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Music Theory Matters

Music theory matters

Katie Hone Wiltgen, Chief Education Officer

March 13, 2024

When taking music lessons, we often want to jump straight to the fun, active stuff:  learning cool repertoire, performing, playing along with recordings. In other words, we want the “doing” part of music! 

While that’s all well and good (and yes, fun!), it’s also hugely important to dig into some of the less active parts of music learning. At Forte, we know that learning music theory is a great way to set yourself up for success as a musician. 

And, big reveal: learning music theory makes all music learning faster, easier, and more efficient.

🤔 What is music theory?

Avid, the maker of Pro Tools and Sibelius, says music theory is “the study of the fundamental elements that construct and govern the language of music, including notes, scales, chords, rhythm, melody, harmony, and form. It serves as a set of rules and guidelines that musicians use to create, analyze, and interpret music.”

This could include things like: 

  • reading pitches in treble or bass clef.

  • rhythmic notation and duration of notes and rests, plus how notes and rests function in different time signatures.

  • chords and harmonic structure.

Overwhelmed? Don’t be! The basics of music theory are really quite simple, but understanding even the basics can hugely improve your ability to both perform and appreciate music of all genres.

📘 Why do I need to learn music theory?

When we start to read as young children, we learn the alphabet. We learn to understand phonics, sound combinations in words, and basic grammar. We start to recognize simple words in isolation and in context.

Music theory is the pathway to musical literacy. It’s the foundational language we use to understand all music, and it’s how musicians talk about music with each other.

The elements of music theory are the building blocks upon which all music is built. When we understand the foundational basics of rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, timbre, and form, we can be musically independent, with complete understanding of our own performance.

😶 What if I don’t know any music theory yet?

Can you still be a great musician if you don’t learn music theory? Absolutely.

Does it make musical study easier and more efficient if you do learn music theory? Yes, definitely.

Consider this quote about Thomas Edison by the inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla: 

“His [Thomas Edison’s] method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 per cent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor's instinct and practical American sense. In view of this, the truly prodigious amount of his actual accomplishments is little short of a miracle.”

Much like Edison, if you study music for long enough and practice consistently enough, chances are good that you’ll eventually stumble onto a great deal of music theory understanding.

But if you intentionally concentrate on learning music theory, you’ll skip over the awkward stumbling and go straight to the musical growth, saving yourself lots of time and frustration in the process.

🚀 How do I get started?

Many Forte teachers specialize in teaching music theory in online lessons. A strong teacher can help guide you as you dip your toe into the music theory baby pool or jump straight into the deep end.

For free, online music theory lessons to work through at your own pace, check out Using the accompanying exercises is a great way to test yourself as you learn new concepts.

For an advanced, deep dive into music theory, we recommend Music in Theory and Practice, Volume 1, by Bruce Benward and Marilyn Saker. It’s a hefty book that’s often used in AP Music Theory classes and for undergraduate music majors and minors, and it’s sure to help you strengthen your musical intuition, build technical skills, and gain interpretive insights.

If you’re interested in studying music theory with a Forte teacher, let us know! We can connect you with someone great.