Why Learn Music Theory?

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Music Theory… that dreaded subject!

Music Theory seems to divide opinion more than any other subject in music. “It will ruin my creativity!” “I don’t like rules! It’s too complicated!” “Unless you know music theory you can’t be a real musician!”, etc.

To a certain extent I agree with the above. I don’t like rules, but rules are there to be broken. If you don’t know the rules you don’t even know you’re breaking them. It’s much more fun when you know you’re being subversive!

“It will ruin my creativity!” Well, music theory actually serves various purposes. One of the most important is that it gives us a set of terms that allows us to write things down (I forget loads!) and also allows us to communicate effectively with other musicians so we all know what we are taking about. After all, saying ‘play a G chord’ is music theory!

Music theory is changing all the time as we adapt to new forms of music that break the previous set of rules, theory in the 16th Century would be very different compared to today! It is the cumulative effort of lots of people analyzing music and trying to work out what ‘sounds’ good and why (rather than having to do it yourself!!).

We can take advantage of the work that has already been done to help us work out what to do or play next, what will sound right. You could just keep experimenting, looking for the next chord that sounds right, but usually that chord turns out to be the one that music theory says would sound right anyway! So music theory saves time and hassle, double win!

“It’s too complicated!” Yes, I agree that the way it is usually taught or written about is over the top. Music theory actually is relatively straightforward when you understand the concepts. There are some terms that seem particularly archaic but having a knowledge of them will help you understand some of the music books you may come across in your travels.

On the flip side of all of this are the music theorists who believe that unless you know music theory, you aren’t a real musician. This is also a misnomer. There have been many talented musicians over the years who have only played by ‘feel’. I suppose the unfortunate thing is we aren’t all blessed with this innate ability, although it can be learned through a lot of trial and error.

Some fundamentals in music theory can help anyone, as it forms a common language for us all. But, if someone doesn’t know the ‘correct’ terms, it is up to each of us to find another way of communicating what we mean.

Now, let the arguments begin!! 😉




-Duncan Richardson - MU Columnist


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