Why should you learn music theory?

So you’ve just dusted off your dad’s old guitar, or maybe sat down in front of the piano in your house that hasn’t been played for over a decade and has now been repurposed as a picture frame shelf. You decide it’s about time you actively pursue your lifelong ambition of learning to play an instrument. You attempt to start learning a few of your favourite songs through consulting the vast and all-knowing entity that is the internet.

You find a kind hearted musician on YouTube showing you exactly where to place your fingers on the fretboard or where which keys to play on the piano. Some time elapses and you’re doing quite well. You’ve even learnt a handful of songs but along the way something has been looming in the back of your head. Pretty much every video you’ve watched so far had people throwing around terms like ‘chords’, ‘scales’, ‘harmony’, ‘tempo’ and so on. You wonder for a split second what on earth they’re on about…… but don’t linger on it too long before you proceed to parrot learn the exact fingers they use to play an assortment of notes in a sea of black and white piano keys. You don’t think it’s important to know any of this stuff because you’re doing fine. You can play a few songs no problem.

Piano. keyboard, music theory

But then, one day, a musician friend of yours asks if you’d like to hangout and jam with them. You start off by playing a few songs that you know and you’re having a blast. Your friend just effortlessly joins in on every tune you pick, and you’re a bit blown away at their ability to just know what to play and how to play it. Then your friend suggests a tune that you don’t know. You say you don’t know that one and would have to learn it first but they say “Oh it’s actually just these four chords, Bb major, G minor7, C minor7, F7”. You’ve lost him. He goes on: “Yeah it’s just like that other song we were playing but it’s just in B-flat major.” You’ve been thrown off the bus, hell you might have never gotten on it. He continues to demonstrate as he talks: “It also has this modulation up a semitone to B major in the last chorus after this cool pentatonic riff and…” you get the idea. You’ve just been harshly exposed to the world of music theory, and its environment is not very hospitable to newcomers.

piano, guitar, jam session

All jokes aside

The scenario I’ve described above is a very specific one. The odds of a beginner finding themselves in a situation like this is probably very unlikely (and if you’re friends with musicians who just like to bombard you with theory even though they know you’re just starting out, then they’re probably not very good friends or mature musicians in the first place). It’s also very unlikely that someone wouldn’t absorb at least a little bit of music theory when learning an instrument through online lessons or working with a teacher. Having said all of this, let’s take at a few reasons why you should learn music theory.


I’ll mention this one first because this directly relates to our introductory story.

Having a good grasp on music theory makes transferring your musical ideas to other musicians much easier and quicker. If you’ve written a song for your band or ensemble, instead of playing everybody’s parts and waiting for them to figure it out by ear, you could just write out their parts and they’ll immediately know what to play. It’s also really handy to make sure everybody’s on the same page before you even start playing. Often musicians just talk through a song saying which key it’s in and what chords are played in the Intro/verse/chorus and so on.

It strengthens and speeds up the process

Of course music is first and foremost an auditory art form, and nothing is more valuable than having a well-developed ear, but that’s a topic for another time. What music theory does however, is it connects your ears and vocabulary of musical ideas with actual terms and constructs that you can explain in a tangible way. Understanding the theory behind your favourite pieces of music can easily equip you to write music of your own that’s inspired by what you love to hear. Even if you’re not in the habit of composing or improvising your own music, being able to theoretically analyse a piece of music makes it significantly easier and quicker to learn and play it.

music theory, music writing, composition

It broadens your horizons

Music theory can allow you to explore many musical genres on a very technical level. You’ll quickly discover that the more you know, the more you’ll want to know! Whether you want to know what makes a pop song so catchy, the blues so badass, or Beethoven so timeless, all of it could be at your fingertips with a solid theoretical background.

So now you might be wondering:

That sounds great, but a bit overwhelming, where do I even start?

Start by finding a reliable source that will systematically guide you through the expanse of music theory. The best thing to do would be to work with a teacher or mentor that can help you work through the building blocks of theory so that you’ll have a good foundation to work from once you start learning more advanced concepts. Like learning an instrument, learning theory is much more than just memorising note names and terminology. A substantial amount of practice must be applied before it becomes easy for you to apply it on a regular basis. This requires discipline and a consistent work ethic, and that’s why having someone to guide and motivate you is the fastest way you’ll start seeing results.

This article really stresses the importance of music theory and how it can benefit your musicianship in a number of ways. But it’s important to know that’s really all it is, beneficial. Music theory is an invaluable tool to have at your disposal when it comes to music making, but it certainly isn’t the be all and end all. You don’t need to know any theory to start making music, and you certainly shouldn’t let the rules and constructs inherent in music theory dictate what you can and cannot play. Follow what inspires you, and use theory as a means to enrich your understanding of it.

Know the rules, then break them.

music theory, piano

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