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Music Theory in Practice

By: Chris Nickson - Updated: 28 Nov 2010 | comments*Discuss
Music Lessons Music Theory Harmony

It’s all very well learning to play an instrument by ear, and if you only ever intend to play for fun, you might not need more than that. However, if you ever want to do more with your music, then you really need a command of music theory, and the more you know, the better it will be for you.

Why is it important? Music theory allows you to understand how music works, how the notes relate to each other, the different keys and scales, and will open up an entire new world. It lets you understand the principles behind harmony and composition, to build up a work, or simply play your part in it.

What Music Theory Does

People who take exams on an instrument are also tested on music theory, since the two are judged to go hand in hand – as you improve on your chosen instrument you should – and you need to – understand more about music theory. It won’t automatically make you a composer, but when you look at a score, you’ll be able to understand the way different instruments and sections come together and why they work. If learning to read music is like learning another language, then music theory is the grammar and principles behind that language, what makes it tick.

It also makes you a better musician. The more you understand about music, the more you’ll understand about what your instrument can do. Practicing scales in different keys increases flexibility and also, with strings, for example, how to position your hands for the greatest fluency.

What You Can Do With It

If you have an inkling to become a composer, or to arrange music for ensembles of different kinds, a strong background in music theory is indispensable. You’ll learn about different instruments and their ranges, what will work with what (it’s possible for any instrument to work with any other, but in practice some combinations are stronger than others), and a depth of theoretical knowledge about music will allow you to use instruments to create the effects you want, whether it’s harmony (for instance, thirds and fifths make good harmonies) or counterpoint (where the bass and treble play two different lines that complement each other, sometimes one ascending and one descending).

For a career of any kind in music, be it as a teacher or a performer, a composer or even an informed critic, a knowledge of music theory is vital. Not only does it let you understand why a piece works, but also why some pieces don’t. You’ll develop your ear, learning to identify chords and key signatures. It will make you more confident when playing with others – there’s more to it than simply following a score, it’s about understanding it.

Although the majority of rock musicians are untutored, those in most other fields will have completed exams that include theory, be it grades one to eight, GCSEs and A-levels and further education. In fact, for any of the latter, you’ll need a solid grounding in theory.

It’s useful simply to enjoy music as a listener, too. A greater comprehension of theory means an appreciation of what composers do, and what improvisers in the field of jazz achieve. Put simply, if music interests you, knowing music theory will make it far more pleasurable, even where it’s not vital.

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