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Benefits of a Solid Understanding of Music Theory

By Ariel Montero

Teaching high school music theory for the last seven years, I think that many of my students considered me a nerd. Often when I got excited trying to explain chords or Roman Numerals or the Circle of 5ths, I would be met with raised eyebrows and a general "why do I need to know this?" vibe. But the truth is that music theory is extremely helpful for any musician, and a good private teacher will fold it into lessons as often as possible. First, let's define our term: what is "music theory"? Music theory is the way that music is put together. Pitch collections (scales or keys), rhythmic groupings, and harmonic progressions (chords) would all fall under the category of music theory. Now, of course not all music is set up in the same way. Jazz music theory will be somewhat different from western classical music theory (think Bach and Beethoven), and music from other parts of the world will have its own rules of music theory (think Bollywood film music). The obvious benefit of music theory is for those musicians who are interested in composing (or writing) their own music. A solid understanding of music theory gives you a starting place and a road map for a melody and chord progressions rather than just "throwing" notes together and hoping you stumble on something that sounds nice. While some people may be able to create beautiful music through the random notes method, most of us get overwhelmed quickly with all of the options and think that we just aren't creative, when the fact is that we need a little understanding of the structure of music. But even if you aren't interested in composition, understanding music theory can make you a better listener, reader AND performer. Understanding the progression of a piece of music will allow you to know which notes are important, where they are going, and how to emphasize or de-emphasize specific pitches. Analyzing a piece from a music theory standpoint is also extremely helpful for "chunking" or breaking it down into bite-sized pieces so that you are not overwhelmed by a long piece of music. Seeing music as chords and progressions rather than individual notes can make you a faster reader, since rather than having to read each individual note you begin to see the overall shape of the chord and know what to play. This is true whether you play an instrument capable of playing full chords (such as piano or guitar), or an instrument that primarily plays single notes (such as trumpet or flute). Lastly, a solid understanding of music theory opens up a whole new skill set for you as a musician. Once you understand chords and their relationships, you can easily use a lead sheet or chord chart to play your favorite pop hits. You can also use your knowledge of music theory to make an easy arrangement of a song more impressive, or to make an advanced arrangement more accessible. Once you understand the structure of music, you are no longer bound by just the notes on the page, but have much more freedom. If you are interested in knowing more about music theory, definitely ask your private instructor to incorporate it into your lessons! While key signatures, scales, and chords may seem boring on paper, they can open up a whole new world of creativity for you when applied to the music that you are learning and playing.


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