Why I Should Have Paid More Attention in Music Theory Class

For much of my life, I thought that being “musical” was a matter of operating by intuition and instinct.

Playing louder or softer because it felt right. Taking more or less time because it seemed to make sense.

That served me pretty well for a while, until one day I had to learn an unfamiliar piece of music for which there existed no recording, and I struggled.

For once, it seemed that simply feeling the music and going with whatever naturally came out wouldn’t get me to where I wanted to go.

I wondered…had I reached the limits of my musical intuition?

The dot and the line

A colleague recently told me about a book she read as a young child, which speaks to this experience of mine. Titled The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, it is a cute little story about a line which falls in love with a dot, and woos her away from a squiggle.

It was adapted into the following 10-minute Oscar-winning animated short. Check it out:

What is your main takeaway?

For me, the takeaway is that pure intuition, instinct, and feel are necessary, but not sufficient. We also need some structure, some understanding of the fundamental principles that make music work, in order to take our art to the highest level.

What’s the purpose?

My oldest kid has been studying taekwondo for a few years, and one of the elements he enjoys most are the forms – choreographed patterns of stances, blocks, punches, and kicks.

These movement patterns can look almost dance-like at times, but they are not just a series of random moves. Each is a sequence of punches, blocks, and kicks against imaginary opponents. However, it’s not always obvious what each move is supposed to accomplish (though “double face punch” and “groin thrust” don’t leave much to the imagination), and this uncertainty can lead to uncommitted or lazy-looking technique.

The other day, I saw the instructor explaining to my son what the underlying objective of a particular block was. How to visualize the opponent in front of him, and which exact strikes he was blocking against.

Immediately, I saw the light bulb go on, and his movements were not only more clearly defined, but snappier, and more purposeful.

Rather than simply telling him how to position or move his arms, clarifying the purpose helped him turn things up to 11 .

Is Hindemith ranting just a tiny bit?

I wasn’t aware that Hindemith had written a series of textbooks on musicianship, harmony, composition, etc., but apparently he felt even back in the ’40’s, that many musicians lacked a sufficient understanding of the underlying principles which make music work.

In his preface to Elementary Training for Musicians he writes:

“If our performers – players, singers, and conductors alike – had a better insight into the essentials of musical scores, we would not be faced with what seems to have become almost a rule in the superficially over-polished performances of today: either the rattling through of a piece without any reasonable articulation, without any deeper penetration into its character, tempo, expression, meaning, and effect – or the hyper-individualistic distortion of the ideas expressed in a composer’s score.”

Galamian and the division of practice time

Why was the phrase written this way and not some other way? Why is there an accent here, but not there? How would I play it if there was a line or dot instead – or no mark at all? What does this suggest the composer is trying to tell me about how to approach this particular gesture?

I find questions like this to be interesting now, but for many years, I slept through theory classes and never bothered to look beyond the surface of the score.

Seems a little silly in hindsight, but at the time I thought practicing meant producing sound from my instrument. And because deeper inquiry and contemplation resulted in silence and didn’t “count” as practice time, I skipped it.

Of course, I later came across Galamian’s Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, where he describes the three categories of practice and how they fit together.

Referred to as “Building time,” “Interpreting time,” and “Performing time,” Galamian explains that we need a balance between the nitty gritty technical work, the musical/conceptual work, and the process of putting it all together.

So score study, listening to recordings for ideas, and taking time to come up with a clearer concept of how we think a phrase should sound is an essential component of our practice time and totally does count. Read more about this here in Chapter 4, which begins on page 93.

The one-sentence summary

Here’s one last indication that if we want to take things to the next level, we might have to spend some time going beyond intuition…

“The happiest genius will hardly succeed by nature and instinct alone in rising to the sublime. Art is art; he who has not thought it out has no right to call himself an artist. Here all groping in the dark is vain; before a man can produce anything great, he must understand the means by which he is to produce it.” ~Goethe

Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

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15 Responses

  1. Fantastic Article!!! I am a long time reader first time commenter. This article addresses exactly what I’ve been working on as a focus in my own artistic development and in my violin studio. Thank you for your great articles each week!

  2. Music is a language, and if you want to really understand any language, you’d better know know your grammar and spelling. If you don’t, it’s a form of illiteracy, and it will hurt you in the end. Music theory is what tells you how what you are doing fits into the whole; you must value not only your notes but everyone else’s to grasp its importance.

    This is one of the reasons why I’m glad I play a piano; our definition of music theory is pretty much “whatever your left hand is doing.” Players of single-note instruments — and I have to say it’s mostly the melody instruments like violin, flute, and oboe — can be appallingly ignorant of how what they are doing fits into the whole piece. They often like to talk about how “difficult” their instruments are to play, but you can hear some of them playing beautifully, and they don’t even know what key they’re in! O_O

    Theory tells you how what you are doing fits into everything else as a whole, how different pieces relate to one another, what they have in common, and what distinguishes them. It truly is the grammar and spelling of the language of music. And I think when you play a melody instrument, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that music consists of “my notes” and “the other garbage.” Not only is that arrogant, but it’s crippling musically.

    I ended up running headlong into this in a surprising way a little bit after starting on viola. I was playing something in C Major (of course) and ended up on a G# heading toward the relative minor. I didn’t realize how frustrating it would be for me to NOT be able to fill out that E7 chord on the G# until I couldn’t do it. It was my first musical experience at hearing notes in my head that my instrument was unable to play — because if you are on a piano, for the most part you play the whole piece. I’ve drifted away from the viola because of that — because you CAN’T reflect that deep awareness of the theory and overall structure of the piece on just the one device, and I had no idea how much that meant to me. I can see how it’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that theory is junk and composers wrote “by feel” and other things, because you really have to fight to retain a larger awareness on instruments that carry individual slices of a larger piece.

    Still … I shouldn’t have been the one telling my teacher what the relative major for C minor was and how many flats were in it, nor that an A was a fifth and not a fourth when modulating into D Major. 🙁

    I also confess I don’t get why people are so resistant to learning it. The distaste that people show when they have to confront the reality that there is structure underlying music amazes me. There is not just indifference but a real hostility to music theory among a lot of classical musicians. Jazz heads and blues guitarists usually know this stuff cold, but classical musicians seem to regard sheet music as some sort of holy scripture that cannot be questioned or analyzed without being guilty of heresy.

  3. This fundamental understanding or lack thereof seems to me to be the biggest distinction between good players and great artists. It’s also the source of virtually all my struggles as a musician now: most of my fellow students work and live by the “notes first” (read: “notes only”) approach and tell me I have my priorities messed up when I say that understanding the artistic purposes, compositional structures, and emotions of music is important. And most of all, the prospect of devoting oneself to constantly understanding better is so daunting! Well, as my conductor says, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it…

    1. Thanks for the amazing post! May I have permission to show this to my students who refuse to understand of how understanding what you are playing yields greater performance. I keep telling them the music is not made of random notes thrown together because they happened to sound nice together by chance !
      Thanks for sharing this.

  4. As a freshman conservatory student many years ago, practically half the required courses were theory or history related. I and many of my fellow students expressed our impatience with this situation — after all we had surmounted the major technical difficulties of our instrument and would shortly be playing in Carnegie Hall.

    At one point during a class in keyboard harmony, someone stood up and asked why. “Why all this theory, harmony, counterpoint, form, analysis, orchestration, etc.?”

    To which the professor responded by playing a piano arrangement of a then popular tune. After 40 years, I can still remember his performance — the exquisitely voiced chords, the soaring sense of line, the perfectly natural rhythm which transformed the music into a living, breathing entity…

    I got it – as did many of my classmates.

  5. Terrific ideas! Thanks so much. Couple of thoughts: My background was strictly “learn the notes and play it with feeling” classical study. But I always had a desire to write or arrange. (Grew up in the 50’s with Fred Waring choral arrangements and such in my ear.) Moved on with a very traditional classical musician education. Master’s Degree, career in church music. But those gorgeous harmonies still bugged me. Eventually took classical guitar lessons. One thing led to another – led to several years with a club player pianist, then a couple of jazz guitar people. I didn’t become either one, but my eyes, head and ears were really opened to new thought processes and new ways of hearing. Janis (above) is correct: These musicians know the technicalities cold. A friend who teaches jazz guitar at a university said he was asked to fill in as a basic theory teacher. He didn’t like it, because, in his words, “it’s what I DO!” – He couldn’t even relate to the “cold hard rules” mentality. Enough said. I am still a “classical musician,” but eventually did a 2nd master’s degree in music theory. It was heaven, after the earlier experiences. (especially Schenkerian anlysis, but that’s a different story.). Takeaway: If I were running today’s dedicated conservatories, schools of music, would REQUIRE that EVERY performance major on any instrument study the fundamentals of jazz & improvisation. The theory would take care of itself.

    1. I can relate. I had that knack and enjoyment of the grammar of music, and it took me several decades after my classical piano training to get knocked in the head with how to write. I fell in love with the piano because it looked to me like a bucket of legos: all the notes were right there in front of you, and you could play the in any order you wanted, like pouring a bucket of legos on the carpet. They were all right there under your hand, and you use them to build anything you wanted.

      I had a knack for absorbing the grammar beneath any piece — oh yes, this will go into A Major here, add one sharp, and there’s the relative minor, and here’s the 5th chord that resolves into it — but while studying piano that was considered a useless skill if I couldn’t trill fast and play blizzards of 32nd notes. I had to be away from classical training for decades before I finally learned to approach the piano in the manner that I first wanted to at age four. And now I take pieces of music like the intro to this:


      and turn it into this:


      and turn this:


      into this:


      Why was this an invisible, worthless skill during eight years of training? Granted I don’t have conservatory technique but there should have been room for this sort of thing that is so dependent on grasping the grammar. I had to grey AWAY from classical instruction to do this. *sigh*

  6. This is a great article and ties in beautifully with an article I just wrote and posted on my blog titled “How to Get Motivated to Play the Guitar and Follow your Dreams of Becoming a Star.”

    I am going to link to this post in mine since it explains exactly what I lacked of words to expand on.


  7. If anything, there is more to be said about how theory is TAUGHT than whether students should eat their vegetables. But anyway, this a very German and text-centric (German…) way of looking at music. There is no battle to be fought, by the way. The Adornians have won on what “artistic music making” is.

    Personally, I would recommend music students pay more attention in their economics class. At least this way they have a chance in life and they could read Jaques Attali. And they would also realize what they are paying for….

  8. The theme of this article is, “Why I Should Have Paid More Attention in Music Theory Class.” This article, as well as many contributors, has provided grounded reasons as to why this is important, with respect to musicality generally, and specifically individual and group performance, and by implication, the enhancement of musical practice. Yet some have suggested, without clear explication, that jazz and blues guitarist “usually know this stuff cold,” and similar comments. The question is why.

    Moreover, and of particular interest, is the idea implied by some, that jazz, and perhaps blues guitarist, ‘learn’ the fundamentals of music theory, not through the regiment of classroom study, but as a result of learning and playing pieces within these genres, and I suspect through the practice of improvisation. In other words, if one learns to play a broad range of jazz music, if not blues guitar, and learn to improvise therein; do these musicians not need to study music theory as an independent subject; the idea of this article?

    I have often read that many successful authors did not study, formal grammar, or syntax. Instead, they engaged in deep and prodigious reading over many years, and achieved a sufficient grasp of the techniques of writing; to enable them to emulate in their own style, the elements of ‘good’ writing to produce equally, or better literature. This process sound to me, remarkably like the kind of jazz training referenced, and the skills achieved respectively.

    Therefore, this question naturally comes to mind. If you’re a serious and disciplined, let’s say, jazz musician, fully engaged, and learning to play a broad range of pieces within that genre, as well as cultivating the discipline of improvisation, how is the grasp of music theory achieved in this practical manner, and is this qualitatively different from formal training.

    An equally relevant question is why, if true, do not classical musicians, fully engaged, and disciplined, learning a broad range of pieces within that genre, not achieve the same alleged and practical understanding of musical theory, compared to jazz, or perhaps blues guitarist. My understanding is that many, if not most classical trained musician are not encouraged to improvise. Is this the key, given their standard training, that is missing, to achieve an intuitive and practical grasp of music theory? I’m struggling to intuit, or otherwise answer this, and other question presented. I offer these comments for your consideration. Thank you.

  9. thank you for this great article, I was having that problem in my vocal class, everything was great untill I was unable to count the rhythm and as a result I kept making mistakes while singing, its embarrassing and it is hurtful…and it effects the confidence on so many levels. however I have to say sometimes having all the knowledge and resources isn’t enough to be a good artist you need to open your mind to new experiences to hear all music even if you don’t like to be able to have a better grasp of your own work, you need to read about various cultures and understand how they feel about their music most classical music was written for cultural events either morning or celebrating an event of a certain culture…also you need talent and you need a good ear too (this is for singers not sure about everyone else) I mean if you know the distance between notes and you can understand the key and how the music would sound like you may end up hitting very wrong notes if you cannot hear urself or the accompaniment…so its not just theory a lot of things but music basics are a major part of the success…

  10. It has taken me a long time to warm up to the importance of theory and while I now admit that it is important, I still feel a little unsure about what to do with it, and of course I have forgotten a lot of the theory I did know (and got an A in I might add), due to disuse most of the past decade. I attribute this to how music theory is often taught as a totally separate thing from playing your instrument. When I was in college, my music theory classes felt a lot like math classes, analyze the notes in a chord and write down the correct roman numeral. There was no connection made to how different chord progressions changed the character of the music, or what in the world as a string player I should change (other than tuning to the root of the chord) based on what chord my note was part of. I remember as a freshman trying to analyze the chord progressions of the solo Bach I was playing, and giving up halfway through, because not only was it difficult, I didn’t have even the vaguest idea what to do with the information when I was done.

    I have read several articles like this one that emphasize the importance of understanding theory, but none that address how to use it when learning a piece (especially when playing a one line melody instrument, I think pianists have it easier in this regard because they more often get to play all the notes of a piece). Does anyone know of any resources that actually cover how to apply a theoretical analysis to interpreting a piece? (especially one that is not directed to pianists).

  11. I certainly wish I had paid more attention. Coming from a classically trained background but then studying jazz at music college, music theory suddenly became a lot more important as it wasn’t just about playing the prescribed notes but having to improvise. That’s when knowing the theory really started to matter.

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