As anyone who has ever studied music in school knows, music theory is a pivotal study – you find it as part of your course load, no matter what area of music you plan to pursue.
For many people it is a vague bother, they would rather be practicing their instrument, or playing jobs at a local club, or reading obscure history texts. And if they aren’t studying music in a school, but are out there trying to make it in the music business – playing guitar in a rock band, doing a lounge act, working on arrangements for some local radio commercials – then the study of theory can seem even more distant to their concerns.
So, what’s the big deal? Why does everyone suggest that you learn a bunch of music theory? Why is it always a part of your course load, even if you don’t plan to be a theorist? Well, it all boils down to communication. Understanding the fundamentals of our language is useful in much the same way than an understanding of English language is useful – it allows you to communicate effectively.
This is not to say that people who have not studied fundamental theory will find it impossible to make themselves understood; it’s just that their music (as they write it and explain it) will have elements that will be confusing for other musicians.
For example, let us look at a common issue among musicians relative to the notation of accidentals. I have known a number of players (who knew some of the basics of notation) who used only flats and naturals in their notation – never sharps. On the surface this practice sounds straightforward and logical, but it leads to some very odd constructions, such as the “A” major triad spelled A-Db-E.
Now if you put that chord (spelled that way) in front of another guitar player, his or her hand will find the correct notes on the fretboard, and for that reason it may seem to be a successful way of notating that chord.
However, it will be impossible to relate that chord (spelled that way) to other elements of standard musical structure, because the underlying structure of the chord is hidden by the notation. Instead of seeing a triad (two superimposed thirds), you see three notes; instead of seeing the tonic chord in “A” major, you see a diminished fourth and an augmented second. In other words, the notation A-Db-E (if used to denote an “A” major triad) has certain practical value (because it does get your hands to the correct notes), but it has no value beyond that; whereas the “correct” spelling (A-C#-E) has the same practical value, plus a lot more. It allows you to see the structure of the chord, and relate that structure to other elements of music.
It is of course possible to come up with a number of ways to refer to or write down a particular bit of music material, and all of these ways will get the hand to the correct notes. The problem comes when you try to find the relationship between different bits of musical material. The fundamental building blocks of traditional Western music have been developed over a long period of time, and the language that we use to express these building blocks (and their relationships) has developed right along with the musical concepts. Therefore, our system of musical language and notation, if used properly, reflects the underlying structures and relationships in the music it conveys. And since those underlying structures and relationships are important to an understanding of what is really going on in the music, it is very useful to master the language (because the language makes that understanding easier to come by).
By the way, I am speaking now of Western music only. Musics of other cultures have their own theories, their own languages. Furthermore, I am speaking only of traditional Western music theory. New developments (electronic music, microtonal music, etc) bring with them new theories and new languages.
Knowing theory will help you in other ways, too. It’s easier to memorize a piece when you can analyze its basic structures than when you’re facing a mystifying storm of notes. Communicating with other musicians is easier when you can tell them exactly what you have in mind: “Give it a blues feel” is less specific than “Use a F minor pentatonic scale.”
Some people are afraid that if they learn theory, they won’t be able to play as spontaneously, – and in fact, if you think of theory as a set of ironclad rules that you have to follow, it can hang up your playing (or writing). But don’t let yourself be intimidated. There isn’t a single theoretical “rule” that can’t be broken to good musical effect. The point is to know the rules so that when you break them you’ll understand what you’re doing. If you understand why a certain passage sounds the way it does (maybe you’re playing a G# dorian scale over Gm7b5 chord) you’ll be able to recreate the same sound later, in another tune. Knowing the theory may even suggest further possibilities to you. In fact if you think about it ….. there’s always a great number of optional concepts available to you.
So when we study music theory, we are studying an entire language and the underlying concepts of that language. It is possible to play music without ever learning a bit of theory, but theoretical understanding is a very useful tool. It allows us to see and hear relationships in the music we play, and it allows us to get those relationships in our minds and fingers. Music theory by itself won’t make you understand music, but it will certainly help you develop an understanding.