Why learn music theory?

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AnthonyCFox
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Why learn music theory?

Postby AnthonyCFox » Mon Jan 06, 2014 5:41 pm

No one ever regrets having studied music theory.

Plain and simple, music theory is the structure of music. All music, that is identifiable as such, is built on the fundamentals of music theory. You would need to have an excellent understanding of music theory to write "music" that completely rejected it's principals. The result would be a completely incomprehensible cacophony that no one would enjoy or even recognize as an attempt to make music.

There are musicians who have had some success and claim they never studied music. They still use some music theory, they just aren't aware of it. The principals they apply they learned through imitating other musicians. That's not the quickest method to learn the tools of music and the range of anyone who takes that approach is very limited.

People might be put off by the idea that they have to learn to read music to learn music theory. Learning how the musical staff is laid out would be very helpful and being able to identify the note values, i.e. 1/4, 1/8, 1/16 etc. and note names is indispensable. But, those things are extremely simple to learn. The ability to sight-read orchestral scores is, in no way, a requirement. I imagine guitarists that know tablature could find materials adapted to that format.

On paper, music theory may not appear to be very logical or helpful. There are some mathematical relationships apparent, but they may seem somewhat arbitrary. Half the process of learning music theory is application. There is no way to recognize it's value by simply reading about it.

The only people who doubt or criticize music theory are those who don't know it.

Learning does takes some commitment which, I suppose, would require at least a little faith in there being a reward at the end. Music theory has thousands of years of development behind it, with tens of millions of songs created using it, to support the fact that it works. That should get someone through a few weeks of study until they begin hearing the evidence for themselves, wouldn't you think?
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tramp
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Re: Why learn music theory?

Postby tramp » Mon Jan 06, 2014 9:07 pm

No :shock:
You could use music as well to transport feelings.
Last edited by tramp on Mon Jan 06, 2014 9:20 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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DoosC
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Re: Why learn music theory?

Postby DoosC » Mon Jan 06, 2014 9:15 pm

Funny that you are talking about that. I am that kind of self taught musician who took years to learn only a few things, by ear and by mimicking what others do. :mrgreen:
I can't agree more that it is not the quickest method and that this approach is very limited. :roll:
I have always been stopped by how tedious learning how to read staff can be. Also the only people I know who knew about music did it the classical way by painfully learning solfège. :(
But I recently have discovered that there is another way and that music theory can exist apart from solfège. :D
In weeks I have learned more that in years! I am particularly fond of Michael Hewitt's approach of teaching things in his book series "for computer musicians" (1) music theory, 2) composition, 3) Harmony). I wish I had learned all of this years ago and that someone has showed me this "other" way.
Do you know of any valuable free on-line resource that could complement this ? 8)
I'm kind of in a musical retreat right now where I want to learn the theory before going back to making more music (or being able to again) because I got stuck by the limitations mentioned above. :oops:

Cheers.
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Re: Why learn music theory?

Postby raboof » Mon Jan 06, 2014 9:51 pm

DoosC wrote:I am particularly fond of Michael Hewitt's approach of teaching things in his book series "for computer musicians" (1) music theory, 2) composition, 3) Harmony).


I just browsed through 'music theory', and while I'm familiar with most things he covers, his clear style neatly building the theory from the ground up looks really quite good. Thanks for mentioning it.

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AnthonyCFox
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Re: Why learn music theory?

Postby AnthonyCFox » Mon Jan 06, 2014 10:03 pm

DoosC wrote:Do you know of any valuable free on-line resource that could complement this ? 8)


Nothing specific. You might try using a notation sequencer like Rosegarden. You can enter the examples into that and at least hear them. While you were doing that you would be getting more comfortable with notation. If you are a guitarist, you can do that with Tuxguitar and it will show the examples in tablature.

Most of the basic music theory is about scale degrees and intervals, so if you know the major scale you can learn a lot with very little reading of music.

You know that on the musical staff the lines are, starting from the bottom line and going up, E, G, B, D, F (Every Good Boy Does Fine) and the spaces are F, A, C, E (FACE) right? That's pretty much all you need to know for music theory. Though, I know getting comfortable with it takes a little time.

tramp wrote:No :shock:
You could use music as well to transport feelings.

AnthonyCFox wrote:No one ever regrets having studied music theory.
War, crime, disease, starvation, extreme poverty; these are serious things.
Music? Not so serious. Have some fun! :D

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Re: Why learn music theory?

Postby Quirq » Tue Jan 07, 2014 12:46 pm

I could be contentious and state that there's no such thing as music theory :shock:

There are, however, theories of musics – each music has its own theory. Jazz theory is very different to the theory Bach used and that's just two small parts of just Western music.

Again, I could be contentious and state that there's no such thing as music theory :wink:

It depends on what you mean by theory.

I think one of the problems with music theory is that a lot of people misunderstand what it is and this misconception is probably down to its name. It's not a theoretical framework in which musical practice exists, it's a post-hoc explanation of what musical practice has done and rationalisation for why it worked. It's descriptive rather than prescriptive.

I hang out a lot on the KVR Audio forums and in the theory sub-forum over there you regularly see noobs and wannabe musicians/"producers" getting the wrong end of the stick and treating theory like it's a recipe for making music – do this, do that, don't do the other – before they've really got to grips with practical music. I'm not saying you have to play an instrument to be a musician, but it must be difficult to learn theory without the practical laboratory that a traditional instrument provides. You see them using theory as an instruction manual that mustn't be deviated from – sure, theory's useful and cuts through learing by pure trial-and-error once you understand it, but the cart shouldn't lead the horse.

Thinking back to my upbringing, practice came first. Yes, you learnt enough fundamentals to be able to learn to read music, but beyond that it was all practical at the start and the theory came later, usually when you were up to standard to start taking exams. In the very beginning scales were learnt by rote, but as time went on the theory was introduced to explain what had gone before and it cut through having to learn a lot of stuff, like learning all the scales as individual things (although you still have to to some degree when it comes to fingering on the piano) because the theory shows how they are all constructed.

I'm not sure I consciously know much theory, but I'd hope I instinctively know a reasonable amount, all built from experience of playing, in numerous orchestras, bands and ensembles. I'm glad I did learn it that way and I'd hate to have to learn it as an adult, I can't imagine it's a lot of fun.

So, I agree that theory is important, provided it's learnt for the right reasons i.e. as a short-cut through a lot of trial and error by understanding what has often worked, but without being prescriptive of what one should do – there's always the old adage of "if it sounds right, it is right". The theory might just take a little while to catch up :lol:

A couple of random observations. I've never seen the point of sol-fa, it always strikes me as being an unnecessary obfuscation, but then I've never been exposed to it so don't have much of an understanding at all.

Secondly, some people seem to get very uptight about tab as if it doesn't count if it isn't on a stave. I don't see the problem if it helps people to learn, besides which it is a valid form of musical notation and it isn't like it's some modern, dumbed-down invention – it's been around for centuries :lol:

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AnthonyCFox
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Re: Why learn music theory?

Postby AnthonyCFox » Tue Jan 07, 2014 4:53 pm

Quirq wrote:I'm not sure I consciously know much theory


AnthonyCFox wrote:The only people who doubt or criticize music theory are those who don't know it.
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Re: Why learn music theory?

Postby Quirq » Tue Jan 07, 2014 8:25 pm

AnthonyCFox wrote:
Quirq wrote:I'm not sure I consciously know much theory


AnthonyCFox wrote:The only people who doubt or criticize music theory are those who don't know it.


I'm going to assume good faith and that you simply didn't understand what I wrote, rather than deliberately misconstrued it to score a point by trying to put words in my mouth.

Re-read what I wrote and try to understand it. I am not critical of music theory, I'm critical of people who misunderstand what it is and think it'll be a rule-book that will allow them to be musicians. Making music is what makes one a musician and one doesn't need to formally know music theory to make music -- it will help people make music with less reliance on trial and error and have a better understanding of what they're doing -- but music can exist very well without theory and theory will come along later and describe the music. Music drives theory, not the other way around (except perhaps in extreme cases like serialism and listen to how that turned out :lol:).

I'm all for people learning theory, but they should learn it because they know and understand why they need to, at the time that is right for them and theory that is appropriate for them -- basically for the right reasons, to understand what they're doing, not to use it as some rulebook that they'll be hidebound to. Types of jazz were decried as not being music because the then-current theory said you simply couldn't use those notes, dreadful!, cacophany! The music came first and theory, the description of the music, caught up later. This is the crux of my argument, that "theory" isn't theory in many senses of the word, it isn't rules that must be obeyed, it isn't "the structure of music, it isn't a decree that "this is how music works" and it's a problem when people approach theory expecting it to be that. It's a set of guidelines, rules of thumb that work successfully most of the time in specific circumstances.

Re-reading your original post, I agree wholeheartedly with this:

AnthonyCFox wrote:There is no way to recognize it's value by simply reading about it.

This is the essence of the problem that theory has, you see so many people posting on forums saying they "need" to understand it because they've read that they have to. They try to cram their heads with it, yet they still can't write or make music as they're pursuing theory as an end in itself (and hence failing to fully understand its utilisation implications) instead of as a means to further their practice of music. I'm sure music isn't alone in this; photography forums are probably plagued by newbies slavishly applying the golden rule or rule of thirds and wondering why their pictures are still shite :lol:.

As for my comment that you quoted, again, re-read what I wrote. But to expand on that and make it explicit for you, I'm classically trained in three instruments and self-taught on others. Fifteen years of formal music lessons, daily practice, daily band, ensemble and orchestral rehearsals and the theory sinks in -- it's innate, I just can't necessarily enunciate a lot of it because it wasn't formally taught in lessons in front of a blackboard. You have to pass a theory exam before you can take the higher grade practical exams and there was a theory element to all the practical exams anyway. That innate understanding of how music works is worth a lot and I envy the people who can pick it up really quickly just by listening to others, people who have a feel for it -- if they can do that, it's a valid way of learning and more power to them. It, reputedly, never harmed Hendrix -- and the theoreticians have been writing about him ever since, analysing what he did and how it worked. Theory's great, but it isn't the be-all and end-all.

By the way, something I meant to mention, but forgot to... What you said about EGBDF and FACE, whilst not wrong, isn't the full picture, it's a gross over-simplification to say it's pretty much all you need to know for music theory. Yes, I realise you were talking specifically about reading music to understand theory, not understanding the whole of this mythical entity of music theory itself :wink:. But what about the bass, alto and tenor clefs? It's a big assumption that the others aren't relevant -- it's relevant for a lot of instruments, but not for many, many others. The ubiquitous piano uses the bass clef so it isn't exactly a niche thing. You seem to make a lot of blanket statements and assertions, including the one where you quoted yourself. You assert that anything that rejects the principles of what you see as music theory ergo isn't music -- but it depends upon the definition of music that you use and could easily lead to begging the question. You assert music theory as a monolithic entity. Some non-Western music sounds cacophonous to me because I don't understand its theory, but wait, I understand music theory, what's going on?! It's just a different theory, describing a different music -- both are valid musics, but that doesn't make Western music "music" or unmusical just because it doesn't fit with gamelan theory. Must I learn gamelan theory? Would I regret it? Yes, I would, it would be a huge waste of my time as I don't intend making music in that style.

As a general observation, I guess that's something else I'm critical of with theory, when people peddle incorrect information. For example, I came across something at the weekend where someone was describing chords with incorrect enharmonic spellings, which really isn't going to help anyone trying to get to grips with the theory. Details matter. When these things are pointed out you'll see the response that it doesn't matter, which is making huge assumptions that it isn't unhelpful to understanding to spell things wrongly, that everyone's working in 12TET or the Western tradition. That's why I said there are theories of musics -- theory is not one unified whole because the music it describes is not one unified whole.

But none of this means that I am critical of music theory in and of itself, it's an incredibly useful tool when used correctly and I would strongly urge people to consider learning some, mindful of what it is and is not and what it can do and what it can't.

Bugger, is that the time? I have more important things to do! There's music to write :wink:

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AnthonyCFox
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Re: Why learn music theory?

Postby AnthonyCFox » Tue Jan 07, 2014 9:33 pm

Quirq wrote:I'm going to assume good faith and that you simply didn't understand what I wrote, rather than deliberately misconstrued it to score a point by trying to put words in my mouth.


Well, it was less a matter of not understanding and more of not caring. tl;dr

The nitpicking and negativity put me off and you were clearly going off topic, so I just skimmed through what you were saying. The things you talked about in either of your posts aren't anything that most musicians worry much about and aren't directly relevant to the OP.

People who haven't learned music theory won't understand what you meant, but they will pick up on the negativity and the uber-complexity of it. That's unlikely to inspire anyone to learn the fundamentals. The basics aren't that hard. And, regardless of any disputes that may occur on the utmost bleeding edge of the advancement of music theory, the basics do matter.
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Re: Why learn music theory?

Postby Quirq » Tue Jan 07, 2014 10:28 pm

AnthonyCFox wrote:
Quirq wrote:I'm going to assume good faith and that you simply didn't understand what I wrote, rather than deliberately misconstrued it to score a point by trying to put words in my mouth.


Well, it was less a matter of not understanding and more of not caring. tl;dr

Oh, I'm sorry for trying to discuss things on a discussion forum, silly me :roll:. If you didn't care, why bother reading at all, or replying? That's a rhetorical question.

AnthonyCFox wrote:The nitpicking and negativity put me off and you were clearly going off topic, so I just skimmed through what you were saying.

I don't see how a discussion of music theory and how learning it is approached by different people is off topic for a discussion about learning music theory, but you're welcome to your opinion.

AnthonyCFox wrote:The things you talked about in either of your posts aren't anything that most musicians worry much about and aren't directly relevant to the OP.

You're probably right about most musicians, so what? Some are or might be interested. So you assert, I felt it was relevant. But I see now that you intended the thread to be just about your own view and not a discussion.

AnthonyCFox wrote:People who haven't learned music theory won't understand what you meant, but they will pick up on the negativity and the uber-complexity of it.

That comes across as rather condescending. It doesn't follow that non-theorists wouldn't understand, I was talking about theory in general terms, not actually talking theory. I wasn't being negative and that certainly wasn't complex.

AnthonyCFox wrote:That's unlikely to inspire anyone to learn the fundamentals.

And learning the fundamentals thinking it's a short-cut or "tips and tricks" that enable you to write music just like the pros in no time is going to be off-putting when realisation dawns -- things are what they are: telling people that things are other than what they are isn't going to inspire anyone either. I'm not saying that's what you said, I merely pointed out that it is often a problem with learning theory.

AnthonyCFox wrote: The basics aren't that hard... the basics do matter.

Totally agree and never said any different.

This is one of those cases where we agree to disagree and leave it at that. Enough has been said already.

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Re: Why learn music theory?

Postby aprzekaz » Tue Jan 07, 2014 11:14 pm

HMM. I was just thinking about this as I was recently insecure about my own limited knowledge of music theory. I think it is a valuable thing to understand but it's also important to remember basically what Quirk said here:

Quirq wrote:
I think one of the problems with music theory is that a lot of people misunderstand what it is and this misconception is probably down to its name. It's not a theoretical framework in which musical practice exists, it's a post-hoc explanation of what musical practice has done and rationalisation for why it worked. It's descriptive rather than prescriptive.



I didn't realize this until I took an African drumming class from from a Yoruba drummer from Nigeria. But the fact is there are other ways of conceptualizing music all together that don't fit into the "Western" music theory paradigm. There are also many things about music that cannot be accurately described in theory terms. Also, considering that music is often described as the "Universal Language" it seems odd then that it would then have to be described in Italian in order for someone to truly understand it.

I also personally find it frustrating sometimes when schooled musicians hate on music that's now "too simple" for them. I do believe that music can be used to communicate many things just by the sound or feeling it conveys and anyone that can hear it can understand it at some level.

That said, I also agree that it would not be regrettable to learn music theory and so I will keep working at it. But I will never regard it as a set of rules. :)

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Re: Why learn music theory?

Postby AnthonyCFox » Wed Jan 08, 2014 12:15 am

aprzekaz wrote:That said, I also agree that it would not be regrettable to learn music theory and so I will keep working at it. But I will never regard it as a set of rules. :)


Theories aren't rules, they are ways of looking at things. What sounds good to you, is what's most important. Music theory gives guidelines for what's probably going to sound good and what probably isn't. It mostly just saves a lot of time experimenting, by pointing musicians in directions that are more likely to work.

I look at it as a set of tools. More tools than I'm likely to ever master.
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Re: Why learn music theory?

Postby shimpe » Thu Jan 09, 2014 1:28 am

In my opinion, music theory is not only very useful, it's also incredibly fascinating (yes, really!), and it greatly expands your toolbox of techniques to apply.

While it's true that rules originally may be derived from analyzing the works of composers (descriptive), it's also true that new music in a certain style is created by following those same rules (in which case they become prescriptive). Throughout history, new styles of music have been created by taking an
existing set of music theory rules and systematically violating or adapting one or more of its rules. In that sense it's true that there's no single music theory, but
there's a whole family of music theories.

Basic principles of e.g. harmony and voice leading make sense in many music styles (pop, jazz, classical, latin, ...) - even if the exact constraints may be somewhat different across styles and historical periods. As an example: unless you systematically violate the rule and make it your "feature", writing a sudden parallel fifth in your arrangement *will* sound awkward. But unless you know the rule about parallel fifths you will spend a lot of time trying to figure out why things suddenly sound a little awkward, and how to correct it.

If you claim music theory is only descriptive, that is probably true to the same extent that all of physics is "just descriptive" (since it's inferred from observing nature), yet I think most would agree that applications of physics keep creating mind-boggling stuff. Current machine learning algorithms work by analyzing data statistically, i.e.by inferring descriptive theories from raw data, and I expect that many people would agree that those algorithms are starting to do some incredible things. There's nothing about descriptive theories that fundamentally limits their applicability to creating new things.

I expect that learning some music theory would help nowaday's musicians to break free from those eternal I - IV - V and I - vi - ii - V progressions.
Sometimes it seems like no one knows how to write something else anymore. In a way everything starts to sound the same.

Here's an interesting resource for learning the basics of music theory: http://www.musictheory.net/

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AnthonyCFox
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Re: Why learn music theory?

Postby AnthonyCFox » Thu Jan 09, 2014 1:39 am

shimpe wrote:In my opinion, music theory is not only very useful, it's also incredibly fascinating (yes, really!), and it greatly expands your toolbox of techniques to apply.


I couldn't agree more! :D
War, crime, disease, starvation, extreme poverty; these are serious things.
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Thad E Ginathom
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Re: Why learn music theory?

Postby Thad E Ginathom » Thu Jan 09, 2014 8:58 am

Surely, if a person is interested in music, then they are ...interested in music?

This goes for listeners/audience just as much as music makers.

Yes, maybe it is optional, but if a person can spend hours understanding software and making it work, I'd be surprised if that person has no interest in how music works.


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