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What Is Music Theory?

Question: I had been formally trained in piano quite a long ago for a short duration of time. I have not been so much in touch with it since then, but I have always been into music.

Recently I have gotten interested (very much) in music theory and will pursue it if I get a chance to do so. In the meantime, I would like you to tell me where I can find material to study music theory. I want to read and learn everything there is to it. Please let me know. And just to give you an idea of how capable I could be, I’m just going to list out some things that I can do:

  1. You play a note on the piano and tell me what note it is… then you ask me to sing out some random note… I will need less than 5 seconds to do that, and I will get it right every time.

  2. Interval identification and scale/mode identification by ear.

So now you should be in a position to suggest appropriate theory topics for me to read. Please, please let me know.


– Sylvester

Albert’s reply: This is an excellent question, since it reveals what I consider to be an underlying misconception about the nature of music theory. Most students tend to view music theory as something apart from music, and this subconscious attitude reflects itself in students’ typical inability to identify essential harmonies in the music they play or their failure to perform even a cursory formal analysis of their music.

Most piano students play notes without understanding them. This severely limits their ability to learn music as well as to interpret it.

We need to answer the question, “What is music theory?” Music theory is how music is composed, literally. It’s how music is put together, and understanding the composer’s decisions helps put us into the mind of the composer and thus makes us better able to play the music.

I believe what is most important is not purely analytical music theory, but applied music theory. The piano is the most important instrument for learning music theory since it offers polyphony (multiple voices played simultaneously) and dynamics (soft, loud, and everything in between and beyond).

It’s easy to learn to associate chords and chord progressions with piano keys. This is a far more effective way to learn music theory than simply analyzing the written score and labeling the chords.

In another article I recommended a piano theory book which I believe will be just the book you’re looking for. Bravo on your ear training… keep going and good luck!

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