10 Reasons You Should Study Music Theory

Learning to play music has a lot of different lessons that go into getting it right. One branch of learning to play music is sometimes overlooked as too difficult, complicated, or simply unnecessary for the casual player: music theory.

So what is music theory?

In a nutshell, music theory is the understanding of written music, and it gives musicians and composers a common language to communicate in, even if they’re from completely different backgrounds or places in time. Music students who understand music theory can read a page of music written by a composer hundreds of years ago, and know exactly what, when, and how that composer wanted them to play.

For new students, music theory is about the music written down on the page, and how to understand it. This might include knowledge of what a note is, what a scale is, what a key is, and what accidentals (sharps and flats) are. Music theory also helps musicians know how to play written music. Composers use special symbols to let the musician know to play loud, or soft, or fast, or slow, or even to drag out their notes, or cut them off short.

Music theory is a powerful tool for the novice musician. Not only can it give an understanding of what’s happening on the page, it can help provide students with confidence in themselves and their abilities, and give them a solid foundation on which to continuously grow their skill.

Let’s take a look at the top 10 reasons for students to study music theory.

1. Understand How Music Works

No matter what field, area, or level of music you eventually end up at, music theory can give you a more advanced understanding and insight into how musical notes and rhythms fit together in a composition. Once you are able to understand this relationship, you’ll be able to enjoy a deeper comprehension of a subject that everyone loves, but most people find utterly mysterious. Even the most basic music theory program can provide you with a foundation for insight into how and why great composers and performers do what it is they do.

2. Listen to Music More Critically

Everybody can hear, and listens to, music. But not everyone can listen with a trained, critical ear, so they can identify it, and speak clearly and intelligently about it. Most people just like or dislike what they hear, but don’t really know why they have those feelings. Music theory can help you listen critically for a number of musical nuances, like major and minor scales for example. Listening critically also gives you more of an opportunity to recognize what the artist has done, and potentially learn from it.

3. Write & Perform Music Accurately

Having the basics of music theory under you belt will help you when it comes to both writing and performing music. The second part is fairly obvious; if you can understand all the symbols on the sheet, you’ll be able to faithfully reproduce what the composer wanted. That first part, however, writing music, is much more interesting. Learning to write music in the styles of the greats is an amazing way to internalize often confusing concepts like harmony, voice leading, counterpoint, phrase structure, and all the other minute details of music.

4. Find Errors

This advantage to music theory might be a little more obscure, but it is helpful nevertheless. There might come a time when, as you study a new piece of old music, a discussion is started about how much control an ancient composer might have had over their performers, and still have over their compositions today. In the end, this boils down to sharpening your listening and musical critical thinking skills.

5. Improve Sight Reading Skills

Sight reading, while not a universal skill among Western musicians, is an important one because Western music tends to come from a written tradition. Even if you have no desires to be a professional performer, reading music accurately and without difficulty is a skill every musician can benefit from.

6. Understand the Styles and Genres of Western Music

Music is a storied and fascinating history of the evolution and styles of the cultures that create it. They can tell us what it was like in the times the music was written; about what was going on in society as a whole, and how people felt about it. For example, music theory can show you how opera grew right along with the newly emerging middle class, or how jazz musicians of the ’20s expressed their feelings about being marginalized in an intolerant society. Connecting music with real life human events gives the styles and genres more weight and meaning.

7. Exposure to Unfamiliar Music

Studying music theory also opens you up to hearing music you’ve never listened to before, giving you the chance to practice unbiased listening. Listening to a sample of early music, or music from a wildly different culture can open up discussions about the nature of music, and how music might operate outside what we might think of as its boundaries here in the West. Then think about applying these differences to your own songwriting!

8. Become Familiar with the Masterworks of Western Music

One of the main focuses of music theory is to show why the rules and procedures are so vitally important; how they come together to produce effective music. And a good music theory class doesn’t limit itself to the classics that have lasted centuries, like Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart; for a full education a class must include the Beatles, Rollings Stones, and Billy Joel. Masterworks from every century and style help provide a broader understanding of music theory as a whole.

9. Improve Critical Reasoning Skills

Although not specific to music theory, critical reasoning skills are important to develop, and can be honed through an education in music theory. While many beginner music classes are based a fair amount on a sort of “monkey see, monkey do” style of learning, music theory provides students with a way to understand the why of what they are doing, not just that it is the correct thing to do.

10. Build a Foundation

When you add up all the 9 reasons that came before this one, you end up with well-rounded musical foundation, on which you can continue to grow and progress with your musical education. Even if you’ve never even considered learning a new instrument or writing your own music, music theory can be a key component in starting off on your musical journey.