Music Theory, or the academic study of the theoretics of music (including sound, pitch, rhythm, melody, harmony and notation), is a hot subject among musicians. The polar arguments regarding the subject are often repetitive and unyielding: on the left is the emphatic belief that learning a set of ‘rules’ will only limit…creativity, and on the right is the equally limited belief that no great work of art can be created without the use of Music Theory.
Although these extremes lack the nuances of a compelling argument, many musicians fall somewhere in the middle. The discussion begs the immediate, less theoretical question: does studying music theory help your music NOW?
I’m not here to convince you one way or the other (really–it’s all about what’s best for you and your music). Instead, I’ve laid out some pros and cons, and I suggest you take a look, thinking about your habits as a musician and your practiced creative process.
3 Major Pros of Studying Music Theory
1. Natural Laws, Not Ultimate Truth
One widespread issue regarding the polarized argument about Music Theory is just a plain misunderstanding. Popular belief (on the left) is that Music Theory is a set of rules and regulations that must be followed. Contrary to that belief, Dave Isaacs of Music Think Tank argues that music has always come before the theory that explains it – the ‘rules’ are secondary.
Isaacs goes on to compare Music Theory to natural laws. The laws the govern nature don’t dictate nature. Instead, nature dictates the natural laws. The natural laws are just our way of explaining the bigger, more important thing–nature.
2. Learn the “Rules” So You Can Break Them
Therefore, the ‘rules’ of Music Theory are only there to heighten your understanding of music. The purpose of Music Theory is not limitation, but freedom. The thought goes like this–have more paint colors in the artbox, create more colorful landscapes. The thought doesn’t go like this–you must use every color paint in your artbox or your painting will suck.
Beyond just paint, Music Theory is similar to grammar rules in writing. A professor in an editing class which focused mainly on grammar once told me that I must learn all the rules in order to break them. That was fiction to her.
So, Music Theory should give you more tools, but in theory, those tools shouldn’t limit you, but instead, provide you more freedom in your creative process.
3. Communicate with Other Musicians More Effectively
This is a basic, but very important “pro” of Music Theory. Studying Music Theory provides you with a set vocabulary that isn’t available to you if you aren’t familiar with Music Theory. Yes, this vocabulary can be excluding to those who aren’t privy to it. However, a collaborating group of musicians who are able to speak the same language–that pro cannot be beat.
3 Major Cons of Music Theory
1. Theory Without Practical Application
Naysayers of Music Theory are often most annoyed with one result of the study: theoretical snobbery. Beyond the unnecessary arrogance that is sometimes present in Music Theorists, there is also the much more pressing issue, the misteaching of Music Theory. I’ve had many friends (who I believe are talented musicians) complain that their college Music Theory professors teach theory without application.
The problem is widespread and often goes something like this:
“I was in my fourth semester of theory class before we reached what to me was the heart of of matter and should have been the starting point. Learning rudiments like scales, key signatures (which subset of notes belong to the major scale of each key), and how to construct chords are very useful pieces of information. But it should be stressed from the very beginning that the concept of ‘key’ refers simply to a sense of a musical ‘home’ – the note or chord that makes a musical idea sound finished.”
In the above example, theory is taught without application to the creative process. And this is a problem.
2. Writer’s Block Caused by Over Thinking
With so much information swirling around in your head, sometimes its hard to get started. Or even worse, it’s difficult to get the self-editor, or know-it-all professor in your head to shut up. And the fact is, there has to be room for error in the creative process.
3. Quickly Created, Formulaic Music that Lacks Authenticity (hello Top 40)
Due to the changing music industry today, the atmosphere to create music is not the same as it was 50 years ago. According to Digital Music News, the Music Industry has 99 concerning problems for the modern day musician. Looking at a few of these problems, it’s easy to see why studying Music Theory could actually hold you back from achieving more with your music, instead of making you more successful:
A) “Overall recording sales continue to decline, pretty much every year.”
B) “Most artists, understandably, have very little trust in major labels. And oftentimes, outright anger for them. All of which makes it difficult for labels to rally artists around their goals and agendas, or engage in collaborative, experimental, or more flexible deal structures.”
C) The internet creates a world where the typical fan is flooded by an outrageous amount of music every day. The struggle for the fan’s attention is beyond competitive.
D) “Most artists are overwhelmed with tasks that go far beyond making music. That includes everything from Tweeting fans, updating Facebook pages, managing metadata, uploading content, interpreting data, managing Kickstarter campaigns, and figuring out online sales strategies.”
E) “Thanks to heavy financial pressures, the creative process at major labels has become increasingly formulaic, overly refined, and often unsatisfying to the artists involved.”
Studying music theory may help you fit in to the formulaic, cookie-cutter process that serves Top 40 so well, but in the pursuit of your own style and art you may be better served without it. Not because music theory isn’t valuable, but because you simply don’t have enough time to dedicate to learning theory instead of getting out there to perform or write new music. When it comes down to it, what matters is what music you write and how you connect with the fans who want to listen to you; music theory is just a way to help you get there.
So what’s the solution?
Like most meaningful issues, there’s no perfect solution. As a musician in the chaos of the music industry today, you have to figure out what your priorities are and go after them. What’s your goal; what do you want to achieve? If you find that studying music theory gives you more paint to work with, then paint away. If all that paint freaks you out, throw out all the extra shades of green. At the end of the day, you’ve got to pick and choose the voices that are worth listening to, and put the rest on the shelf for another day.