Music theory is the study of the structure of constructed music. Music theorists look for patterns and structures in composers' works across or within genres, styles, or historical periods. Music theory distills and analyzes the fundamental parameters or elements of music—rhythm, harmony (harmonic function), melody, structure, form, and texture. Broadly, music theory may include any statement, belief, or conception of or about music. Music may also be understood from the viewpoint of acoustics, human physiology, and psychology.
What Is Music Theory?
Understanding music theory means knowing the language of music. The main thing to know about music theory is that it is simply a way to explain the music we hear. Music had existed for thousands of years before theory came along to explain what people were trying to accomplish innately by pounding on their drums. Don’t ever think that you can’t be a good musician just because you’ve never taken a theory class. In fact, if you are a good musician, you already know a lot of theory. You just may not know the words or scientific formulas for what you’re doing.
The concepts and rules that make up music theory are very much like the grammatical rules that govern written language. Being able to transcribe music makes it possible for other musicians to read and play compositions exactly as the composer intended. Learning to read music is almost exactly like learning a new language, to the point where a fluent person can “hear” a musical “conversation” when reading a piece of sheet music.
There are plenty of intuitive, self-taught musicians out there who have never learned to read or write music and find the whole idea of learning music theory tedious and unnecessary. However, just like the educational leaps that can come with learning to read and write, music theory can help musicians learn new techniques, perform unfamiliar styles of music, and develop the confidence to try new things.
What is important to remember, though, is that music theory is to composers what grammar is to poets. Music theory can tell you what musicians and composers have done in the past and why it works, but it doesn't dictate what you have to do. Just as poets aren't limited to the strict rules of grammar, musicians, too, have the poetic license to ignore certain "rules" of music theory in order to create the piece they want to create.
However, the inescapable fact is this: you get out of music what you put into it. If you want to be able to play classical music, you must be able to keep a steady beat, and understanding how the harmonies fit together can make it much easier to play because you can see what's coming before you even get there. If you want to be a rock musician, then knowing the notes you need to play in a given key is especially important. Learning to play and understand music takes a lot of personal discipline, but in the end, it's worth all the hard work.
What is Music Theory?
Sometimes when I tell people what I teach, they look at me slightly blankly and then ask (if they are brave!) “but what IS music theory?”
Music theory is the subject which examines how musical pieces are built. Nobody knows when human beings began making music – but it was probably tens of thousands of years ago. As soon as people invented a method of writing down the music they were making (a system called musical notation), just a few hundred years ago, other people have been picking apart those compositions, to see exactly how they were built. Back in the day they didn’t ask “what is music theory?”; they were probably asking “how come this piece sounds so great?!” or “what is it about this piece of music which makes it so memorable?” or even “why does this piece sound rubbish?!”
I have often heard people with a very negative view about learning music theory. Lots of people say things like “if you learn music theory you’ll stop being creative” or “music isn’t about rules it’s about emotion” or “music theory is difficult/boring/pointless”. I think these people are missing the point. When we study music theory we are not making a list of rules and telling musicians to abide by them. Music theory is descriptive not prescriptive, which is just a posh way of saying:
- music theory describes how people create music (it’s descriptive)
- music theory doesn’t tell you how you have to write your own music (it’s not prescriptive).
So who and what is music theory for?
Knowing about music theory is useful for three types of musician – the composer, the performer and the listener. The chances are you fall into at least one of these categories if you are reading this article. (Some would argue that a listener is not a kind of musician, I would disagree but I’ll defend my view in another post!) Let’s begin by asking what is music theory for the listener…
What is Music Theory for The Listener?
There are two types of listening – active and the passive. A lot of the time we listen passively – we put music on and then do something else (hoover, play computer games, read and so on). In those circumstances we are not really listening, we are just aware that there is music in the background. But when we listen actively, we are giving the music our full attention.
The more you know about music theory, the more you will appreciate the music you are actively listening to. That is not to say that you can’t enjoy music if you don’t know music theory, of course. But when you are able to identify certain elements of the music, you appreciate it more. What sort of elements am I talking about? It’s almost an infinite list:
- At the basic level, you would be able to identify what instrument(s) was playing, whether the music was fast or slow, major or minor.
- At an intermediate level, you would be able to detect a probable time signature (how many beats in the bar), whether the music changes key or not, whether certain snatches of melody or rhythm are reused in the piece or possibly what some of the underlying harmonies (chords) are.
- At an advanced level you’d be able to do all that plus you’d be able to identify some chord progressions with fancy names (Italian 6th?), name a likely composer based on the instruments , the harmonies and the rhythms used, and compare and contrast the piece to others from similar or different time periods.
Why would you want to do that? Well, the most fundamental reason really is that it’s enjoyable! Most people like knowing about stuff – whether it is about the rules of football, how to get to level 387 of World of Warcraft or how to speak Swahili. Learning about things makes you feel clever, and there’s nothing wrong with that! It’s also immensely satisfying to be able to say to yourself “I like this piece of music because XYZ” rather than to admit you like something but you don’t know why.
What is Music Theory for The Performer?
For the performer, a sound knowledge of music theory is essential. If you perform but don’t compose, you must be performing music written by others. To do this, you need to be able to read and interpret what they have written down.
For classical musicians, this means understanding musical notation in depth, being able to interpret the foreign words and strange symbols on the musical page, and also having an appreciation of the styles of music written through the ages so that the black dots can be transformed into beautiful sound.
Knowing what the theory behind the music is also helps when it comes to memorizing music. If you can remember that bars 17-32 are the same as bars 1-16 but in the dominant key, you will be able to remember how to play them with a lot less effort than learning them from scratch. If you look at bar 67 and instantly recognise the scale of Db major starting on the supertonic, you will be able to play it without thinking about it. Knowing about music theory helps to divide the music up into workable sections.
Knowing about music theory with a historical context will make your performances more authentic. Knowing about the music theory of the 19th century doesn’t mean you have to perform everything authentically though, of course – but you would at least have the choice and would be able to make an informed comment about how other people interpret the same music.
For the non-classical performer, it’s just as useful to know what music theory is all about. Even if all you do is read chords from sheet music, if you know how those chords work in the whole scheme of things, you will become a more flexible musician. If you get yourself a new singer in the band who needs everything transposed down a minor third to fit his voice, you’ll be able to do it without a problem.
What is Music Theory for the Composer?
Knowing about music theory for the composer is like having a super-deluxe tool box for the builder. If you don’t know much about music theory you can still compose, and you can even make a good job of it. But imagine if you knew some secret techniques like how to invert a chord to change its flavour, or how to twist a melody out for an extra two bars to increase the tension, or how to change the time signature in the middle of a piece to surprise the listener and create a totally unique rhythm… What is music theory? It’s power. It’s like having a magic wand. You don’t have to use the wand, but when you’re in the mood you can wave it and maybe produce something sensational.
What is Music Theory? Music Theory is Knowing About…
- Instruments: their names, their range, their colour of sound, their history…
- Types of Music: from the Jig to the Symphony, the Rhapsody to the Mass…
- Musical Form: How pieces are organised whether it be Verse-Chorus-Verse or Exposition-Development-Recapitulation…
- Tonality: Major, minor or something in between; scales, arpeggios and intervals between notes…
- Harmony: How chords work to accompany a tune, why certain chords sound great when placed next to each other, why Mozart used different chords to Fats Domino…
- Counterpoint: How several melodies can be woven together simultaneously to produce coherent music…
- Rhythm: time signatures, note values, syncopation, what works for dancing, what doesn’t…
- Notation: how we write our music down today, how they used to do it in the past, which bits are more open to interpretation…
- Acoustics: how sound is produced, why choirs sound awesome in churches but not in the open air…
And you should always remember, that Music came first, then theory!
Why study music theory?
Contrary to what some people may say learning music theory does not reduce your ability to enjoy music. In fact you may enjoy music even more after you learn some theory because the more you know about how music works the more you will be able to do as a musician.
There are many reasons to study music theory but the top reasons are:
- You will be a better performer. - If you don't know much music theory and you are playing some music and you encounter a passage that has the notes C, E, and G, you would have to mentally process those three notes separately, and this will slow down your ability to perform. If a musician who knows music theory plays the same passage they would instantly recognize that the notes C, E, and G make up a C Major chord and they would play those notes more easily because it took less mental effort to understand the music. Music theory makes learning, practicing and performing much easier.
- You will have more options as a musician. - All musical activities will be much easier. Performing, composing, improvising, arranging, teaching music, or getting a music degree will be much easier if you know music theory.
How to study music theory
- If you have you learned all of the above then you will have a firm grasp of music theory.
Polychords are chords constructed from two or more separate chords. Composers and improvisers use polychords as a resource for rich and complex sounds in their music. Polychords frequently occur in jazz and modern classical music.
Examples of Polychords:
C Major/E-flat Major:
D Major/B-flat minor:
C Augmented/G7 Augmented:
C Major/F-sharp Major Polychord - "Petrushka Chord":
This chord was used by composer Igor Stravinsky in his ballet Petrushka.
The chords every piano and keyboard player should know are the basic Major, minor, Augmented, and diminished chords, and seventh chords. These are the most common chords and are relatively easy to play.
These chords are shown with the root note C. Other root notes are possible bytransposing these chords. For example, a C Major chord (C, E, G) can be transposed to D. This will result in a D Major chord (D, F-sharp, A).
These chords are constructed from musical intervals. Each chord has:
- A Root note
- A note a Major third (M3) or minor third (m3) above the Root
- A note a Perfect fifth (P5), Augmented fifth (A5), or diminished fifth above the Root
- And seventh chords also have a note a Major seventh (M7), minor seventh (m7), or diminished seventh (d7) above the Root.
The basic chords:
- Major - Root, M3, P5
- minor - Root, m3, P5
- Augmented (Aug) - Root, M3, A5
- diminished (dim) - Root, m3, d5
The seventh chords:
- 7 - Root, M3, P5, m7
- M7 - Root, M3, P5, M7
- m7 - Root, m3, P5, m7
- dim7 - Root, m3, d5, d7
- half dim7 - Root, m3, d5, m7
If we choose a Major chord for example we begin by picking a Root note. We could pick any of the 12 notes but in this case we will choose G. The next note we need is a Major third (M3) above the Root, which in this case would be the note B. The final note we need is a Perfect fifth above the root, which in this case would be the note D. Now we have all three notes of our Major chord: G, B, and D.
For reference here is a diagram of the keyboard with the note names on it:
Now that you know these chords you might want to learn about chord inversion, chord symbols, or extended chords.
The easiest chords to play on the guitar are the Major, Minor and Seventh chords in open voicings. These chords use open strings and no more than three fingers, and they don't go into the higher positions of the guitar. The ease in playing these chords makes them the best for beginners to learn. This article will show them in two different ways: fretboard diagrams, and tablature (Tab).
A quick review of chord symbols: Uppercase letters indicate Major chords, a chord with a lowercase "m" indicates a minor chord, and a "7" indicates that the chord is a seventh chord.
- Open circles indicate open strings.
- Dark, filled in circles indicate the spots on the frets where you put your fingers.
- The "X" symbol tells you to not play a string.
In music, Transposition occurs when we take a group of notes and move that group up or down by a certain interval. For example, if we take a C Major chord (the notes C, E, and G) and transpose them up by a Major second we then have a D Major chord (the, notes D, F-sharp, and A).
The step by step process by which we transposed a C Major chord up by a Major second to become a D Major chord is as follows:
- C Major chord: notes C, E, and G
- Move the first note of the C Major chord, C, up by a Major second. We now have the note D.
- Move the second note of the C Major chord, E, up by a Major second. We now have the note F-sharp.
- Move the third note of the C Major chord, G, up by a Major second. We now have the note A.
- The results of transposing C, E, and G up by a Major second becomes: D, F-sharp, and A, which is a D Major chord
As you can see all you need to do to transpose something is move each individual note in the group of notes by the same musical interval. With this method transposing becomes a simple process and we can then transpose any any note, chord, or scale.
Transposition Exercises - Try transposing each of the following:
- Transpose the note E-flat down by a Major Second.
- Transpose a D7 chord (D, F-sharp, A, C) up by a minor third.
- Transpose a C Major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C) up by a Perfect fifth.
A Few Words About Transposing Instruments:
Transposing instruments are instruments that automatically transpose when playing - the actual pitches they play are different from what is written in the music. For example, the B-flat Trumpet transposes down by a Major second. For a B-flat Trumpet the written note C would actually come out as B-flat.
Basic Music Theory Made Easy
Ever wondered why music theory didn't make sense? The key to learning basic music theory is to learn and use the same systems that all us musicians use.
Music is a language. It has parts that make up the whole, and those parts are made of even smaller parts. This sentence is made of words, and these words are made of letters. To learn how to make the sentence as a whole, you have to learn the letters of the alphabet, and learn how to put them into words. Then you have to learn certain words, and learn how to put them into sentences.
Music works the same way. You learn the alphabet then put those pieces together to make musical phrases, then put those together to make a song.
What Every Musician Needs to Know
Learning basic music theory is absolutely necessary to communicate with other musicians. Whether we are writing a song together, playing a show on stage, or just jamming at the house, we have to know how to talk about what it is we're playing.
Luckily, this stuff is really easy to learn! Here are some of the essentials of music theory that you will need to know to get started.
The music alphabet is like the English alphabet. It is a system of letters that are assigned to represent sounds in music that we call notes. This is the simplest part to learn, and everything else will be based on this, so start here!
Scales are just a linear arrangement of notes. If notes are actual pitches, then scales are those pitches in a certain order. (ex. A B C D E F G) Because scales or pieces of scales are used in just about every song ever written, they are a huge piece of basic music theory.
An Interval is the distance from one note to another. Whether it's B to C (a Second) or G# to Eb (a Sixth), every interval has it's own name. This stuff is really useful in figuring out harmonies.
Chords are certain members of a scale combined into one sound. (For instance "C + E + G = CMaj" or "D + F + A = DMin".) Chords give structure, organization, and shape to a song. They make the song "sound" a certain way. Even if you are strictly a lead player, you NEED to know this. Even as a violinist, I use chords all the time to talk about the songs. I'll play that fill after the G7 chord.
Key signatures tell us the tonality or "key" of a song. It also tells us which notes the song will be using. The more you work with these, the more familiar you get with the range and scale of particular keys. Unless you want all of your songs to sound the same, PLEASE study these.