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About Music Theory

Music Theory

Firstly, I'd like to say that you don't need to learn music theory in order to play and create music. Similarly, you don't have to know the theory of gravity to keep from flying off the face of the earth. But, you'd probably agree that if you were studying to be a physicist, it'd be a good idea to know about various physics theories — even if you wanted to rewrite them. The same is true with music and becoming a musician.

What is music theory?

A theory is not truth. A theory is an attempt at explaining something. Music theory attempts to explain what music is doing and why it is pleasing to hear.

For centuries people just like you and me have been singing, playing instruments and creating music. Over time, certain good-sounding musical events kept occurring again and again. After a while people started giving those musical events names. Those named events slowly turned into an accepted language for describing music.

In general, music theory tries to explain:

  1. Rhythm — when and for how long musical events happen
  2. Harmony — how notes are combined (keys, chords and chord progressions)
  3. Melody — groups of notes played one after another

An important thing to remember is music theory was born out of music, not the other way around. Music created the theory.

Why do we need music theory?

Since people before us have figured out many things that sound good, studying music theory gives us a head start in learning to play and create good-sounding music. There are many possibilities of combining notes, rhythms and chords. If you sat around trying to piece it all together by yourself, it could take many extra years of work. There's enough to work on that you don't need to make learning music harder on yourself.

On top of that, if you just play what you hear naturally, you may miss out on learning to play new things you can't hear naturally. By studying music theory you will learn to hear new things you may have otherwise not picked up on.

Music theory gives us a universal language with which we can talk about music. Having a language is useful when we need to communicate musical ideas to other musicians. Sometimes, like at a gig, there's no time to play something for someone to get a point across. It's easier to say, "Play G minor instead of Bb in the verse."

Theory also helps us write down our musical ideas. It is very useful when you can accurately write down a musical thought you had or read someone else's.

Ultimately, music theory helps a musician mentally organize his or her overall understanding of music.

The Future of Music Theory

Music theory keeps evolving just like music itself. It's not fixed. New ways of naming things and explaining people's impressions of what they hear continue to develop and always will. That should serve to remind you that theory is not truth. It's just the current way we explain music.

In Summary

The idea of music theory I want you to have is that it is not a set of rules or instructions, but a tool you can use to aid your musical development. Music theory does not tell you what to play or not to play. That will always remain up to you. Knowing music theory won't make you less creative. (It's only the people who haven't learned theory that say this, by the way.) You are as creative as you are. Nothing will change that. All music theory will do is give you more tools with which you can express your musical creativity.

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