You don’t need to know anything about music theory.
If you want to learn to play an instrument, you can do that without knowing music theory.
You can also write music and enjoy music without knowing a single thing about it.
But learning music theory does have some incredible advantages.
We’ll cover all of those below, along with our detailed introduction to music theory.
Table of Contents
- 1 What is Music Theory?
- 2 How To Learn Music Theory
- 3 Harmony In Music
- 4 Melody In Music
- 5 Rhythm In Music
- 6 The Benefits Of Music Theory
- 7 The Fundamentals Of Music Theory
- 8 Summary
What is Music Theory?
Very simply, music theory is the study of the methods and processes used to create music. It can also be defined as the study of the possibilities of music.
Essentially, music theory is the study of what makes music. As well as what can be used to make music.
This is different from musicology, which is the academic study and research of music. Specifically, music that already exists. In contrast, music theory is the study of what music can be and can become.
Music theory focuses on the mechanics of creating music. Not the impact music has on culture and society or the history of music.
Any piece of music can be broken down into separate parts. Music theory is the understanding of how these parts work together. It is also the study of which parts don’t work together and why.
Music theory also explores how these sections can be used in different ways to create new music.
To some people, music can appear to be an abstract and intangible concept. But music theory provides the logic behind the sound waves that we all enjoy.
Music theory provides the “how” and the “why” behind why music sounds the way it does.
How To Learn Music Theory
To learn music theory, you don’t need to be able to play a musical instrument nor have any musical training. And conversely, you don’t need to study music theory in order to play an instrument.
Of course, the two skills overlap and interconnect. And are fundamentally reliant on one another.
If you are a musician, studying music theory will give you a greater understanding of what exactly you are playing. It is especially useful if you want to compose and create your own music. This is true, to an extent, with musicology.
Understanding the cultural significance of music is important for all musicians. It is arguably important for all people.
There are very few people who do not participate, consume, or create music in some way. Music is intrinsic to human life.
Whether you are a musical prodigy or completely tone-deaf, music plays a major role in your life. From listening to the radio, to movie soundtracks, to the muzak played in elevators.
Human beings have been creating music for tens of thousands of years. The oldest musical instrument ever found dates back 35,000 years.
When you first begin studying music theory, it is important to bear all of this in mind. But it is also important to recognize that you probably don’t know as much as you think.
Music theory, at its very simplest, can almost seem obvious. But even if you come across information that you think you already know, it’s worth still reading through it.
Studying doesn’t only mean learning new information. It is about going over the information and facts that you already know and reassessing them.
When reading something basic, you might find a perspective that you have never considered before. And this is very important in music theory. Going over the basics is what helps to create new ideas, sounds, rhythms, and, of course, music.
Music theory, unlike other kinds of musical education, doesn’t need to involve instruments. Instead, your best friend is a book.
It will, of course, be helpful to listen to music alongside studying. But reading theories, explanations, and ideas is the best way to learn music theory.
Once you have read and understood a concept, then it’s time to seek out some music. Listen carefully to different songs and pieces. And try to notice when certain concepts are used.
Harmony In Music
Harmony is a word that is used a lot in everyday language. We will often say that two people are “working in harmony” when they work well together. And this is not far from the musical definition.
Merriam-Webster specifically define harmony as:
- 1 a: the combination of simultaneous musical notes in a chord: “She taught him how to sing harmony.”
b: the structure of music with respect to the composition and progression of chords: “a song with complicated harmonies and rhythms”
c: the science of the structure, relation, and progression of chords
- 2 a: pleasing arrangement of parts : CONGRUENCE: “a painting exhibiting harmony of color and line”
While these definitions are not all directly related to music, they all reference it in some way. A harmony is the combination of several individual parts to make one single part.
If two people were to sing “harmoniously”, they would do so by singing so that their voices complement each other, rather than singing in two different ways.
When people use the word harmony, they usually mean parts that come together to make something pleasing and enjoyable. However, this is not always the case.
In music theory, the study of what does not sound pleasing is just as important as studying what is pleasing and enjoyable.
The definition to focus on for music theory is 1c, “The science of the structure, relation and progression of chords.”
In music theory, there are two different kinds of harmony. They are dissonant harmony and consonant harmony.
Generally speaking, dissonant harmonies are a combination of pitches in a chord that are harsh, grating, and difficult to listen to. Consonant harmonies are a combination of pitches in a chord that is pleasing, agreeable, and easy to listen to.
Dissonant harmonies are also sometimes referred to as “unstable harmonies.” And consonant harmonies are also sometimes referred to as “stable harmonies.”
Before studying music theory, most would not describe a chord that is harsh and grating as a “harmony.” But that is simply because few pieces of music will intentionally use a dissonant harmony.
When looking to create music, especially music that people will enjoy listening to, a lot of composers and musicians strive to create a consonant harmony.
Of course, music does not solely exist for commercial consumption. And many composers and musicians will intentionally create dissonant harmonies for artistic expression.
Dissonant harmonies can also be used in movie and TV soundtracks. They can indicate a moment when a character has committed an error. Or signal when something bad or scary is about to happen.
But, generally speaking, few people will intentionally sit down to listen to a piece of music with a dissonant harmony. Dissonant harmonies are primarily used to indicate moments of tension in a piece of music.
A consonant harmony is the opposite of a dissonant harmony. Consonant harmonies are used much more commonly in composition, especially by composers and musicians who are creating music that is intended for enjoyment and entertainment.
Dissonant harmonies are specifically used to denote a certain feeling of tension and to create unease. It is not the go-to structure used by most composers.
For example, a composer or musician creating a pop song will create consonant harmonies. This is because consonant harmonies are pleasing to the ear. Most people enjoy them.
That is not to say that some people do not enjoy listening to dissonant harmonies. But this is generally not the case.
If you listen to a piece of popular music, there is a very good chance that it is structured with consonant harmonies. Otherwise, it would result in fewer people listening to it, fewer radio plays and online streams, and thus generate less profit.
Dissonant harmonies can often cause a physical reaction from the listening. They are unstable and create a sense of unease, whereas consonant harmonies create a sense of peace and calm.
These can be masterfully used within a piece of music to indicate emotion and create tension. But also to obtain a reaction from the audience.
Consonant and dissonant harmonies are not used in isolation. A piece of music can contain a range of different harmonies, especially if the music is, for example, part of an opera.
In pieces which tell a story or express emotion, consonant and dissonant harmonies can be alternated to create different senses and feelings.
Melody In Music
Melody is an incredibly important facet of music. A melody, simply put, is a succession of notes that make a piece of music satisfying. This can be made through notes on an instrument or through voices alone.
- 1: a sweet or agreeable succession or arrangement of sounds: “whilst all the winds with melody are ringing” — P. B. Shelley
- 2: a rhythmic succession of single tones organized as an aesthetic whole; a hummable melody: “the piper’s fingers play the melody on a pipe called a chanter” — Pat Cahill
A melody is constructed using two elements; pitch and rhythm. There are two different types of melody: conjunct motion and disjunct motion.
As you can see from just this section, the elements and parts which make up a single piece of music are complex. And each part is made up of different elements as well.
Here are more in-depth explanations of the different parts and elements which make up different kinds of melodies.
Pitch is a little difficult to define. In the simplest terms, for something to be at a certain pitch, then it is set to a musical key. In scientific terms, pitch is “”the property of a sound and especially a musical tone that is determined by the frequency of the waves producing it : highness or lowness of sound” (Merriam-Webster).
So, pitch is the audio vibration produced by an instrument. A melody is made up of an arrangement of pitches to make up a piece of music.
Most people have a sense of what rhythm is. (However, not everyone has a sense of rhythm themselves.)
Even if most people wouldn’t be able to define what a rhythm is. It is something that most people intrinsically understand.
Rhythm in music is the placement of sounds in time. In a piece of music, the rhythm dictates where certain sounds will appear.
Rhythm is a little more complicated than pitch. Musical rhythm is itself made up of multiple parts. All of these parts work together to create the rhythm of a piece of music.
The rhythm is incredibly important in music. In fact, a piece of music cannot exist without rhythm. Otherwise, the music has no order nor sense of time and organization.
Rhythm is arguably the foundation on which all other aspects of music sit.
You can create a piece of music without melody. For example, a piece of music made up entirely of drums. But a melody cannot be made without a rhythm. The notes would have an order, but they would not have anything to follow.
If a person playing a piece of music does not have a sense of the rhythm, they will not know when to play certain notes. Even when following sheet music, the rhythm is necessary to know when to begin playing, when to pause, and when to play again.
Here are the elements which make up rhythm:
- Strong and Weak Beats
- Time Signature
Conjunct motion, also referred to as “steps”, refers to the gap between two consecutive scale degrees. When someone is playing a scale, the conjunct motion or steps is the space in between.
Conjunct motion, in contrast to disjunct motion, has small steps. These can be whole or half steps, but they are always shorter than disjunct motion skips.
Conjunct motion is the most natural way to play a scale. It is also the most enjoyable and pleasing to the ear.
Disjunct motion is essentially the opposite of a conjunct motion. Disjunct motion, also known as “skips” or “leaps”, are gaps within two consecutive scale degrees. But they are much longer.
This can make the melody more difficult to sing, because it goes against the natural way in which most people would sing or play. Things like this are what can make singing lessons necessary.
To make a melody, the composer can use either conjunct motion, disjunct motion, or both. Conjunct and disjunct motion are most commonly used together. This alters the sound and flow of the melody, allowing the composer to create a pleasing melody or one which is more agitating.
Rhythm In Music
As mentioned above, rhythm is essential to the creation of any kind of music. A piece of music, if created without rhythm, will be next to impossible to play. And almost certainly impossible to enjoy.
Here is a breakdown of the exact parts that make up different kinds of rhythm.
When most people think of rhythm, they think of the beat. This is what you clap along to when listening to a song.
It is easily identifiable and generally very strong. In a piece of music, the beat is like a pulse. It is (usually) consistent and is the underlying rhythm on which all other aspects are based.
Meter is a pattern of strong and weak beats. This can be regular or inconsistent. Meter isn’t something that you can generally hear. Rather it is a sense within the music that can be followed by musicians and singers.
The time signature is the number of beats per measure. The measure, sometimes called a “bar” refers to the number of beats within a certain time period.
When looking at a sheet of music, you will see that it is made up of boxes and horizontal lines. The boxes which divide up these lines are the measure or bar. The time signature indicates how many beats will be played within the measure or bar.
Tempo (Beats Per Minute/BPM)
Tempo is another well known word. And it is often confused with the beat. But whereas the beat is a constant underlying rhythm, tempo is subject to change.
The tempo indicates how fast or slow a piece of music will be played. When beginning to play a piece of music, understanding the tempo is incredibly important.
A piece of music can be played at any speed. The notes spaced across the bars will vary depending on the melody.
But not every piece of music will sound right at any speed. So knowing the tempo allows the musician or singer to know the speed at which the music will be played.
Strong And Weak Beats
Strong and weak beats are different from “the beat.” The strong beat is the downbeat. And the weak beats are the offbeats.
The downbeat is the first beat of a bar. Some people describe all “on beats” as any beat that is on the count. But this isn’t the case.
These are also the strong beats. The structure of strong and weak beats is consecutive, with the up and downbeats usually alternating.
Syncopation is stresses or accents of the offbeat. This is not the most natural or common method of creating a rhythm. The on beats are usually stressed the most.
Syncopation is used most commonly in jazz. It allows for more improvisation and alters and upends the most traditional styles of rhythm.
An accent is the emphasis placed on notes. For example, in syncopation mentioned above, the offbeats are accented. This is similar to the use of the word accent in most other contexts, including in language.
The Benefits Of Music Theory
As mentioned before, music theory is not necessary for playing an instrument. And for some composers, understanding the elements of music comes naturally. Little study of them is necessary.
But there are a huge number of benefits to studying and learning music theory. This is true or composers, musicians, and singers, but also for listeners and fans who cannot create or play anything themselves.
Improve Musical Development
As a composer, this is one of the most important benefits of music theory. Knowing and understanding the most basic and fundamental elements of music is incredibly useful. It allows a composer to create a piece of music from the bottom up.
A composer who understands music theory will know exactly which elements create which parts of music. This allows a composer to piece together these parts to create music.
It also allows for greater experimentation. Understanding the basic and fundamental aspects of music allows the composer to use them in interesting and new ways.
It is similar to a painter understanding how the paint, the brushes, and the canvas are all made and work together, rather than only using a brush and painting in a way that is dictated to them.
Understand How Music Works
Any good musician will have an understanding (whether learned or natural) of rhythm and melody. But understanding the more specific elements that make up these parts is also useful.
Understanding the smaller elements of music provides insight into how it creates the overall piece. Understanding how music works, whether for a musician or a listener, is also just interesting.
There are few people in the world who do not enjoy listening to music. And those who truly love it can enjoy understanding how it is made, even if the listener does not create or play music themselves.
Listening to your favorite song and understanding how and why the composer created it in such a way can increase the enjoyment of it.
Break Through Creative Blocks
An understanding of music theory can help a composer when they hit a creative block. It can allow the composer to strip away many parts of the piece and get right back down to basics.
This can help the composer rework small elements that are impacting the overall piece. It can allow the composer to listen carefully to the piece.
And it can give them a greater understanding of how changing small elements, such as upping the tempo slightly, can hugely impact the piece.
Easier To Build Chord Progressions And Melodies
For some people, it is easy to create progressions and melodies. But not for everyone. And even if you find it easy, understanding the small facets that make up a melody can still help you build your own.
Some composers can, for example, sit at a piano and create a piece of music. But this can be made easier, more complex, and more impressive with an understanding of music theory.
Help Achieve Expression And Evoke Emotion
When listening to a piece of music, we notice the melody most of all. And sometimes the rhythm if it is especially strong or weak.
But understanding music theory can help a composer control the elements of music. This can, for example, involve using a dissonant melody to create unease. Or using a strong, heavy rhythm to show consistency or a strong and willful emotion.
Improve Listening Skills
Once you understand the elements that make up music, you won’t be able to stop hearing them. You will be able to listen to a piece of music and notice how it uses rhythm, where the offbeats are, the tempo, and all other aspects of a piece. Before you might have only noticed the melody and maybe the beat.
Improve Musical Skills
Understanding music theory can help make you a better musician. It might seem like a lot of extra work for a career or hobby that already takes a lot of time and energy, both physical and mental.
But it can help provide you with a fundamental and elemental understanding of the music you play. This will help you play more instinctively. You do not have to dedicate your life to the study of music theory.
Deepens Appreciation For Music
Once you realize how many elements make up the parts which then go on to make up a piece of music, you will likely feel a great deal of awe for any composer.
Music is a normal part of everyday life. Yet as listeners we only hear the finished product. Understanding music theory allows listeners and musicians to have a greater appreciation for the creative process.
The Fundamentals Of Music Theory
The parts explored above are just some of the main ways in which music is structured. There are many other smaller and more fundamental aspects of music that are essential for studying music theory. Here are the fundamentals of music theory.
It is very likely that you know about musical notes. If you have ever looked at sheet music, the notes are the small black dots, some of which have staffs, that cover the bars. These musical notes make up the melody of a piece of music.
The Music Alphabet
Music notes, pitches, and keys are all denoted by letters of the alphabet, along with other symbols which show variation such as sharp (#) or flat (♭).
The alphabet uses the letters A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. These letters are shown by the placement of the notes on the bar.
For example, the placement of a dot beneath the bottom line of a bar with a staff reaching upward is a D. These notes tell the musician which hole to cover, which guitar string to pluck, or which key to press.
12 Keys Of Music
There are 12 keys in which any piece of music can be played. This is because of the 12 keys on a piano keyboard. The 12 keys are A, A#/B♭, B, C, C#/D♭, D, D#/E♭, E, F, F#/G♭, G, G#/A♭.
On a piano keyboard, the white keys play the natural scale notes of A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. However, on the keyboard itself, the order of the notes is C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.
The black keys play the sharp (#) and flat (♭) notes. Each black key plays two of these notes. For example, the first black key on the left plays D♭ and C#. In other words, these two notes make the same sound.
An interval is the difference in pitch between two sounds. When sounded successively, this is called a melodic interval. When sounded simultaneously, this is called a harmonic interval.
Octaves are a kind of interval. An octave is an interval between two pitches, but one is double the frequency of the other.
Key signatures are the symbols that are placed next to the staff of a note, for example ♭ and #.
Music Scales And Modes
Music scales are the notes which make up an octave. You will likely have heard people sing or play scales. They are notes which flow together and go higher and lower as people play or sing them. Scales are mostly made up of seven notes.
The major scales are the most commonly used scales. They are C Major, D Major, E Major, F Major, B Major, C#/B♭ Major, D#/E♭ Major, F#/G♭ Major, G#/A♭ Major, A#/B♭ Major. These are all made up of different notes.
The minor scale refers to three scale patterns. These are the natural minor scale, the harmonic minor scale, and the melodic minor scale.
Chords And Chord Extensions
A chord is when multiple notes are played at the same time. There is no specific number of notes, but it is always more than two. There are many different kinds of chords, all of which play off a root note. Chord extensions are chords which extend into the next octave.
How many chords are there in total? A crazy amount. But that’s not a problem. You will never need to learn the vast majority of them. You just learn chords as you go. In that way, you only learn ones you actually need.
Voice leading refers to the movement of individual voices from chord to chord.
Music theory is not necessary for playing an instrument. And playing an instrument is not necessary for studying music theory.
Music theory can be studied by people who only have an appreciation for music, but don’t actually play or create it. It can benefit you whether you simply enjoy listening to a few songs or if you are a professional musician. Music theory is absolutely fascinating.
Studying music theory is like looking into the inner mechanisms of a machine. You will see and understand so many small features that you otherwise might not have noticed.
Music theory can help you understand and appreciate music better. And it will forever change how you listen to and play music.
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