Music Theory – What Is It?

It is important to remember music came first, well before music theory. Long before pen was put to paper, man was banging away on drums with sticks to create music. You can be a good musician without ever having learned the basics of music theory. If you are hammering away at a piano that grandma has, or plucking at that old guitar stuffed in the garage and you are good at it. Then the chances are you already know lots of musical theory. You just don’t know the formulas and signs for what you are doing. Remember learning to drive? You get in the car and look at around at all the dials and knobs and switches, and a feeling of uncertainty creeps over you. Then, when the driving instructor says “turn the key” you feel like you’re about to explode. You finally get the car in gear, and after much stalling and kangaroo bouncing down the road you manage to keep the car smooth and in a straight line. You wipe the sweat from your brow and suddenly realize that not only do you have to remember what everything in the car does, there are hundreds of road signs, on posts, and written on the road. Panic!

Music theory is very much like a highway, it has rules and regulations, the same as written language like English or German, or Japanese. Remember, we as a species learned to speak before we learned to write. Once we did, we were able to pass down stories and legends from long ago, and too far off lands. Hence being able to write and read music allows us to play what the original composer intended, even if it was written 300 years ago. Have you ever tried learning a new language? Getting to grips with nouns, pro-nouns, adjectives, feminine, masculine and neuter, this is exactly like learning to read and write music. But when you’re fluent in it, you can look at a piece of sheet music and almost hear what the composer intended in your head.

Sadly there are millions of people in the world who are illiterate, that is, they can’t read or write in their native tongue. Yet they can still talk to people every day with no problems whatsoever. Much like some musicians today, who cannot read or write a single note, yet are the top of their chosen genre. The drawback is they will never be able to take that “leap” that understanding music theory affords us, or perform styles of music they are not familiar with, even learning new techniques would be difficult for them.