I’ve been a university Professor of Music for over 10 years now, and my students always groan about basic music theory. “Why do I need theory?” they ask. “I just want to sing / play guitar / write songs.” They think theory is the opposite of practice, and since practice makes perfect, they think, “I’ll just get good at doing what I do.”
In music, this couldn’t be further from the truth. There are five reasons why:
1. If you’re a musician, basic music theory is the literacy of your craft.
Suppose you went up to someone and told them you’re an actor and told them how much you love everything about acting. Shakespeare and modern, stage and screen, the whole nine yards. And then when they asked “How do you learn your lines?” imagine that you replied, “Oh, I’m illiterate. I just listen to someone else do it over and over again until I’ve learned it and then I can do it.” Ridiculous, right?
Yet in music, we hear stories all the time about amazingly gifted musicians who can’t read a lick of what they create. In truth, those people are very limited in what they can do, and in almost all cases, as good as they are, they could be—should be—better, and they’re cheating themselves and their music by not doing the work necessary to be as great as they can be. If you want to be the best performer, creator, or even producer of music that you can be, you need at least a basic mastery of musical concepts.
2. In music, unlike other fields, there is no difference between theory and practice.
Theory underlies everything you’re doing. You’re playing major, minor, and diminished chords, using the 7 letter names and 12 notes, you’re singing the melodies that weave through those harmonies, you’re playing rhythms that align themselves into 2 or 3 or 4 beats per measure and divide themselves into sub-beats. If you’re involved in music—even if it’s just playing songs into GarageBand—you’re doing all these things.
Fundamentals, Basic Music Theory —call it what you will, it’s the basis of musical understanding. In my program, Musivu, I call it Basic Concepts of Music because to me that’s the most accurate term.
Whether you’re a singer or an instrumentalist, you simply cannot function well without understanding what makes up a major chord, or a minor scale, or how the melody you’re singing fits in with the chords the guitar and piano are playing. If you’re an aspiring sound recorder and producer, how can you do your job without understanding how a diminished chord should sound and whether a chord is out of tune?
3. Learning basic music theory is the most efficient way to spend your practice time.
Like an actor who can’t read, a musician—however talented—who doesn’t understand the concepts of music simply dooms himself or herself to a lower level of musicianship for a lifetime. I’ve heard young bands practice songs forever in practice rooms and garage bands trying to perfect one or two songs, when in fact, if they would really work to understand musical concepts, every hour they spent would pay off times ten. The power to read and write music would let them learn 10 songs in the time it once took to learn a single one.
Even if you just record all your own tracks in GarageBand, you may be like one of the dozens of students I’ve had who come to me and say “I can’t get the tracks to line up right” or “This part just sounds wrong and I can’t fix it.” Even GarageBand makes things harder when you don’t understand the keyboard layout of the tracks or how to align your tracks into the proper time signature. Those problems don’t get fixed by reading the manual for the software. They only get fixed by understanding musical concepts.
4. Music Theory and Ear Training are wrongly separated from one another, leaving musicians with incomplete knowledge.
One of the reasons that “theory” gets a bad name is that often, it is not connected with Ear Training, as it should and MUST be. It’s easy to have the illusion that whatever melodies or harmonies are written out don’t matter since we as musicians are just going to “use our ears” anyway. Nonsense. It does you little good to know what a major chord or harmonic minor scale look like if you don’t know what one sounds like. Understanding how notes would sound, how they would look on the piano keyboard, and how they would be written down are the three legs on which musical understanding rests.
I’ve responded by creating a revolutionary Ear Training course for Musivu that intertwines with the Basic Concepts course. As you learn what a minor chord is on paper, you also learn what it sounds like. This knowledge makes you a better performer and a better creator, no matter what your instrument or genre.
5. Musicians like you are (wrongly) scared away from training that makes them better.
There’s no reason to be intimidated by any of these things. Developing these skills is fun, and it’s always rewarding when you witness your own understanding about the music you love grow and progress. Even if you can only commit 15 minutes a few times per week, you’ll see your ability and understanding of music grow in ways that are so satisfying you’ll become hooked. You’ll want more knowledge and more ability, and if you’ve never dedicated yourself to music in this way before, your skills will quickly be better than you can even imagine right now.
Every hour you spend building your knowledge will come back in 10 hours you’ve saved by knowing how to read and write music. You’ll produce better musical work than you ever could otherwise. Only by mastering Basic Concepts and Ear Training can you become the musician you’ve always wanted to be.
Dr. Kris Maloy has written and produced popular music, arranged for jazz orchestras and small ensembles, and performed extensively on two instruments. His Carnegie Hall debut as a composer was in 2011. He holds a Doctorate in Musical Arts from The University of Texas at Austin and currently teaches at several institutions in the Oklahoma City area. He is currently at work on Musivu, a comprehensive university-level music education hosted at Udemy.