Why Music Theory

— 7 minute read

Why not?

Music is a language and it is full of patterns and structure. Music theory gives us tools to describe what is going on. Can you play music without it? Sure. Like any complex skill, to gain mastery of it you need to be able to understand the building blocks that make it work.

Can you recite a french poem with feeling if you don’t know what words mean? Your inflection will be weird. You won’t understand the cultural implication of certain words.

Same with music. You can play the notes but won’t understand how the pieces fit together.

Memory Lapses

Do you want to memorize faster? Memorize more securely?

I have judged classical music competitions for years and I have come to realize that memory lapses are not created equal.

There are some mistakes that you won’t make if you know your theory.

A memory lapse usually occurs in a musically complex part of the music. Students often don’t know what key they are in, what scales they are playing, and so forth.

An obvious symptom of this is when a performer accidentally plays their right hand in a different key than their left hand. They are obviously not thinking about what key or scale they are in.

A Vocabulary For Music

If you can name the thing, you have some mastery over it.

Music theory gives us tools to talk about music that musicians can understand.

A jazz group might say, “Play blues in B flat.” And everyone in the groups knows what that means.

There are scales and chords that work for B flat. There is a form to the blues that everyone understands.

It is not magic.

It is not talent.

How is it that Schubert could compose a masterpiece on the back of a napkin? How could Chopin sit down and improvise Waltzes all evening for a party? How do Jazz musicians today play all those notes “out of their head”? They hear and understand music and how it works.

Play By Ear

When you understand the language of music you can pick up things by ear much faster. You can identify the key signature and the scales the piece is using. You can identify the names of the chords.

On Memory, Skill Mastery and Chess

Let’s talk about chess. Chess has lots of patterns and takes years to master.

Knowing your note names is like knowing the names of all the chess pieces. If you can name the chess pieces, you still don’t know how to play chess.

What effect does moving one piece have on the rest of the game? Can you see what effect a play will have 2 to 3 plays into the future? A Grand Master understands all of the these relationships.

Look at the following chess board for a minute. Try to memorize where all the pieces go.

The Immortal Chess Game

The Immortal Game

Now I hand you a blank board and a box of chess pieces. How many pieces can you place correctly on the board?

Blank Chess Board

A blank chess board

What researchers found is that the better the chess player, the more pieces they could put correctly back on the board.

This was true if they showed them a board from an actual game. When they showed participants of the study a random board. Novice and Grand Master were equally bad.

Chess pieces placed correctly versus uscf rating graph

Frey, P.W. & Adesman, P. Memory & Cognition (1976) 4: 541. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03213216

This study illustrates more than just memory. It shows that the better we understand the patterns of the game the more we can remember. That’s how you can see a one chess player beat a room full of people.

They understand the patterns.

So what does that have to do with music?

We need to see and hear the patterns of music. Not just the notes.

Learn the music faster

When an untrained musician looks at a new piece of music like the following.

Frank Violin Sonata

Frank Violin Sonata

They just see random dots on the page. Beginning students will start by identifying note names and finding them on the keyboard. This is a good start.

For mastery they need to recognize the patterns of music.

I did a quick analysis of this section. This is what I see and hear when I play this piece.

Frank Violin Sonata analysis

Frank Violin Sonata analysis