How Much Music Theory?

Question: How much theory is important when learning to play the piano? What’s most important to know?

– Barb (Wisconsin, USA)

Albert’s reply: This is a critical question for all music students. First, it’s important to understand the nature of music theory. In the article What Is Music Theory?, I explained that most students make the critical mistake of assuming music theory to be something separate from music, rather than the music itself and how it is composed.

When understood from this perspective, you can easily see that the more complex the music, the more music theoretical knowledge is required to understand it – and understanding the music is essential for playing (interpreting) it with any meaning.

I like to compare learning music to learning languages. Imagine an actor who needs to recite lines in a foreign language. While it’s indeed possible to learn to speak words and sentences in a foreign language without understanding what they mean (known as learning by rote), the lines thus delivered will never be convincing to native speakers.

There are several levels to music theory. The most basic level is the notes themselves and the scales and chords they form. These are music’s basic building blocks – quite literally the ABCs of music. This is the most important material to understand, and it has to be absorbed so well that it is second nature.

The next level involves combinations of notes and chords and what they imply for interpreting the music. This is a matter of musical grammar. Certain notes, such as the “wrong” notes (dissonances) occurring on the beat, need to be given special emphasis. Recognizing which notes need emphasis in the form of dynamics or articulation is the domain of music theory.

The final level is the structure of the piece, the musical architecture. As a temporal art form (i.e., unfolding over time: a piece of music has a beginning, middle and end), notes combined to form motives, motives combine to form melodies and phrases, and phrases combine to form phrase units and sections, sections combine to form movements, and movements form large-scale works such as sonatas and symphonies.

The ultimate goal is to sound natural, like you do when you speak your native language. This should be the goal of learning music theory – not merely memorizing a bunch of facts!

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