Is Learning Music Theory Necessary?

Nov 13, 2023

One of the biggest questions I’ve gotten in my many years of teaching people to play music is about learning music theory. It seems that most people think of music theory as some mythical language that takes decades to learn and implement, or some wonky, intellectual mumbo-jumbo that has no real application in performing music or writing hit songs. 

When I would meet a brand new student, they would start the lesson lamenting that they had heard about music theory, but just didn’t understand it. Displaying their confusion, they’d start throwing out terms they’d heard or ideas they’d thought about what music theory was.  Over the years, I’d heard them all:

“Learning theory’s hard, huh?”
“I’ve heard about this theory stuff, but it seem so complicated!”
“I’ll never understand those ‘modes’.”
“I have to know how to read music to know theory, don’t I?”
“Isn’t there’s…like…a Dorian mode, a Lydian mode and…uh.. a Fallopian mode?”
“I know the chords: Major, Minor, Augmented and Demolished!!”

Yep. The ‘demolished’ chord. You know who said that chestnut? I did!! Yeah that’s what I thought the ‘diminished’ chord was called when I was taking lessons; the ‘demolished’ chord. Somewhere in Central New York, my private teacher Gordon Moore is still recovering from excessive hysterics over that one!


What is music theory then? 

In simple terms, music theory is a system to explain how notes (or pitches) work together to create what we think of as ‘music’. 

Music theory is awesome, because it gives us structure to something that is, in its essence, formless. Music theory does its best to help us take the infinite possibilities of musical notes and give us guidelines to capture, create and perform it. It gives us a road map as to what sounds like tension or resolution, or what sounds pleasing to most ears as opposed to what sounds dissonant. 

As you can imagine, knowing this stuff takes a lot of the guess work out of playing and writing music. If you already know what has worked in millions of compositions over the centuries, that’ll probably save you a bit of time in your musical endeavors. 

Make no mistake…music came before theory. As music was composed and performed, people created ‘theories’ about how notes, scales and chords integrated.

There are no rules in music. There’s a reason it’s called music “theory”. There are no music ‘facts’. Yes, you can explain why a G7 chord sounds great when followed by a C chord, but you can never explain why it feels good. Someone can tell you all day long that an A minor chord going to a C# Major chord sounds ‘wrong’…to them! But if it feels and sounds good to you, then play it…theory be damned!!  Trust me, there is no Theory Police coming to confiscate your instrument. Otherwise, mine would’ve been taken from my grubby, little hands years ago!


What are the benefits of learning music theory?

Hopefully by this point in this article, you know why music theory is helpful. I mean, if the notes that worked well for Bach, Beethoven and the Beatles made them sound great, they’ll probably work well for you. But what are some specific, tangible and immediate benefits you get from understanding and implementing music theory? Here is just a very short list.

*Understanding chord/key structures help you learn songs much quicker.
*Knowing chord/scale relationships allow you to create melodies, riffs and improvised solos.
*Much of the guesswork is taken out of songwriting and composing.
*You can communicate with other musicians by speaking the same ‘language’.
*Reading music becomes infinitely less challenging.
*Learning by ear becomes more straightforward.
*Your ability to remember songs increases dramatically.
*You are able to analyze your favorite songs and learn how they were constructed.

Let’s go back to the original question of this article: “Is learning music theory necessary?” I think this may have more answers than you might have thought.

Is music theory necessary to write songs, play songs, read notation and to just generally love music? Absolutely not! You can enjoy everything about music without knowing one thing about music theory.

Let’s expand the question then: Is learning music theory necessary to make writing songs, playing songs, reading music and loving music on a deeper level easier?

Oh hell yeah! Big time. Learning music theory opens the doors to such a deeper understanding of how music works. It’s basically a key that will unlock many of the mysteries of music. It’s like the Rosetta Stone; a way to take something that seems un-translatable and give it form, shape, structure and meaning. 

…and who wouldn’t want to learn that?!?


(Thanks to Christopher Johnson for the cool music theory poster that we defaced!)

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