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Music Theory: What’s in it for me anyway?

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

Music theory is probably one of the most important and most misunderstood aspects of learning the piano. It can seem like music theory means more math homework (great...), more writing, and something that’s at least as complex as rocket science!

Those that play by ear don’t even need music theory, right? So why should I?

Who would be bothered – you just want to play the piano!

If you play the piano for your own enjoyment and are interested in free lessons, read on.

What’s music theory?

Music theory is the language of music broken down in ways which are easy to understand. It enables you to understand the way music works, shows you the words you need to describe the music you learn, and gives you the tools you need to play it.

How can music theory help me?

I’d like you to imagine you are travelling to a country far from here. Imagine arriving there and not knowing how to ask where the nearest shop is. Not knowing how to ask where the closest bed is. Or even where the closest toilet is.

Pretty scary, right?

Sure, you’ll probably figure it out eventually (or you might not). Either way, the process is bound to be bearable at best, and very uncomfortable at worst.

Knowing the language is going to make your journey much more comfortable and enjoyable since you will know how to communicate effectively.

This will allow you to have more time to spend on doing the things you love, and to use your holiday time well – after all, you’ve earned it.

Need food? No problem. Need to sleep? No problem. Need a WC? Sure.

Learning music theory is the same: since you understand the language of music and know how to express it, you will use your practise and lesson time effectively, and you will create the time you need to focus on the music you love.

Is music theory hard?

Let’s be real: most English speakers who travel to a faraway country expect to speak and be spoken to in English. Watching a beaming Brit splutter their way through a restaurant order in France says it all. I should know...!

Sure, the waiter is accommodating, but there comes a point where you just need to be understood. It can feel pretty horrid relying on someone else so completely to meet your needs when you could do it effectively yourself.

The more knowledge you have the more effective your ability to order, the more likely it is that your needs will be met, and the more enjoyable your meal will be.

It would be pretty comical to watch a non-speaker who loves snails but hates garlic get around that one – come on, just settle for the bread sticks already!

It's the same with music - understand the language, understand the music.

Music theory is easy when taught effectively. The right teacher will know how to make music theory fast, fun, and relevant – and you will enjoy it as much as playing the piano.

Just to be clear: if you think that ‘learning by ear’ is an alternative to (or better than) learning music theory, try asking a Jazz session musician about music theory. You won’t hear the end of it… and by ‘it’, I mean every single scale and chord. I'm talking C∅, Cm7♭5, C-7♭5 'it'.

What music theory grade am I?

You have probably picked up some music theory along the way in your piano lessons. This is great – but again, it’s like saying you go to on holiday once a year and picked up a little French, or Spanish, or whatever. You will inevitably run into difficulties.

Taking a class will give you the tools you need to practise the language effectively the next time you go. No problem!

So, a Grade 3 piano learner will have Grade 1 theory anyway.

This may seem impressive to a beginner, but when you consider all the extra time and effort in practise and in lessons used to gain that knowledge, you’ll see that this was a time-consuming, costly endeavour.

I found this with my driving test, for example. I failed ...a few times. Before I took my test again, I read all the theory material thoroughly. I really knew it like the back of my hand - and I passed with only 2 minors! That was an expensive lesson.

For this reason, it’s best to be one grade ahead in theory than in piano. This means starting theory lessons at the same time as piano lessons. That way, you’ll know what to do to learn a piece effectively before you can even expect it.

Can you feel that French waiter walking towards you?

For example, if you want to play a piece in B flat major, but still haven’t learned the construction of a major scale, it’s going to take a long time to figure out all those notes.

Alternatively, if you are already one grade ahead in music theory you have already figured out the chords and are improvising your own tune around the piece, and even considering composing your own version.

Now that's fun!

You already know the tempo, dynamics, and articulation marks, are playing expressively, and learned the notes weeks ago.

Three pieces for the price of one – not bad!

Where can I learn music theory?

Speak with your teacher and get involved in a theory class or a theory course ASAP.

Theory lessons need to be taken separately from piano lessons as the Guided Learning Hours for each grade shows.

Your teacher will help you match your theory learning with piano practise so that it is relevant and helpful.

You will need Grade 5 theory in order to take Grade 6 piano, so best start now to maximise and sustain your enjoyment of learning the piano.

In a nutshell:

The benefits of taking music theory are:

- learning pieces easily

- playing expressively

- learning pieces quickly

- more time for the music you love playing

- independent learning

- improvising your own music

- composing and writing down your own music

Overall, the main benefits are:

- better value from lessons

- more enjoyment from piano playing

- ability to achieve your goals and dreams

For these reasons, the right teacher will take on any student seeking piano and theory lessons since they are learners who value their time, value investing in their education, and value the rewards they benefit from as a result of their approach.

Remember: if your teacher wants to help you become an independent learner who you'll no longer rely on one day - they will help you with music theory.

Incidentally, most students get theory lessons paid for anyway by free travel with online learning, as I discussed in my previous article.

So, are theory lessons worth it? Absolutely.

Enquire about theory lessons below.

Bonne chance!

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