Why Music Theory?

Posted by Laurie Russell, Executive Director
Music students and families often ask, "What is music theory?" Or perhaps they wonder, "I already take private lessons, so why is my teacher recommending that I take a theory class?" To lend some insight, I thought I'd share my thoughts about the importance of music theory for music students at any age or level.

In general, music theory is a lot like the mechanical systems that operate in our homes. Behind the walls, there are pipes and wires that provide electricity, water, and heat or air conditioning. Electricians, plumbers, and HVAC technicians use their tools and follow rules or schematics to make those systems work well together. Composers and musicians also have theoretical "tools." In a musical composition or song, there are certain rules about how you build a musical piece so that all the notes work together to sound great.

So why should we take time to study music theory?
People are curious by nature. When we learn more about music theory, we pull back the curtain on a piece of music so that we can know it more deeply. This allows us to talk about music with our family and friends with new understanding and become better-educated listeners of music.

Perhaps you want to be a more independent and empowered musician...
Sometimes, music can be intimidating. There are note names to learn, key signatures to decipher, chords to understand, rhythms to figure out, and more. It can be challenging to figure it all out while also learning to sing a new song or play a new piece on our instruments. Having a better understanding about these tools can help take away some of this intimidation. With a better understanding of music theory, we break down the musical barriers to more easily learn or listen to new music. And, we all know that when something is a bit easier to understand, it becomes more enjoyable and fun.

Maybe your child is learning an instrument and you wish you could help them more...
This is a common sentiment that I hear from many parents and grandparents. Even if you never studied music as a kid, there are ways to help your young music student. One of the most important ways is to encourage them to set aside time in their daily schedules to practice. However, another practical way is to learn more about those musical tools. It's never too late for us as adults to understand the nuts and bolts about music. Then you will be able to answer those questions about note names, rhythm symbols, and key signatures. Moreover, you get the added benefit of being more informed when you listen to music on your own.

Isn't my teacher giving me some music theory in my private music lesson?
Of course they are. However, let's be realistic. In a 30, 45 or 60-minute lesson, there's a lot to cover—warm-ups, technique exercises, review repertoire, new repertoire, musicianship skills, and more. If we supplement those lessons with a bit of music theory, the student and the teacher will have more time in the private lesson to immerse themselves in the actual mechanics of singing or playing the instrument. The benefits will pay off immensely.

The next time you flip on the light switch at your house, think about all the wiring behind the walls, which makes your light fixture work. Then, the next time you listen to a song, play your instrument or sing, think how all those notes work together to make it sound great. That's music theory!

Looking for ways to learn more about music theory? Ask your music teacher for suggestions, check out classes at your local community music school (see our WCMS theory classes here), or try an online music theory course.