Music theory is like chess: it doesn't take long to learn the rules and get started, but its a deep well that you can explore and learn about for a lifetime. Unfortunately, most people who approach music theory get tossed into the deep end before they're ready. Here, we plan to offer a three step approach to not only get started learning theory but retaining what you've learned so that you can use it in song writing, improvisation, or as an aid in performing music.
To be clear, only a few of the concepts of music theory are going to be explained in this article. Think of this article as guide to how you can approach a book, or even a teacher, to obtain a working knowledge of music theory.
Let's wade in...
What concepts do I need to know about music theory?
This depends on the type of music that you're interested in writing but there are some building blocks that are important to understand. Every musician would be well served by basic knowledge of intervals, chords, scales, and chord progressions.
The parts of music theory mentioned above can be thought of as building blocks. How one utilizes those building blocks depends very much on the type of music they plan to perform or compose.
Songwriters have a different set of needs than a film composer does. A film composer will probably utilize theory differently than an orchestral musician. An orchestral musician will have different needs than a jazz improviser. All of these specialties are pulling from the same universe of music but can be as different as grilling steak and rolling sushi.
Ask the question,"what path in music do I want to follow?" Answer this first.
If your answer is that you want to write songs, then taking a music theory course at the local community college may not be your best bet. While it wouldn't be a waste of time, a better route might be to find a qualified teacher who has experience writing songs themselves.
If your goal is to improvise with a jam band, than your best bet is most likely to find an improviser who plays in a way that inspires you.
When working with a teacher or a theory method book, try to relax and get into a playful mindset. When students overexert themselves they can often create mental blocks. Stress might help some students to feel motivated but for others it can cause them to misunderstand important details.
One more caveat: if you've met with an expert and you have a relaxed attitude about the learning process but it still isn't sticking, its possible that the expert teaches in a way that doesn't suit your learning style, or, they just aren't great at teaching. Teaching is a skill that is entirely separate from the understanding of any one subject.
After you have taken the step of meeting with an expert musician to learn music theory, you need to take one more massively important step... You must absolutely practice using theory in your own performance or composition.
How can I practice music theory?
So at this point, with the help of a teacher, you've determined what parts of music theory you really need to understand.
For instance, let's say that your song writing teacher has told you that subdominant chord can sound interesting after the dominant chord. Go and write 30 songs that all use dominant to subdominant harmonic motion. Ideally, write at least one song for every key.
30 songs may seem excessive but after using the concept that many times it is unlikely that you will forget. Also, the fact that these will be your songs means that you're more likely to remember how to utilize the information.
Many music theory texts introduce concepts and then move on. Many teachers can do this in person as well.
The assumption is that, "you've heard the concept and understand, okay! Let's move to the next one." Though a person may understand in the moment, it isn't until a person has used the concept actively for a substantial period of time that the student can consider it working knowledge.
When you learn a new concept, ask your teacher if there are ways to drill the concept. If necessary, create drills for yourself or begin writing songs, composing, or improvising while using the new skill.
In an ideal world, every theory text would be accompanied by a workbook that was filled with useful and pertinent exercises. Here are some websites that have great free exercises for musicians:
The piano is useful in visualizing how music works. The notes are laid out in an orderly way and the performer has no responsibility for maintaining intonation. If you play piano already or are interested in learning it then you'll have an excellent instrument on which to visualize music theory.
If you don't play the piano, and it is unlikely that you'll have the time or inclination to learn it, that's okay!
You can use the instrument that you already play! Start by learning a chromatic and diatonic scale. Learn to negotiate different intervals and build closed position chords. See what patterns you can notice between two chords of the same quality.
For instance, what similarities can you notice between the note pattern C, E, G, and the note pattern D, F#, A? Similarly, what physical patterns feel similar when you play major scales between major keys?
It's possible that "seeing theory" on your own instrument may be more useful than using the piano. Since you spend the majority of your time on your primary instrument, it can be good to know how to access theory in the moment on that instrument.
Alright! Now go find the theory knowledge that you need and put it into practice!!