.
Music theory knowledge forms a foundation that makes those skills possible and is especially beneficial for those who enjoy performing jazz.
#3: Makes You a Literate Musician Who Can Communicate Well Musically
Learning music theory simply makes for better musicians.
Every musician, no matter what skill level, can take advantage of music theory knowledge to:
- Learn to play more than one instrument.
- Improve their skills on their chosen instrument.
- Understand the intricacies and mechanics of a piece.
- Gain an appreciation of all types of music genres.
- Be able to skillfully play with other musicians.
- Communicate well with other musicians.
#4: Helps Foster Creativity and Self-Expression
Inherent in music theory is the idea that music functions in a certain way and with certain rules. For example, a major scale is always the same pattern of seven half and whole steps, and a 4/4 time signature always has four beats to the measure where the quarter note gets one beat.
With those music theory “rules” in place, some may believe that music theory can stifle creativity, but the opposite is actually true.
Musicians who are adept at the rules of music have greater freedom of expression because, with a knowledge of the rules of music theory, they are more able to apply those rules in different ways and in different scenarios.
In the end, a solid grasp of music theory can help musicians form new musical ideas, try new chord progressions and melodies, and stimulate greater creativity.
#5: Saves Time
As mentioned above, music theory lends itself to greater musical literacy, which, in turn, leads to saving time. When you know the names of notes, how they work, how chords are formed, and various chord progressions, you are better equipped to know how your instrument functions.
For example, if you’re playing in a band, and the leader asks you to add a C to your Dm chord, or you’re singing in a choir, and the director asks the second sopranos to sing the harmony with the altos, you’ll quickly and easily know exactly what to do. You won’t require additional instruction, which saves time and benefits everyone.
#6: Provides a Solid Musical Foundation
Understanding music theory gives any musician a broad overview and foundation of music and how it works.
- Students will understand what many of the music symbols mean and how they are to be used — like the natural symbol (♮), which cancels out a previous flat (♭) or sharp (♯) in a key signature.
- Understanding scales and intervals helps musicians know why certain notes are placed in a particular order.
- When singing in a choir, you’ll know how your part enhances an overall piece and will have the tools to better blend your voice as a part of the entire group.
#7: Gives the Ability to Critically Listen
Listening to music may be one of the most enjoyable experiences we participate in, for some of us, on a daily basis. Whether we’re involved in music as a bystander or as a participant, listening critically is a useful skill.
Not only does it help music students to hear errors or deviations in others’ playing or singing, but having a solid music theory understanding helps students be able to appropriately discuss what they hear and speak intelligently about it.
Additionally, music theory knowledge helps maximize learning skills. Every music student may not need to understand what Sonata Form is or recognize the famous composers of the Classical Period, but possessing that knowledge makes us better musicians with an ear to hear, perform, and appreciate many styles of music.
#8: Improves Sight Reading
Sight-reading is valuable in a variety of contexts, like:
- Singing in a choir
- Picking up a new piece of music in a violin lesson; or
- Singing an unfamiliar hymn in church
Sight-reading involves the ability to hear what you see. With music theory knowledge, you can anticipate chord progressions, be familiar with differing intervals, and accurately gauge rhythms.
#9: Sharpens Critical Reasoning
Critical reasoning? Really? Can music theory help with that?
Yes, it can.
Playing an instrument or singing involves taking in loads of information that needs to be processed all at once, which, in turn, may sharpen the brain’s processes.
Studies show that music training can “change both the structure of the brain’s white matter. . . and gray matter. . . and It boosts engagement of brain networks that are responsible for decision making and the ability to focus attention and inhibit impulses.”
In fact, some believe learning music theory is like learning another language because both activities involve using the same areas of the brain.
#10: Helps Master Pieces More Quickly
Knowing music theory can speed up the learning process and help students arrive at mastery more quickly.
Just like understanding the mechanics of sewing can help you fashion a piece of clothing efficiently, having music theory knowledge gives you the foundational building blocks to make music learning more efficient and effective.
For example, a piano student who is working on memorizing a sonata may benefit from an understanding of Sonata Form.
Since the first movement of a sonata follows the structure of exposition, development, and recapitulation, the student will save time by knowing that the recapitulation repeats the exposition, with some variations. Seeing those similarities may reduce the time it takes to learn the piece.
#11: Lets You Enjoy Music More
Having a solid music theory foundation gives us the ability to appreciate and enjoy music more.
For example, understanding counterpoint in music brings awe and enjoyment when you see a skillful pianist effortlessly play two opposing rhythmic or melodic lines at the same time. Or when you’ve learned that a Picardy third is the term that refers to a piece of music in a minor key that ends in a major chord (or vice versa), you’ll have a greater appreciation when you hear it in pieces like Chopin’s “Nocturne in F minor”, op. 55 no. 1.
Just like dissecting a poem gives you a deeper meaning of the message, understanding the details of music theory can give a greater appreciation of a piece of music and how it was masterfully composed or performed.
Who Should Learn Music Theory?
Ideally, everyone can benefit from music theory, so there’s an argument to be made for the benefits of music theory for everyone.
For younger students or beginners, music theory can begin on a basic level, but as students progress, or if they want to become professional musicians, music theory can be more in-depth — and for professional musicians, it may be more crucial to their success.
No matter what instrument you play — the violin, trumpet, guitar, or drums — or whether you are a vocalist, the importance of learning music theory goes without saying. The benefits abound!
When Should You Learn Music Theory?
You can begin learning music theory at any time. There really is no “perfect” age to start learning music theory — it may depend on age and goals of the student.
A music teacher or coach is in a great position to help guide music theory learning. If you’re not sure when or how to start learning music theory, ask your instructor.
Northwest School of Music: Combining Music Lessons and Music Theory Instruction in an Enjoyable and Creative Way
The instructors at Northwest School of Music possess not only the experience and knowledge to instruct students in the technical aspects of learning an instrument, but we also have the understanding to give our students a music theory education that is appropriate for their age and level of experience.
Our aim is to teach all our lessons — including instruction in music theory — in a fun and enjoyable way.
If you’ve avoided music theory instruction because you thought it was boring drudgery, we invite you to experience music instruction at Northwest School of Music.
With a variety of music lessons offered in violin, viola, cello, guitar, clarinet, trombone, voice, and more, making music couldn’t be more attainable and enjoyable.
Come discover the Northwest School of Music difference, and get a free lesson when you register.