Is Music Theory Necessary?

Writing music

“I would not for the world forego my humble share of music. I am strongly persuaded that after theology there is no art that can be placed on a level with music; for besides theology, music is the only art capable of affording peace and joy of the heart.”

Martin Luther

Which came first, the rules of theory or the inspiration of the gifted composer?

Many musicians feel that inspiration comes first and brings in its wake a host of critics determined to justify and explain the music. Music theory, however, cannot be discounted as a bunch of useless rules. Knowledge always serves as the foundation for creating anything successful and beautiful.  Music theory, at it's essence, is simply the study of how music works. It helps us understand how music fits together and why music sounds the way it does. 

Why should you know basic music theory?

  • Understanding how music is written helps you become a better sight reader
  • Feeling the flow of the music makes you a better musician
  • Understanding the music gives the musician the ability to improvise or modulate to another key to make the music more pleasing and exciting
  • The ability to use lead sheets or Fake Books (melody line and chords) allows you to play almost anything anywhere
  • Knowing which chords to use with your melody allows you to compose for your own enjoyment or for professional use
  • Playing by ear comes easier

For Composers, Musicians and Listeners

For Composers

Music theory is a necessary tool that guides the composer in putting his or her creation to paper in a way that sounds pleasing, exciting and enjoyable for both the musician and the listener.

Without a basic understanding of the theory of music, it is difficult to make a string of notes sound pleasing. If you do not know which notes and chords go well together and why, it will be difficult to even begin composing.

If something doesn’t sound right and you do not know music theory you will not know how to fix it! Your only alternative will be to keep trying different notes or chords at random until you find what sounds well with your melody.

For Musicians

If the notes have no pattern or direction, the music will be disjointed and difficult to play. The more theory you know, the better you will perform and the better you will be able to play and enjoy what the composer had in mind.

For Listeners

Music is a gift to the human spirit. Do you enjoy classical, jazz, pop, blues, rock, sacred, or easy listening? Music Therapy has been proven to relieve stress and to set a mood. Behind the scenes, most likely the composer was knowledgeable as well as creative.

Michael Hammer ( gives the example of a composer who ignored an improperly resolved seventh chord. In other words, the chord was used incorrectly and sounded awkward. Even though the performer or listener may not know why, their ears knew that section of the piece was unpleasant. 

Therefore, understanding musical construction helps to distinguish what works and what doesn't work musically.

For Everyone

Knowing theory provides the composer, musician, and listener an insight into the heart of the music. This understanding gives us an awareness of why a composer chose the notes and rhythms and enables the intent of the piece to shine through.

For the beginning music student, music theory is essential to learn the basics — time signature, key signature, scale formations, intervals, chord progressions, to name a few. If the study of music theory becomes confusing, seemingly useless or frustrating, it is time to take a look at the bigger picture.

Never let theory study reach the point where theory is dreaded and gets in the way of enjoying playing. Rather, keep in mind that the more your music makes sense to you, the more you will be able to do with your talent. Personally I find music theory both helpful and fascinating!

At what point, then, does music theory become unnecessary? Or does it? That depends entirely upon the individual and what you intend to do with your music. If you plan to go into any field of music, then you need to continue studying theory. Music is a language, and an understanding of how music is created and performed is essential if music is to become your occupation.

If you are taking music lessons for your own enjoyment and the study of music theory becomes a hindrance to your enjoying the piano, talk with your teacher to determine if you know enough of the basics to discontinue additional theory.

In Conclusion

Music can soothe the soul and stir the spirit. Musicians convey a depth of feeling when they truly love making music. That said, don’t let theory drain all the joy out of your music. What's important to understand is simply this:  a basic understanding of theory will be of great benefit to you in creating, playing, and appreciating music.

Keep Making Music!
Miss Darlene