An introduction to music theory: Why is music theory important?

Illustration: Laura Bee

Music theory is the study of the possibilities, common practices, and vocabulary associated with music.

While it was once the assumed prerequisite to music composition (especially in academic circles), in this day and age, many people ask the question: why would anyone need an understanding of music theory? Equipped with powerful tools and technologies, we now have the resources to be able to make amazing music without ever needing to read sheet music or analyze chord progressions. In fact, there are many great musicians and producers who have made some incredible records without any formal training in theory. With these things in mind, some have gone so far as to make the argument that music theory stifles creativity — that it confines us to a rigid box that attempts to govern us with a finite set of rules.

These people are wrong – here’s why.

Without a doubt, the way we make music today is different than how we made it yesterday. However, this has always been the case, all throughout history. Plus, music theory isn’t intended to be a set of rules that you can’t break under any circumstances; this is a common misconception. That said, you can’t break the rules if you don’t know them, and music theory provides these guidelines and more. Below, we explore a few of the many reasons why music theory is important.

1. Music theory allows us to express ourselves

Have you ever wondered how your favorite artist came up with a heart-tugging melody, or why a certain groove makes you want to dance? It can be frustrating to be able to experience something great, but find yourself unable to put it into words.

Music theory provides us a way to understand and articulate what’s going on in the music that moves us. If music is a language, theory is its lexicon. As we expand our vocabulary, we’ll not only expand our ability to talk about the music of others, but also our capacity to express ourselves in more free, nuanced, and rich ways.

2. Music theory allows us to communicate better

In language, we have many words that are packed with meaning. For example, a single word like ‘community’ can tell us a ton – it not only defines a group of people, but also provides insight on how they interact, and has all sorts of additional literal and abstract connotations depending on the context. If we take a look at words specific to music production, the single term ‘sidechaining’ also communicates a wealth of information: it describes a specific pumping sound, captures the techniques for how it’s created, and also carries larger implications around genre and style.

In a similar way to our everyday language, music theory allows us to condense complex ideas into concise terms and phrases. We can say things like ‘4/4’ and ‘the V chord’ to convey complex ideas to one another in an eloquent, meaningful way. In this sense, music theory allows us to be more specific, while also being more efficient.

3. It deepens our enjoyment of music

With music theory, we can gain insight on why certain chords flow into one another, how different harmonies fit together, and which rhythms accentuate one another. We can certainly use these learnings to craft our own tracks. We can also use them to dissect an existing song and extract what we like about it.

Some may argue that analyzing a song to understand its every detail makes it lose its ‘magic,’ its enigmatic touch that initially captivated you. However, there’s a separate, equally deep (if not deeper) enjoyment that comes from understanding the techniques and motivations behind the musical decisions that you hear. Don’t worry – you’ll never run out of those magical moments, either. With each new thing you learn about music theory, three new topics will stem from it. And that’ll be an invigorating experience.

That said…

Hopefully the above points gave you some perspective on why music theory is important. However, before we close, it’s worth noting two things. First, a formal training in theory is not a requirement to making great music. This might sound a little contradictory to our case, but as we mentioned above, there are countless artists who make amazing music without having a formal understanding of theory. While the reality is that these musicians almost always have an intuitive grasp of theory and simply lack the vocabulary attached to different ideas, this doesn’t make them any less legitimate at their craft. We simply want to suggest that music theory definitely helps, and certainly doesn’t hurt.

The second point is acknowledging that in many of its most popular use cases, the term ‘music theory’ often (directly or indirectly) implies a predominately Western and frankly quite old – think 17th ~ 18th century – perspective. While there are plenty of concepts in music theory that are still relevant today (which are the parts we’ll be focusing our attention towards), if you do your own digging you might find that some topics either apply differently now than they do in textbook examples, or feel more like snapshots of European history than anything else. This brings us to the idea that music theory often emphasizes a singular perspective, and one should be weary of holding it as the ‘correct’ or ‘sole’ way to make music. All of this is to say that an understanding of music theory is 100% useful, but it’s not (and shouldn’t be) the universal law for music creation.

Looking ahead

Hopefully, this piece provided a primer to what music theory is, and why it’s important. In upcoming pieces, we’ll be covering the very basics of theory, focusing on the core building blocks of music like rhythm, melody, and harmony. We hope you’ll join us for the ride.

If you’re reading this article as part of your journey towards creating your first track, go back to the curriculum that corresponds with your DAW and proceed to the next step:

October 20, 2020

Harrison Shimazu Harrison Shimazu is a music composer, content strategist, and writer who's passionate about democratizing music creation and education. He leads the Splice blog.