Music Theory and Practice – Why Study Music Theory?
Updated: Aug 9, 2021
Learning the Musical Language
Music is many things. It is linguistic; it has the ability to communicate emotions across cultural borders. It is rational; it is a system that is built on ratios, physics mathematics. It is philosophical; raising questions such as "Is the silence between notes as important as the notes themselves?" It is spiritual; it relates humans to the divine. It is technological; and, not only in the 21st-century sense, the piano, the drum, and the flute were all innovations. It is innate; research shows that the human voice was meant to sing. We sang before we spoke. Yes, music is many things and used in many ways in our lives.
Some detractors of music theory say that studying it limits musicians. However, this is false. Simply because we know the rules does not limit us to mindlessly following them. We can not "break" the rules if we do not know them. For example, it is considered poor English to begin a sentence with "and." And, yet, we see writers to do for effect. Or, it may be improper to use slangs terms in formal English, but we use them all the time when we speak with our friends.
Being fluent in music theory is like being fluent in a language; it allows us to better communicate and to express ourselves most fully. In fact, breaking the rules is what makes music interesting. A common criticism of music that is generated by AI is that it is bland. A computer will only skip to a set formula, but a human mind has the ability to take the formula synthesize it and turn it into something new. Now I know not all music students aspire to be composers, songwriters, or producers, yet understanding music theory is crucial to musicians of all-levels and with a wide range of musical goals.
Students who study music theory become FLUENT in the language of music. Learning music theory is like learning the sentence structure in French or how to write in Japanese with kanji. The more fluent a student becomes in a language, the easier it will be for that student to communicate in that language. For example, when learning a long piece with multiple movements (sections), it is easy to become overwhelmed. However, when a student takes each movement of that piece separately and understands the common forms used in larger works, they are able to comprehend what they see as a whole and learn the individual sections more quickly and with more ease. For example, a pianist is learning to play Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 1 in F major and is aware of the structure of standard sonata allegro form, he can better expect and remember the material.
If you've ever seen jazz musicians "sit-in" with one another. You have witnessed music theory skills at work. They have mastered the rules of their craft. They know what chords to expect next in the progression or what rhythmic patterns fit the "groove" of a samba. Moreover, there are a lot of other scenarios where musicians must improvise and put their music theory skills to the test. For example, a guitarist may fill in between songs by creating a seamless transition on-the-fly using her knowledge of music theory.
As skills of music theory and ear training go together. When we train your brain to better comprehend the language and mathematics of music, we are also training our ears to hear those rules. When we hear the same I, IV, V, vi, chord progression in popular music, we are able to quickly identify it and play along by ear. Or when may be able to sing along with a song we are barely familiar with because we have a strong knowledge o voice-leading, meaning we know where the melody will probably resolve.
Studying music theory allows us more choices which improve our ability to make choices. It is an old adage that the more choices we have to make, the better we are at it. Knowing the options available to you in a music setting improves your ability to make those choices. For example, a student is harmonizing a melody and he has a G note at the end of the line and the melody is in the key of E minor. His music theory knowledge tells him which chords that G note fits in with and which it does not. He knows that he is unlimited in his choices and understands which choices work better with the melody and will create the effect he wants to make.
There is a common myth that studying "classical" music will not help you play rock or jazz. however this is simply untrue. Learning the fundamentals of "classical" music are the fundamentals of all genres of music! C