Article Written by Guest Author – Crystal Casey
What is Music Theory?
Music theory is the study of how music works in practice. It’s the math, science, and language behind the creation and performance of music. Basic music theory includes melody, harmony, rhythm, scales, key signatures, phrasing, concepts like consonance and dissonance, dynamics and other expressive elements, and the rudiments needed to understand music notation such as types of notes, music staffs, and time signatures. More complex aspects of music theory include orchestration, composition, modality, counterpoint, the acoustics of pitch systems, ornamentation, improvisation, electronic sound production, and even the physics of music.
Does Music Theory Apply to All Music Genres?
All genres of music can be analyzed using music theory, and each genre may incorporate different concepts in different ways. Classical, musical theater, and radio pop music typically consist of relatively simple Major/Minor scales and harmony with easier, danceable rhythms, making these genres a great starting point for music theory learners. More experimental forms of music like post-modern, jazz, avant-garde, progressive rock, and metal regularly use unique modes and scales (think Phrygian, Byzantine, Pentatonic, and Blues) with complex rhythms and shifting time signatures. The bottom line is, no matter how simple or complex a musical composition may be, it can be theoretically analyzed.
What’s the Difference Between Music Theory and Music Notation?
Music notation is considered a preparatory aspect of music theory. In fact, almost all music theory workbooks begin by teaching the basics of reading sheet music from types of notes and rests, to clefs and staffs, to rhythm-reading. But music notation in and of itself is not synonymous with music theory.
Is Reading Sheet Music Part of Music Theory?
One can read music without understanding anything about the theory behind what they’re reading, and most students actually begin their music studies this way. Young students in particular are often taught to read music first and then the “why and how” of it all later. This is simply because concepts like tonality, modality, and harmony are higher level and better understood once the student has matured and learned the basics first. In a way, it’s the difference between reading a language and understanding a language. One can be taught to read Latin quite easily by sounding it out, but becoming fluent is a whole other ballgame.
What is the Point of Learning Music Theory?
It is not uncommon for students of music to ask why they should learn theory. After all, if they can play by ear or even if they can read notation, do they need to know the theory behind it all? It’s true that one does not need to understand music theory in order to create or enjoy music, but it certainly makes it easier and more rewarding. Here are just a few reasons to learn music theory:
- Understanding music theory is understanding music. Enjoying and playing music does not equal understanding it. If you want to know how music really works, studying theory is the way.
- Accurate performance. Knowledge of music theory will allow you to perform pieces with exceptional accuracy. If you know all the ins-and-outs of music-reading along with the theoretical style of the composers and genres you’re studying, you will interpret the music with ease and precision.
- Improvise freely. Mastering music theory is critical to improvisation. Knowing how chords move and voice lead, understanding the different modes and their relationships to each other, fluency in counterpoint and harmony and more are practically instinctual in the musician who improvises.
- Compose and transcribe your own music. Music theory provides the vocabulary a musician needs to compose and notate their own music with greater ease and authority.
Can Music Theory Help With Private Music Lessons?
Learning music theory is an integral part of music lessons. Most students start their lessons by picking up an instrument and using it to learn to read music or simply play the songs they love. Music-reading and instrument-playing go hand-in-hand. As the student’s knowledge of both the instrument and music notation grows, the theory is covered in more depth. Having a grasp of even basic music theory concepts make playing and reading music easier for the student as they can understand the “rules” that theory lays out and know when and how those rules get broken. Theoretical knowledge also helps students to see and predict patterns in music that they would otherwise be oblivious to. All of this makes for a better student and a better musician.
Reading music helps students to learn songs more quickly without the need to memorize every single phrase or song they learn. How many songs can a person memorize in a lifetime versus how many songs can they read in a lifetime? The value in knowing how to read music is that the depth and breadth of what you can learn is vastly expanded. You’re not limited by your memory if you can read. You’re also not limited by your ear, and for the visual learner, this is an added bonus. Believe it or not, not everyone who successfully studies music has an impeccable ear. Reading music and understanding theory is a way to know you’re playing correctly without relying solely on the ear.
Is Sheet Music Reading the Same for All Instruments?
Sheet music reading is very similar for all instruments. Similar, because there are different clefs on the staff. Most instruments use Treble or Bass clef (or both in the case of piano,) but some use the Alto and Tenor clef. Nevertheless, all other concepts of notation and theory are mostly the same. Student and hobby guitarists often use a shortcut for reading called Guitar Tablature (Tab), although this is not considered sheet music in its true form.
Your music lessons teacher will help you learn to read music and introduce you to music theory. Theoretical principles will be incorporated into music lessons starting from day one. It’s a study and practice that builds on itself and increases in difficulty and scope as a student gains comprehension. While you can learn an instrument without learning music theory or learning to read sheet music, it will certainly help and is a beneficial tool for mastering your instrument. The most helpful tool for learning music is private music lessons. Forbes Music and all their experienced private music teachers can customize their lessons for your unique needs and incorporate aspects of music theory to help you improve.