Introduction to Music Theory/What is Music Theory?

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What Is Music Theory?[edit | edit source]

If you're going to study something, there's a good chance that you'll want to understand what exactly it is...

Imagine that you are driving down an old highway and your favorite song comes on the radio ("One" from Metallica or "I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing" from Aerosmith, etc.). Now, you know that you can't sing at all, but it just feels like something you want to do right now. So, you start at the top of your lungs, and people are looking at you like, "Is that guy ok?" Now, I want you to ask yourself what it is that makes that song so awesome, so memorable to you. This is where music theory can come into play.

Music theory, in its basic nature, is how music works.

Music Is A Language[edit | edit source]

Songbook by Davide Restivo
Songbook by Davide Restivo

Frequently, music is associated as a fine arts subject, but the teaching and learning of music concepts are very closely associated with how language is learned. This is how I want you to think of music and music theory from now on. MUSIC IS A LANGUAGE. Think about how children are taught language-any language. We listen (aural) and then we learn to speak (oral). (Before I go on, there are so many people that ask me what aurally means. Aural is simply having to do with the ear, so if I say that we are training aurally, it means that we are training our ears). We hear others speaking; we try to model that sound. Parents recite words that children say back to them-single words identifying items. From there, children learn to speak multiple words, combining words into sentences and complete thoughts. Then the process becomes visual when the child learns to read and write the words, eventually formulating her own thoughts, creating her own ideas, and writing them down using correct grammar, capitalization, and punctuation. This is how music is learned.

We listen to music; we learn to speak it by singing or playing a musical instrument. We learn to read music, usually on one staff in a single linear fashion. If we continue our learning of the musical language, we are taught how to correctly notate and, eventually, to put our own musical thoughts and ideas on paper in the form of compositions using melodic shape and contour, chords, and cadences.

What's our Ultimate Goal Here?[edit | edit source]

Our goal is to become "thinking musicians." This means that we are able to "hear with our eyes and see with our ears." In music, as in language, the eyes and ears are connected to the brain. We see music and our ear knows what it will sound like. We hear a melody and we can visualize what it looks like on the staff. A thinking musician understands and makes the connection by overlapping the activities of seeing, hearing, and notating. Overlapping is the process of singing a melody and then notating that same melody. It means that many of the fundamental skills are both visual and aural. We must be able to identify concepts visually, perform them, notate them, and then create something of our own that is similar.

Isn't Music Theory Boring?[edit | edit source]

I have often heard people with a very negative view about learning music theory. Generally, people have two complaints when it comes to learning musical theory:

  • You'll stop being creative.
  • It's boring/difficult/pointless.

When we study music theory, we are not making a list of rules and telling musicians to abide by them. Music theory is descriptive not prescriptive:

  • Music theory describes how people create music (it’s descriptive)
  • Music theory doesn’t tell you how you have to write your own music (it’s not prescriptive).

Ok. Then, what will I get out of this course?[edit | edit source]

By the time you finish all four courses, you should* be able to:

  • Notate pitch and rhythm following standard notation practices
  • Read and notate melodies in treble, bass, and all C clefs
  • Identify, write, sing, and play major scales and all 3 forms of minor scales
  • Identify and write Church mode scales
  • Identify and write whole tone, chromatic, octatonic, and pentatonic scales
  • Recognize by ear and by sight all intervals within an octave
  • Recognize by ear and by sight all triad and seventh chord types
  • Use the basic rules that govern music composition
  • Harmonize a melody in 2, 3, and 4 parts with appropriate chords using good voice leading
  • Analyze the chords of a musical composition using Roman numerals and chord names
  • Recognize and realize figured bass notation in standard 18th century chorale style
  • Identify, analyze, and write secondary function chords
  • Transpose a composition from one key to another
  • Express musical ideas by arranging and composing
  • Understand and recognize basic large and small scale musical forms
  • Translate aural rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic patterns into various notation systems
  • Sing melodies by sight using solfege systems

Please notice that I said SHOULD. When an individual usually thinks of a career in music, usually that individual imagines doing what you love, easy times, no hardships. These people are wrong. With music, as with anything, you get out of it what you put into it. Thus, if you do all of the assignments, quizzes, tests, and actually understand most of everything and are practicing on a regular basis, then you should be able to do most of these objectives by the end of the course. If you do not put in the time and effort, then you probably won't get most of these. It's up to you.

First Assignment[edit | edit source]

Steinway & Sons concert grand piano, model D-274, manufactured at Steinway's factory in Hamburg, Germany
Steinway & Sons concert grand piano, model D-274, manufactured at Steinway's factory in Hamburg, Germany

Now that you have a pretty firm grasp on what music theory is, let's get to the course, shall we? If you care to be a registered member of this course (completely free of charge), please do the following:

Send all completed work to Once your work has been looked over, you will receive an email with more information.