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Oct 28 / Greg

Why Music Theory?

grand staff public domain imageWhat is the point of music theory, let alone studying it? A lot of instrumental music students don’t like it and most self-taught ‘natural’ musicians don’t want to know about it. It seems that the subject of music theory is irrelevant for many. In music examination syllabi, the study of music theory is presented as an ‘additional requirement’, therefore consigning the subject to a ‘have to’. This immediately puts a great number of students offside.

In reality, if students are being taught by teachers who are thoroughly grounded in their own musical education, they (the student) are actually learning theory right from the outset, though they may not realize it. Basic components of written music, like stave (staff) letter-names, note values and names, time signatures, key signatures; the construction of scales, musical signs and terms and so on, are being assimilated virtually from the commencement of studies.

Part of the problem with the attitude to this subject could be the term ‘music theory’ itself. Anything ending with ‘theory’ tends to bring up impressions of a dry, academic, ‘crusty’ subject: string theory, quantum theory, relativity theory, etc.. All of these are subjects that only a few really bright and interested types can be bothered with, let alone understand.

The subject may be more attractive if it was re-branded to something like ‘elements of music’, ‘music language’, or ‘structure of music’ – some title which doesn’t conjure up impressions like a dusty old professor covered in cobwebs.

For students of Western Classical music, and all of its offshoots (pop, rock, blues, jazz, stage musicals etc.)a basic but solid understanding of some elements of music theory is of great assistance when learning new works. It simply makes learning and memorizing easier and quicker. (Some may protest that blues and jazz are African derivatives. Melodically and to some extent rhythmically, they are, but harmonically, these styles use the same basic elements found in Western Classical music.)

So, what are the ‘elements’ of music? The most obvious are melody, harmony and rhythm. To these, a fourth – counterpoint, could be added, though this is a more specialized discipline. Each of these is a study in itself, but a broad and basic understanding of them is helpful in developing a deeper appreciation of a musical work being studied. The above mentioned knowledge of the staves, note values and names, signs, terms and markings in the score etc., are also some of the elements of music.

I think it is important to note that music, by itself, has no theory, no components; it just is. It is only when we try to analyse it, quantify it and devise a symbolic system to represent it that we end up with ‘theory’.

So, why study it?

It could be argued that the study of music theory will aid in the learning of all music styles. There are some styles like rock and roll, folk and simple pop music which I believe do not require a great depth of theoretical knowledge; they are basically simple and repetitive structures based on few harmonies and with relatively invariable rhythms.

Blues is next in complexity, being more varied than the aforementioned styles. By far the most complex styles are jazz and classical music. It is without doubt that a comprehensive study of the musical elements of these styles is not only of great value in understanding the medium, but essential to the faithful realization of the composers intentions.

Of course, the degree of study of musical elements (as opposed to ‘theory’) depends on the degree of involvement in the practice of music. If someone is learning for fun and leisure, the study of musical elements need not be too involved, but on the other hand, if the study of music on any instrument is undertaken at a high level of attainment, the study of musical elements is absolutely essential.

In conclusion, if you are a serious student of practical music, ‘theory’ is good for you, even though you may not think so. It improves your learning efficiency, your memorization, and overall understanding and appreciation of the work you are studying.

Don’t look to your teacher for inspiration – that can come only from within. However, look to find someone who can make the learning of music theory interesting, so that you can generate your own interest and intrigue with the subject.

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