You may be wondering what music theory is, and why you should worry about it. After all, you want to play music, right? Whether you’re considering lessons for the first time, or whether you already make music, you probably care most about music as a practical skill rather than theoretical.
So why should you care about theory?
At its most basic, music theory is just a way to talk about music. It is to music what grammar is to language. Many people learn to make music very fluently without studying theory, in the same way you can speak your native language fluently without knowing all the grammar rules. But it’s hard to talk about how your language works if you don’t know grammar, and it’s hard to talk about how your music works if you don’t know theory.
You probably already have ways to talk about the music you like, but how precise can you be? For example, try this: think of your favourite song. Now describe it. Does it sound happy or sad? Okay, great. Now can you explain why?
Luckily, music theory provides a set of concepts that that helps us talk about music with more precision.
What are the basic elements of music theory?
For a better sense of what music theory is, here’s an overview the basic concepts, and why we might want to talk about them in more detail.
Music always happens in time. It’s not like a painting that you can take in all at once - if it were, we wouldn’t have to devote so much of our computer storage space to our iTunes libraries!
When we talk about music in relation to time, we’re talking about rhythm. Do you know how to clap along with a song? Do you dance differently to different types of music? If you do, you’re drawing on your intuitive understanding of rhythm.
If you want to talk about why different types of dance music feel different, you need to know how to talk about rhythm.
In Western musical notation, we illustrate rhythm in a straight line. However, in this TED-Ed video, John Varney points out that a circle is a great way to show how we organize rhythm as repeating cycles.
Can you hum your favourite song? Can you feel the changes in your throat as you do it? That’s your body drawing on your intuitive sense of pitch. The science of acoustics describes this in terms of frequency, but we usually use pitch to refer to the way we hear and organize music.
If we think of rhythm as horizontal - like a timeline running from left to right - we can think of pitch as vertical. In fact, if you look at written music, that’s exactly what you see: the music is flowing in time from left to right, and the pitches change by moving up or down.
You've probably heard Pachelbel's Canon, notice how the sheet music below represents time horizontally, and pitch vertically.
Call it melody, call it the tune, call it the thing you get stuck in your head and can’t stop humming. Take a collection of pitches, organize them in time, and you have melody.
Did you ever hear a song that ended...unexpectedly? As though it had more to say? We intuitively recognize common melodic patterns, because we grow up listening to them. We know how a melody should sound when it’s ending. We can recognize a melodic line that ends like a question, and invites a response.
Melodic patterns can make music sound like a conversation. If you have the vocabulary to talk about how these patterns work, you can better explain what makes a particular melody unique and interesting!
If you have more than one pitch sounding at the same time, you have harmony. The Greek word harmonia means “joint, agreement, concord,” and that’s a great way to describe musical harmony - pitches working together at the same time.
We recognize patterns in harmony, just like we recognize patterns in melody. But with more pitches involved at one time, there are more possibilities - this means that if you study music theory at a fairly advanced level, you’ll spend lots of time learning the rules of harmony. Really, lots of time.
This doesn’t mean that everyone follows the rules when they’re creating music. Music theory lets us explain what our ears expect from music, but it also lets us describe how to break the rules and surprise our listeners.
From the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack, here’s a fragment of melody with four chords underneath. The fourth chord surprises us a little - we expected one thing, but got something that sounds...darker. Less conclusive. That’s why we call this pattern a deceptive cadence.
Another example is György Ligeti use of extremely dissonant harmonies in his piece Atmosphères. Stanley Kubric must have been looking for that eerie, uncomfortable feeling when he used the piece in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
So why should you care about music theory? Because it helps you take music apart and see what makes it tick. Theory concepts let you talk about music with more precision, but they can also show you how to be more creative with sound. Don't be afraid to dive deep into music theory in your quest to become a better musician!