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Learn Music Theory for Beginners: We Answer Your Questions

Author: Tom Stein

Last updated: Jul 14, 2020

Reads: 613


Tom Stein is a Senior Professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He is a visionary musical entrepreneur, music producer, artist development consultant, arranger, bandleader and performer. He is an Administrator of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest and Multi-Media Tour Bus, and a member of the US State Department's Fulbright Specialist Roster for global entertainment and music industry.
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If you are starting out as a musician, it’s a really smart idea to learn music theory right from the beginning.

It’s not nearly as hard as some people think, and in this post, I will tell you exactly what you should be learning, how to learn it, how long it takes, and why it’s so useful for your music-making to learn and understand basic music theory starting right now.

There’s nothing mysterious about music theory, and if you love music you should also love learning about the theory behind it.

When you first start to learn music theory it can seem mysterious or difficult. I’m here to tell you that it’s neither of these things. I’ve taught music theory to hundreds of students over the past decades, and have seen firsthand how learning music theory has made me and so many other players and singers better musicians.

If you play an instrument, or sing, learning music theory is one of the best ways to improve your skills and knowledge. Understanding even the basics of music theory leads you to a deeper understanding of music and gives you the tools you need to express yourself through music.

Don’t resist learning theory because you think it’s difficult! You will do yourself a favor by digging into the theory behind what makes music such a powerful expressive tool. You should be excited and eager to learn everything about music you can. Let’s jump right in.

What Is Music Theory?

There is no single definition that describes all the parts of music theory. As a practical discipline, music theory is concerned with the fundamentals of how music is made, and also with analysis of sonic phenomena, including silence, and how they relate to music.

For the beginner, music theory is the study and descriptions of music rudiments required to notate and read music, such as key signatures, time signatures, rhythmic notation, pitches (notes), scales, modes, chords, tensions, and elements of composition such as rhythm, harmony, and counterpoint.

Modern music theory textbooks often include descriptions and analysis of practical applications of the harmonic series, musical acoustics, orchestration, improvisation, scales, tonal and rhythmic relationships, performance, and electronic production.

While this might seem like a lot of information, beginners should focus on just the fundamentals, which limits the scope and make it easier to forge ahead.

Think about music theory as analysis that occurs after the music happens.

Analyzing a piece of music doesn’t change the actual music at all. Beginning theory includes learning the terms we use to describe what happened in a piece of music.

Whatever we decide to call something, the music is the music and it doesn’t change because of how we analyze it. This fact is highlighted by the varying ways different cultures and languages choose to describe music theory.

For example, I have many students from other countries who are non-native English speakers. Their music theory knowledge might be strong in their own language, but when they come to study in the US they are challenged at first by learning our terminology.

This is normal, and it’s important to note that music theory is always rooted in a time and place. A Musicologist might choose to study music theory based on origins instead of focusing on individual works.

How Long Does It Take to Learn Music Theory?

Bringing things back to the basics, and in general terms, a musician can learn a lot about music theory in a short time IF they are well prepared and ready to assimilate the material.

From my experience, a beginning student can learn most of the basics in about six months if they are diligent in applying themselves to the material, and have some guidance from an experienced instructor.

For career-minded music students, it will take about two years of daily study to learn everything you will ever use, including the advanced topics. Most college music students get all the theory they need in the first two years of college, sometimes called core music studies.

Advanced core topics cover contemporary music styles, composition, ear training (solfege), arranging, improvisation, chord-scales, traditional harmony, and counterpoint.

Slide Do You *Really Have What it Takes? Do You *Really
Have What it Takes?
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Do I Need an Instrument to Learn Music Theory?

Having some instrumental ability will help, and the piano is perhaps the most useful instrument for visualizing theory, due to the linear nature of the keyboard. This doesn’t mean you need to play the piano, but understanding the notes on the keyboard will be a big asset at the very beginning, and most people can learn the note names of the keys quickly and easily. Start there.

Musicians traditionally begin playing an instrument or singing “by ear.” This means they hear something and then imitate it, just like a small child learning to speak. Getting approval and encouragement from others leads to repetition and improvement.

At some point, usually during private lessons, reading music might be introduced. Not all musicians learn to read, but eventually, most do. Developing the ear and muscle memory is more important that reading at the early stages of music learning.

Once you know the note names on the piano, it will be important to have access to a keyboard instrument so you can hear what the chords and scales you are learning sound like. You could also play the notes on another instrument or even sing them, which is much harder to do and not as efficient as visualizing on a keyboard.

If you are a drummer, recall that the piano is also a percussion instrument, or you could even use a vibraphone. Guitar can also be a good instrument for learning music theory, since it can play chords and melody.

How Do I Start Learning Music Theory?

The list of music theory topics for beginners includes:

  • rhythmic note values (includes rests and dotted notes)
  • Pitches on the grand staff (treble and bass clefs combined)
  • Accidentals (flats sharps and naturals)
  • Circle of 5ths
  • Key signatures
  • Pentatonic scales
  • Blues scales
  • Major scales
  • Modes of the major scale
  • Minor scales
  • Triads (3-note chords)
  • Seventh chords (4-note chords)
  • Tensions (scale extensions that add color to the chords)
    • Keep in mind that there is a connection between music theory and performance, so you want to apply your knowledge as soon as you can. This way it becomes ingrained as it also becomes useful to you in learning your instrument better.

      It’s important to always hear the things you are learning, and the best way to do that is to apply it directly to your instrument, or the keyboard. (Voice is also considered an instrument.)

      It’s also important to learn to notate the music you are studying. You do this in the same way you would learn any language: mastering the vocabulary and then practice writing.

      Transcribing music is one of the best ways to learn. Start with the easiest musical examples and then build your skills so you can tackle more complex materials.

Is It Hard to Learn Music Theory?

While none of the above-mentioned topics are inherently difficult, naturally you will need to focus on learning the material in a structured way if you wish to see real progress. It can help to have a Teacher guide you, whether in a private lesson or classroom setting.

It’s also a good idea to get some books, I will recommend a few below when I address learning on your own. I do strongly recommend finding a Teacher, or if you learn well online you could also take a virtual music theory class.

If you are generally a good student, learning theory will not be any harder than any other subject where you’ve applied yourself. There is a mathematical basis for music, so if you do well in math subjects, and especially geometry, this will give you an advantage.

This doesn’t mean if you have trouble with math that theory will be harder. Keep in mind that it’s all about music, and if music is something you’re already good at, most aspects of learning music theory will not be too challenging. You will be learning a host of new terms and ways to analyze something you are already familiar with by ear.

Music theory is by nature an applied subject, meaning you have to use it to really understand it. It’s important to use your new knowledge immediately in music making, whether composing, writing songs, improvising, reading, or advancing your instrumental performing abilities.

Is Learning Music Theory Really Necessary?

If you are just beginning with music, I would say that your theory training can wait until you have at least gained the rudiments on whatever instrument you are starting out with.

Since the piano is so helpful in understanding music theory, I’d recommend spending some time at the keyboard with your music theory studies, regardless of your primary instrument.

Once you have mastered the basics of your instrument, and have an understanding of the notes on the keyboard, you should be ready to assimilate theory topics as part of your daily practice routine.

There are some musicians who decide not to learn theory (I never understood why), but they are a tiny minority. Most serious musicians embrace music theory as a way to improve their musical skills overall.

Having a deeper understanding of how music is put together leads to more possibilities and satisfaction in your musical life.

Why Should You Learn Music Theory?

I think some people are afraid of music theory. There’s a myth floating around that somehow learning music theory will hurt your playing. I’m certain this is a myth propagated by non-musicians since I’ve never met a musician who believes this.

One huge advantage of knowing music theory is it gives you a common language to discuss music with other musicians.

I can call up a bandmate on the phone and describe a song using theory terms and it can help them to learn the music and understand it. In rehearsals, we often get into discussions about certain passages where we need to describe a chord progression or melody-harmony relationship. Having shared terminology allows us to quickly and easily clarify what we want without misunderstandings.

It’s incredibly useful to have this shared language about music!

I recommend anyone who is serious about doing music, whether for a career or hobby, to learn the theory that all the professional musicians know and use.

Can You Teach Yourself Music Theory?

Legendary comedian George Carlin once said: “It’s not self-help if you had to read a book, it’s help.” It’s a funny point about how we use language. He was saying that “self-help” is a misnomer since you are getting help from the Author of the book.

You can certainly learn basic music theory on your own, with the help of some books. Any missing pieces can always be filled in later with formal study. I recommend the books from Berklee Press on music theory, and I also like Mark McGrain’s workbook Music Notation.

I started out with Mark White’s book on music theory for guitarists. You will find no shortage of music theory books on the market, and many can be bought for a few dollars online or even downloaded for free as pdf files.

There are also online tutorials aplenty, but be wary of some of those that don’t really offer quality instruction. Google is your friend, but not all search results are created equal.

If you know any professional musicians, college music students, or Music Teachers, they could be a resource for finding materials such as videos and blogs with valuable content for learning on your own.

I do believe it’s possible to learn all you need by yourself, but I also feel strongly that the fastest and most efficient way to learn is with a qualified instructor who has long experience with teaching the subject.

Do I Need to Know Music Theory to Write Songs?

It is possible to “write” songs without writing them down on paper, so the answer to this question is a qualified “no.”

If you play and sing a new song, and then you record it, that is enough for copyright protection. There have been some artists who achieved great success with their music initially with little theory knowledge. The music exists independently from the theory.

Most of these artists went on to learn their theory eventually. A majority of successful musicians have undergone some serious training which certainly included learning music theory.

If you write songs, music theory will allow you to cover more styles and forms with your writing. If you want to play better solos, theory is also very useful.

Building solid musicianship includes building the skills to take music out of the air and put it on paper (i.e. writing, or transcribing), and taking the music from the paper and putting it in the air (i.e. reading, performing). All musicians benefit from being able to do this.

Imagine you lived in a foreign country where you had recently learned to speak the language, but could not read or write. You would be limited in some important ways.

For example, you would not be able to read the signs or a newspaper. You couldn’t leave a note for someone or communicate over email. This is a good analogy for becoming a literate musician, and music theory is like learning the alphabet and rules of grammar for a new language.

Conclusion

There are so many advantages to learning music theory, whether you do it on your own or through formal study, or both.

Being literate as a musician really has no drawbacks, and the ability to talk about music in agreed-upon terms with other musicians is one of the greatest benefits of learning music theory.

I’ll be happy to offer further direction to anyone who needs it. Please reach out to me at tstein@berklee.edu if you have questions or are interested in learning more about music theory.

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