When you’re learning to play the piano, it might seem like studying music theory and understanding chords and scales isn’t that important.  A lot of people assume they can skip it. Why bother learning all that stuff if you can already play the piano?

While music theory might get a bad reputation for being a bit boring, it’s actually what all of the music you are playing is made of. And, if you understand some foundational concepts about how music is structured, you’ll have a much easier time learning, playing, and remembering your music.

Believe it or not, once you dive into music theory, you’ll probably discover that it’s pretty exciting! You’ll have all kinds of lightbulb moments as you apply it to music you already play. Here are five reasons why you should give music theory a chance.

1. Music Theory Helps You Read and Interpret Your Music Quicker

Imagine reading this article and mentally spelling out every word that you read. W-h-e-n, when. Y-o-u-apostrophe-r-e, you’re, and so on. It would take too long to read,  and you’d lose a lot of the meaning of what you’re reading, getting bogged down with letters.  This is what happens in music when you approach it note-by-note rather than zooming out and looking each note as a part of a chord.

When you can observe chords in your music, whether they’re blocked, broken, or split between many voices, you can read and play your music far more efficiently.  Instead of having to pick out all of the notes in a chord such as C-E-G, you can view the chord as a unit. 

Similarly, if you have studied scales, you’ll start noticing that scales and parts of scales show up all the time in music. Being able to identify a scale, and understanding the relationship of the notes as they work together will help your music make much more sense.

2. Understanding Music Theory Will Give You Better Fluency as You Play

Once you start to understand music theory and can relate it to your music, you’ll notice that you can play much more fluently. Chords have very predictable and standard progressions, fingerings, and patterns. If you practice playing chords and chord progressions outside of the context of your music, you’ll start noticing that most music uses simple chord progressions. Transferring your understanding of chords to your music will help you play with better continuity.

Click here to check out 12 songs you can play with only four chords. See if you can pick up on some patterns!

Studying scales will help you to operate within a tonal center as you are learning music. If you ever feel like you’re fighting the key signature of your piece, you probably lack awareness of the scale that it is based on. Also, practicing scales will help you to mentally work within a key, rather than to feel like you have to remember a bunch of random sharps or flats. Those sharps or flats will no longer feel like a cumbersome part of the music. Instead, the music will seem much more logical.

For example, looking at “This Land is Your Land,” below, the piece is written in G Major. If you know the G Major scale, you’ll notice that this piece only uses notes from this scale!

3. Music Theory Helps You See the Structure of Your Music

Without the context of music theory, it might seem like some songs or pieces are just a long string of notes. It might feel overwhelming to keep track of what comes next. When you start to think in terms of chords and chord progressions, you’ll see that many songs are made up of just a handful of chords. Certain chords tend to lead to other chords. If you can observe this, you’ll learn your music quicker and be able to fall back on the knowledge you have to help you move through a piece. 

For example, say you’re stuck on the second to last measure of your piece that’s in the key of C Major. See if you can break it apart and spell out a chord among the notes in that measure. You might need to write down all of the notes that are sounding simultaneously, stack them into 3rds, and see if you can recognize a chord from it. If there are notes that don’t seem to belong, they could be neighboring tones or passing tones. If it turns out that the notes you’re having trouble with spell out a G chord, it would make a lot of sense. There’s a good chance that the next measure will have a C chord to finish out the piece. When you’re in the key of C Major, G chords very commonly progress to C chords. 

Learn the definition of non-chord tones here.

Instead of having to rely on muscle memory or trying just to play what sounds right, you’ll be able to cognitively understand what you’re playing so that you can confidently end your piece or quickly recover if you have a slip-up.

4. A Knowledge of Music Theory Can Help You Be More Creative

Have you ever watched someone improvise at the piano the thought it seemed like they were performing magic? When you’re not grounded in a foundation of music theory, improvisation does seem like magic.

Musicians who can improvise have a clear understanding of music theory. When they are improvising, they are merely pulling musical “tools” out of their “toolbox.” These tools could be scales, modes, modulation, and so much more. They acquired all of these tools by learning about music theory and the relationships between notes and chords.

If you feel like your creativity is stifled at the piano or that you have to rely on written sheet music, spend some time learning the basics of music theory and take what you are learning straight to the piano. With time, you’ll feel more and more comfortable creating your own music and unique sounds. You’ll be able to think through which notes and sounds work well together and which don’t.

5. Understanding Music Theory Makes it Easier to Collaborate With Other Musicians

When musicians are working together, we have to be able to speak a common language. When everyone is on the same page with a basic understanding of music theory, it makes it much easier to communicate and create music together. It is helpful to be able to answer questions like these:

  • What key are we in?
  • What chord is that in measure 5?
  • Why are there so many accidentals in this music?
  • What is the form of this piece?
  • What is the interval between those 2 notes?
  • How do we handle the meter change?

These are all very common questions that musicians deal with on a daily basis. If you can answer these types of questions about your music, you’ll be able to contribute and work efficiently with other musicians.

If you’ve ever been hesitant to learn about music theory, give it a chance! There are many apps and online programs that will walk you through the basics and help you practice what you are learning so that you won’t get overwhelmed. A great place to start is our sheet music reading guide, “How to Read Sheet Music: Step by Step Instructions.” Once you have a grasp on these basic concepts, check out all of our other music theory posts on Musicnotes Now. Learn about the basics, like time signatures, seventh chords, or the circle of fifths. And when you’re ready, tackle some more complex concepts, like modes, secondary dominants, Neapolitan chords, and so much more! 

Music theory is very logical and practical. Understanding it will add a new dimension to your music. One of the most beautiful parts of studying music is that it is a perfect balance of artistic expression and mathematical reasoning. If you’re missing out on the mathematical side of music, take a closer look and discover how much depth it can add to your art.

This post was written by Megan, piano teacher and author of Pianissimo: A Very Piano Blog. Visit her website for more piano related blogs for teachers, parents, students, and all things piano.

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