what is music theory?

What Is Music Theory?

(Note: This is the first of a 2-part series on music theory.)

Students often ask about how to study and learn basic music theory, and if they can do it on their own. There’s no shortage of books, videos, magazines, and blogs with articles that explain music terminology; some are more useful than others. What are the main topics for music theory and how long should it take to master them? In this 2-part series, I’ll explain how you can learn music theory, build your music vocabulary, and learn to read music. We’ll also discuss what schools and college admissions tend to look for from applicants in the way of music theory.

What is music theory? As we answer this question, we’ll explore:

  1. What is music theory?
  2. Why you should learn music theory
  3. Different approaches to studying music theory
  4. Main music theory topics
  5. Music theory terms
  6. Musical terminology clarification and definitions

If you are new to music and have been playing an instrument or singing mostly by ear, there comes a point where you are confronted with musical terms you haven’t heard before. You hear or read some analysis of a piece of music that perhaps you are familiar with, but you don’t understand what all the terminology means. Music, like any field, has terminology and jargon, and learning music theory means familiarizing yourself with music vocabulary, both the meanings of the terms and also the sound.

If you’ve ever felt like the musical conversation is over your head, and surpasses your level of understanding, don’t worry too much about it. Anyone can learn music theory, and there isn’t anything mysterious about it. While it’s usually a good idea to take a class or some private theory lessons with a good Teacher, if that isn’t immediately available, you can always get started learning by reading some books and articles.

I’ll give you some recommendations for how to choose music theory books in the second part of this series, but first, let’s examine this topic in a bit more depth, so you have an idea of what your goals should be and why. I’ll tell you what music theory is, and describe a few approaches to learning. Then I’ll introduce some of the terminology with simple explanations, tell you how to apply music theory in your instrumental or vocal performance, how to demonstrate your knowledge, and what colleges and conservatories look for in the way of music theory knowledge from applicants.

What Is Music Theory and Why You Should Learn It?

Simply put, music theory is how musicians agree to talk about music, and learning theory is part of how we become literate as musicians. Learning to read and write music requires us to gain an understanding of useful terminology, which will allow us to apply music theory in performing, reading, and writing music. Music theory is a shared language that musicians agree on, so we can discuss music in meaningful and useful ways with each other.

I like to say that music theory comes “after the fact.” What I mean is, what we decide to call something in music doesn’t change the fact that it happened; it doesn’t change the way the music sounds. Putting names on things is about recognizing recurring phenomena, examining how music is put together while finding ways to describe what happened. Therefore, learning and understanding useful terminology comprises a large part of learning theory. However, it’s important to keep in mind that what we decide to call something doesn’t change how it sounds or that it happened.

As a musician, you should develop your ability to hear and recognize events in music. This is sometimes referred to as having “a good ear.” We study “ear training” at the same time as music theory in order to connect what we hear to what we decide to call it, or its “name.” We name events such as chords, scales, notes, and rhythms, and practice recalling the name when we hear it, or performing the event when we hear its name. For example, if we hear a major scale or a dominant chord we identify it as such, and if we are asked, we can perform it on our instrument (voice is also an instrument). Not all musicians learn music theory, but most find it helpful to have a shared language to discuss music in specific terms with other musicians. This, along with increasing your own depth of musical understanding, is the whole point of learning music theory.

If you’ve ever felt like the musical conversation is over your head, and surpasses your level of understanding, don’t worry too much about it. Anyone can learn music theory, and there isn’t anything mysterious about it.

Different Approaches to Studying Music Theory

There is no single unified approach to studying and learning music theory. Every school teaches theory differently, and there are variations on many of the terms in use. The focus and style of teaching music theory differ not only by institution, but also by instrument and country. A guitar player might take a different approach to learning and applying music theory on their instrument than a clarinet player. Music theory in Europe may differ in some material ways from what is taught in the U.S., or in China, for that matter.

In the U.S. we study a Western-style of theory, meaning that it is “contemporary,” but based on American and European classical, pop, and jazz traditions. Technically, our (Western) theory is called tertiary harmony, which is just a fancy way of saying that we make chords by stacking notes in intervals of thirds. We use the term chord scales to describe the melody-harmony relationship within the context of chord progressions. For our Western music theory, it’s important to understand how scales, chords, and melodies relate to each other in the harmonic context.

I’ll explain these and other terms in more detail below, but for now, we should state that music theory is not limited to the study of Western musical styles. There is a great body of musical works outside of the Western musical tradition that is equally worthy of study, not all of which is written. Music is an aural art form. African polyrhythms, Indian ragas, and the Indonesian Gamelan orchestras come to mind. Though we understand music theory is not limited to Western styles, for the purpose of this article we are discussing what is taught and learned in the European-influenced West.

Not all musicians learn music theory, but most find it helpful to have a shared language to discuss music in specific terms with other musicians. This, along with increasing your own depth of musical understanding, is the whole point of learning music theory.

Main Music Theory Topics and Music Theory Terms

Starting at the very beginning, here is a comprehensive list of theory topics in contemporary music, with short descriptions and subtopics. While not all-inclusive, the list is meant to be relevant for the beginning to intermediate music theory student, and for those preparing to enter a college or conservatory music program.

Basic (beginner) music theory topics:

  • Rhythm: Note values, rests, ties, dotted notes, meter, time signatures, measures, imaginary bar line
  • Pitch: Clefs, note names, accidentals, key signatures, notation of stems and beams
  • Scales: Circle of 5ths, major scales (sharp keys and flat keys), relative minor, major and minor pentatonic, blues scale, modes of major scale, harmonic minor, and melodic minor
  • Intervals: General interval types, specific interval types (perfect, major, minor, augmented, diminished), inversion of intervals, simple and compound intervals
  • Chords: Triads, sixth and seventh chords, tensions

Intermediate to advanced topics:

  • Major Key Diatonic Harmony: Diatonic triads and seventh chords,
  • Roman numeral (functional) analysis, tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords
  • Secondary dominants and related II minor seventh chords: Dominant cadence, tritone resolution, secondary dominants
  • Substitute dominants and related II minor seventh chords: Tritone substitution, possible related II minor seventh chords
  • Minor key diatonic harmony: II minor seventh flat 5 chords
  • Chord Scales: Melodic/harmonic analysis

I realize this may seem like a lot, and it is. Keep in mind, however, that it is not endless. Once you have covered these topics and understand them, you won’t have a whole lot more to study. Instead, the challenge becomes how to apply this knowledge in composing and improvising music. Realistically, for some students learning all topics on the above list might represent a year or two of structured classes or private or self-instruction. Having personally taught music theory for many years, I’ve also seen some students assimilate all theory topics in as little as three months. Music theory has an element of math to it, so if you are strong in math, you will likely find the topics easier to learn. It also helps if you play an instrument fairly well (whether you read music or not).

Musical Terminology: A Few Clarification and Definitions

Now let’s back up a bit and clarify some terms. You should find these definitions useful since they are the most frequently asked about terms in my teaching experience. Keep in mind what I said earlier about putting names on things you already know.

  • Diatonic: This means that all the notes in a melody or a chord progression come from the same scale. For example, we could say that the melody and chords of a song are all diatonic to the key of C major, if they use only the notes from the C major scale.
  • Interval: The distance between two notes. We can classify intervals based on their type (perfect, major, minor, augmented, diminished) and whether they are smaller or larger than an octave (simple or compound, respectively).
  • Key Signature: Comes at the beginning of a piece of written music, just after the clef and before the time signature. Indicates the number of flats or sharps in the key.
  • Accidentals: Sharps, flats, or natural signs placed before a note to raise or lower the pitch. Accidentals are canceled by a bar line.
  • Meter: A recurring pattern of strong and weak beats in an established pattern. The most common meter is 4/4, also known as Common Time.
  • Time Signature: The vertical arrangement of two numbers in the staff following the key signature and clef. The top number indicates how many beats in the measure (bar), while the bottom number shows the note value that receives one beat.
  • Enharmonic: Different names for the same note or chord. For example, G flat is enharmonic to F sharp.
  • Harmonic Rhythm: How quickly the chords change.
  • Root Motion: The intervals of the roots of the chords, either up or down.

There are many more terms I could explain, but perhaps it’s best to gather some books on the subject (I will recommend a few in the 2nd installment of this series), and consider designing your own program of self-study, or get with a Teacher or a class. If you are college-bound and looking for a teacher, it would be best to find someone who attended the school you are applying to, as they will be best prepared to orient you to the system used there. Remember that all schools teach music theory slightly differently.

(End of part 1 of the series.)

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