Music theory explains the things we hear. It’s the language of music, something that should be fun to learn for every person who loves music.
If you have a negative view of music theory, most probably you’ve had some bad experience with the way you were being taught, or else had friends recount their own bad experiences.
Sadly, negative experiences have led to the creation of myths that don’t do justice to the study of music theory. Hopefully this article will help you dispel these myths and convince you that if you love music, especially if you play a musical instrument, music theory will make your experience more enjoyable as you start to understand what’s really going on while you’re playing or listening to music.
1. Learning Music theory is like learning Maths
1+1 = 2, 2 x 4 = 8, and as soon as you know it you’re sweating with algebraic formulas. Which is great for people who love the subject, but for most people, it isn’t exactly a wonderful experience. For sure it wasn’t for me.
While music theory does involve “working things out” (like you’re doing in Maths most of the time), and since most people were taught music theory in a way that focused more on “working things out” than on “how things work”, many people have the impression that music theory is all about making calculations. In reality, unless you take it to an advanced level, those calculations are pretty easy if you have the right guidance. They are only something you occasionally have to do in order to fit the pieces of the puzzle together and internalize the concepts you learn.
Music theory is much more than mere calculations. Music theory explains to you the reason behind the beauty of the melodies you are listening to, or playing on your instrument.
2. Music theory involves memorizing a lot of words in Italian
I’ve spent hours on end trying to memorize countless words in Italian (sometimes in German or French), a boring and time-consuming task from which I gained next to nothing.
While it is good to know that piano means you should play the note softly, and forte means you should play it loudly, learning a lot of definitions out of context isn’t really helpful.
A substantial amount of those words are related to specific instruments. They would be essential to know if you either play that instrument or plan to write music for that instrument, but otherwise they’re not really worth your time.
Other words are no longer in use and the chances that you encounter them are next to zero, once again unless you’re specializing in a specific time and place in music history, when such words were in use.
Thus, isn’t it much more easy and enjoyable to learn the meaning of those words as you go along and encounter them in your study of music than by memorizing countless lists of definition?
3. The ultimate goal of learning music theory is to get a certificate
While at times taking exams and getting certificates in music theory may be useful to access some particular opportunities, many make the mistake of making it their primary goal.
In order to pass the exams, I had to study countless things I have never used, never will, and have forgotten anyway. With hindsight I realize I could have utilized that time much better if I had focused less on learning things I didn’t really need and spent that time internalizing and applying those things I was learning through writing my own melodies and compositions. No matter how simple those melodies were at first (and yes, sometimes you do hit or type notes that sound good together just by accident; that’s not just luck, that’s an opportunity to remember the distance between those notes and be able to use it again, in different contexts, at will), I would have had more fun and started reaping the rewards sooner.
4. You can’t learn music theory if you can’t play an instrument
If you love music, I do suggest that you learn an instrument (what instrument you should learn depends on many factors, but above all, it should be an instrument you love listening to). Few things in life give me as much enjoyment as grabbing my guitar and playing my favourite songs or writing my own.
That being said, learning music theory doesn’t involve any technical skills on any instrument. Music theory explains what is going on while the instrument is being played.
What makes a piece of music sound sad or happy? Why do notes have little value when played on their own but become priceless works of art when Mozart blends them together?
It gets even better.
Thanks to music notation software, some of which is free to download, you can now just input the notes you want to hear and your computer will play them for you. Could it be any easier than that?
5. Music theory is not related to learning your instrument
For a long time, I was learning to play the guitar and studying music theory at the same time, but treated the two as different subjects. I couldn’t connect the dots.
Since I play mostly Rock guitar, and in Rock music the alternative system of guitar tablature is used much more frequently than standard music notation. it was even more difficult to see the relationships, since on the theory books I was reading musical notes while on the practice books I was reading numbers.
Nonetheless, even if you’re not a Rock guitar player, if you do play an instrument always make sure you’re seeing the relationship between what you’re learning in theory and what you’re practicing on your instrument.
6. Music theory stifles creativity
While I have believed all the five myths mentioned above myself at some point or another during my musical journey, I never held this one. I find it hard to understand how people can think that music theory can limit their creativity.
Yet this issue crops up quite often, and I know a few musicians who are advanced players with high technical ability on their instrument, who are afraid that music theory rules will make them become somewhat “mechanical” in their songwriting. They believe that when making music, rather than being led by inspiration, they’ll be following what the book told them they’re supposed to do.
If they did study music theory the right way, they would find that on the contrary, music theory will enhance your creativity. While you can write great songs or develop great technical abilities on your instrument without music theory, by having the pieces of the puzzle sorted out in your mind you will find inspiration more easily accessible.
You may notice, for instance, that if you play (or have played to you) the chord G7 followed by the chord C on a guitar or a piano, the music sounds very conclusive. You wouldn’t mind if the music continues and another chord follows, but your ear would be satisfied if it stopped there. If you’re playing C followed by E minor, you’re going to expect another chord to follow. It just doesn’t fit that the music stops there. On the other hand, if you play C followed by a C#7, it’s going to sound jarring to the ear. You wouldn’t want to hear it, except in some specific contexts.
There is a reason for all that, and music theory explains it. You will know why a C followed by an E minor sounds less conclusive, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play the two and stop abruptly there; no one is your leader (more about this in the next myth about music theory rules).
Neither does it mean that while you’re improvising you’re making Mathematical calculations in your head rather than going freely where your inspiration takes you.
Music will still always come from the soul. Playing music is all about expressing yourself.
Learning to play an instrument is the vehicle for that self-expression; the more you learn and practice, the less restricted you are; thus the more you can express yourself with ease.
Music theory can be thought of as a map. You can still arrive at your destination without it, but you can also bet you’ll arrive sooner if you have it.
People learn to play music for different reasons, but the one goal that all persons who take music seriously have in common, is that of self-expression. Playing music not only provides you with a way of giving tangible form to your thoughts and emotions, but also the power to change the thoughts and emotions of others.
This power is so huge that music has been present nearly every time human beings intended to change the thoughts, feelings and emotions of others, most of the time for noble purposes, but at times, also to do evil.
It has been present in revolutions: a mob is more likely to lynch the king if its emotions are heightened to peak level. It is present in religious services in nearly all religions, to enhance the spiritual experience of the ceremony. It is also present at Rock concerts, where thousands of emotionally charged people are united to the same beat; at a funeral where the mourners need a sombre atmosphere that reflects the sadness and grief they are feeling; or in a torture chamber to enhance the terror experienced by the victim.
There are numerous reasons why people choose to learn an instrument. We have different goals and aspirations. However, make sure that this particular goal, that of self-expression, is always there. Music is that powerful when used for this reason!
7. Music theory rules cannot be broken
Music composition is constantly evolving, and so is the theory that explains it. What was considered undesirable, or was even downright prohibited during the Baroque period, is the norm today.
If Bach had to listen to Heavy Metal he would be furious. He spent his entire life keeping away from the use of consecutive perfect fifths (a perfect fifth is an interval, which is the distance between two notes. I get into some more detail on how intervals, especially the perfect fifth, work, in The Power of Power chords) and teaching others that it’s a lousy thing playing that interval twice, without playing another interval in between. Today bands like Metallica blast power chord after power chord while bands like the Ramones have whole songs made exclusively of power chords.
There are rules in music theory, but those rules are only there to guide you, not to order you around. Some of the greatest advancements in music came specifically from bending, or even breaking entirely, those rules. The use of power chords in Blues and Rock music is just one of many examples of how breaking those rules can lead to opening the door to genres of music that wouldn’t have even been dreamt of before.
It’s only once you get rid of these myths that you can really enjoy music theory. As long as it’s just a mumbo jumbo of notes, numbers and difficult words music theory is neither going to be fun nor as useful as it can really be.
If you’re still not convinced that learning music theory can only enhance your music journey, or there is some topic related to music theory, leave a comment below this article.
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