Why learn music theory?

Why learn music theory? I know, I know, I often hear this from my ukulele students and I know when I see their eyes glaze over that they’ve had enough. But, that is a good question. Why learn music theory?

First of all, what the heck is music theory. Well, that’s a big question with a really, really big answer. Essentially, it’s the language and the rules of music. The theory explains what we hear: the why, how, where, when of playing an instrument, singing or listening to music.

Let’s say you are on holidays in a big, strange city. You pull out your map (we are all old enough to remember a map) and look for where you want to go and how to get there. If you don’t know how to read a map then that very colourful piece of paper becomes a bunch of lines, dots, names and colours that make no sense. Understanding music theory becomes your map to understanding the music. What are all those black dots on those lines mean, the flags on the lines of those black dots, the numbers, the squiggles, the funny Italian terms and all the marks on the page all have meaning and guide you, the musician, in interpreting the music.

Knowledge of the basic elements of music will enable you to read most forms of sheet music: how a melody changes depending on the time signature, musical terms, notation, key signatures, rhythm and melody writing, harmony, pitch, clefs, intervals, and chords all help you understand what you are playing.

Understanding the language of music opens up a world of communication with other musicians, not just ukulele players. You won’t feel left out of a conversation with other musicians when they start talking about a tune they are working on and using terms that sound like gobbledygook to you. Why not learn a little and be part of the conversation. You don’t have to know much, just enough.

Know why these chords sound good together and why these notes sound good over this chord. Why do these chords sound so dark. What is that chord progression all about? How can I copy that? Where else can I use this? What that tablature means and what the heck am I playing anyway? Know why that combination of notes sounds weird? Learning a little about music theory explains why something sounds the way it does. What if you want to make that sound again. Will you know how to do that? What sounds good together and why would you ever want to make something sound “off.”

Know that each note has a pitch and on a ukulele those notes occur on different frets on different strings. When I press down up higher on the fret board the pitch gets higher. Why is that? Music theory even explains that.

If you are into improvising, learning even a little music theory will help you improvise over the chord progressions in the piece of music you are playing freeing you from the printed page. Besides, you will sound darn good and impress yourself and all your friends. That’s when you really enjoy what you are playing and start having fun.

You will feel pretty darn good when the music theory light bulb goes off and you get what you are trying to play. When that happens you might find that you are learning tunes much faster and trying songs that are only written in musical notation. The possibilities are endless. Give it a try.


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