Why learn Music Theory?

I'm leaving on a Jet Plane

I asked one of my friends why we should learn music theory yesterday….after I asked Google. I asked him because Google gave me other people’s thoughts and opinions that were true, but because it came from Google it felt a bit too far removed. I asked my friend, because he knows me, (Google does not, although they want me to think they do) and I could add emotion that he understands: Why is it helpful for every person that is musically inclined, to learn music theory? By musically inclined I mean that you have some sort of productive relationship with a musical instrument, be it: voice, guitar, piano, sax, flute etc.

Before I get to what he actually said, I want to give you the analogy that came to my mind after I read his reply:

I am South African. I hope I am a productive and integrated South African. Do I need to leave South Africa to understand that I’m a South African? No, I don’t. I enjoy being South African and I enjoy our country, mostly.

What if I get on an aeroplane and travel to Japan? There I will experience different tastes, a different culture, a different language. The water tastes different. Nature looks different. What if I fly to China, America, France, Germany or Russia?

On my return to South Africa, I enjoy being back, but now I have an expanded world view, because I had the opportunity to explore different countries. All of a sudden the chicken skewer on my ‘braai’ tastes a little different, because I’m using a spice that I discovered in Japan.

Now for his words: You don’t need to know music theory to be a very good musician. But if you understand music conceptually, practically and in an engaged way, music theory expands your options in making music. Also, when you learn a new theoretical concept, always try to use it in a practical way. Play it, sing it, or compose some music by using it. The ability to read music – music theory – also allows you to explore other people’s music, which give you access to greater selection of repertoire. (So you have access to another composer’s world view, emotions, etc.) Brackets indicate my words, not his.

So in a nutshell: Music theory is like an aeroplane that gives you access to other cultures, tastes and sounds, and it allows you to include those experiences into your own.

There are many different ways to explain why learning music theory is extremely helpful in being a musician, but these are my, and my friend’s thoughts today.

The video is a bit of fun illustrating that you actually know the pentatonic scale. Pentatonic scale? What’s that?

Bobby McFerrin at a World Science Festival. Enjoy!

Categories: Opinion


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