Music theory: What it is and why it’s (still) important


Illustration: Laura Bee

What comes to mind when you think of ‘music theory?’

For many of us, the term might conjure images of sheet music, textbooks, and various symbols like clefs, notes, and key signatures. While these things are absolutely a component of music theory, the reality is that many modern music creators may not be encountering them on a day-to-day basis—rather than putting pen to paper, we’re sequencing MIDI in a digital audio workstation, or finding new ways to reimagine samples.

With that, a fundamental question arises: What exactly is music theory, and is it still truly important to understand today?

In this article, we’ll be answering this question and more, exploring what music theory is, what it enables, and the perspectives you’ll want to be weary of.

Let’s dive in!

What is music theory?

Put simply, music theory is the study of the possibilities, common practices, and vocabulary associated with music. So, while it does include ideas like keys and rhythmic values, the term really encapsulates much, much more.

And whether you’re conscious of it or not, you’re probably applying even these traditional theory concepts in your music all the time—even if you didn’t notate a key signature, your song is probably sticking to a key, and even if you didn’t tie and dot notes, you’re likely observing these ideas within your beats.

This is possible because the powerful technologies and resources we now have access to enable us to make amazing music without ever needing to read sheet music or analyze counterpoint. In fact, there are many great musicians and producers who have made some incredible records without any formal training in theory.

Does theory harm creativity?

With these things in mind, some have gone so far as to make the argument that theory stifles creativity—that it confines us to a rigid box that attempts to govern us with a finite set of rules.

There’s a valid reason as to why this argument exists, but it’s also largely incorrect—here’s why.

Without a doubt, the way we navigate how to make music today is different than what we did 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. In the following section, we explore a few of the many reasons why music theory is important.

3 reasons why music theory is important

1. Music theory allows us to express ourselves

Have you ever wondered how an artist came up with a heart-tugging melody, or why a certain groove makes you want to dance? It can be frustrating 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 not only expand our ability to talk about our favorite music, but also our capacity to express ourselves in more free, rich, and nuanced 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 into 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 creation, a single term like ‘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 a simple but meaningful way. In this sense, theory allows us to be more specific, while also being more efficient.

3. Music theory 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. Conversely, we can also use them to analyze an existing song and extract what we like about it.

Some may argue that dissecting 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 you hear.

And don’t worry; you’ll never run out of those magical moments, either. With each new thing you learn, three new topics will stem from it—and that’ll be an invigorating experience.

It’s a perspective, not a rule

Hopefully the above points provide 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 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, this doesn’t make them any less legitimate at their craft. We simply want to suggest that theory helps, and certainly doesn’t hurt.

The second point is acknowledging that in many of its traditional use cases, the term can (directly or indirectly) imply a predominately Western and frankly quite old—think 17th ~ 18th century—perspective.

While there are plenty of concepts that are still relevant today, 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 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 theory is 100% useful, but it’s not (and shouldn’t be) the universal law for music creation.

Looking ahead

Hopefully, this article 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:

August 4, 2022

Harrison Shimazu

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