How to learn music theory?


When you start learning to play the piano, the first things that you will be taught about are the scales and chords. Some might think it’s torture or that it’s really hard to understand.

I was of the same mind-set and doubt in the past. This is one of the reasons why I thought about giving up on music in my first two months of learning piano. I’m glad that I didn’t.

As time passed I came to understand that music theory is the backbone of any instrument that we play. This gave me a lot of perspective into how the different instruments work based on music theory.

To put it in a short sentence: If you know music theory you will need half the time to learn an instrument, compared to someone with zero knowledge of music theory.

Without music theory, there will always be doubts about whether you are playing the right thing or not.

Music theory helps you to solidify your foundation in music and get your confidence up while performing or recording in a studio. It helps with your creative ability to play according to the mood as well.

All the above-mentioned things are not possible if you are not well versed in music theory. People who don’t know music theory struggle to grasp, other instruments.

The biggest issue that you will face when you don’t know music theory is playing with a band. You are likely to face many challenges because you won’t have a clear understanding of what is being played.

Learning music theory starts with knowing the fundamentals of music, such as tempo, time signature, scale, harmony, and chords. Learning these fundamentals first gives you the basics to playing any instrument. Music theory can be learned from a variety of sources including YouTube, Udemy, and Skillshare.

Knowing that you need to learn music theory is one thing, but understanding what you need to learn and where to devote your time and effort is are the vital aspects of learning music theory.

In this article, I will walk you through all the details that you need to know to properly learn music theory and put it to good use. Let’s get started, shall we?

What is music theory?

Music theory is basically a combination of concepts that need to be learned in order to perform using instruments on the stage, as well as in recording studios.

The concepts that are combined include tempo, time signature, scale, harmony, and chords. Learning the concepts and applying them to the instrument that you are learning is crucial in determining how well you understand music.

Music is all about feel and mood. If you don’t know music theory, it will be hard for you to emulate any mood with chords. This is why you find some music producers making the same type of music because sooner or later they run out of ideas. Some make it far into their careers with without it but they will be exposed to how much they lack in creativity because they lack the knowledge in music theory.

Music theory will allow you to create compositions that are more emotional and have depth. 

You will better understand which chords to use together and which chords don’t go well with each other. The creative aspect of music for a producer or even a stage performer in music will shine if they are well versed in music theory.

The ability for them to compose and work on complex chord structures is what makes songs catchy. If you know music theory, you can also simplify chords and make them sound the way you want. These skills are not possible if you aren’t well versed in music theory.

Music theory is all about understanding the instrument and also learning how well you can use the instrument based on its musical language. If you look at everything behind music theory, it’s all about numbers and positions.

These are the backbone of how a frequency or a sound produced by an instrument forms. You’ll be able to figure out how to use it together with other sounds that are produced by the same instrument. This gives way to more and more use of complex rhythms and chord structures.

Music theory is one of the reasons why a lot of classical musicians are being celebrated even after they are long gone. Their music speaks so much to how complex their understanding of music theory is.

This is one of the main reasons why anyone interested in music or learning an instrument should invest their time in learning music theory. It shapes the way you think about sounds.

Music theory also makes the tracks interesting by the change of time signature and rhythms. One of the common mistakes in music production and performance is the overreliance on certain types of rhythms.

If you look at the history of music, every rhythm ties itself to a certain culture and brings emotions out of people.

The biggest takeaway with music theory is that it’s not just chords and numberings that you learn, you also learn about the heart of music, which is an emotion.

How sounds bring emotions, how a minor chord always brings sad and depressing sound. Just like that, you will also learn how a major third chord brings so much joy to people’s faces when they hear it.

The first time when I saw the difference in playing style after learning music theory, it made so much sense as why someone should be learning this much earlier in their career.

Why is music theory important? 

In this section I will walk you through more of the reasons why you should be learning music theory. When it comes to performing music, the most important thing is being spontaneous on stage.

If the artist sings a song, that’s outside of the set and hasn’t been practiced, you should still be able to play it and transition smoothly into it. This is not an easy task to do without music theory.

When you hear the song, you should be able to pick up the scale of the song and use a relative chord and move towards it. You might even figure out the scale with your hearing.

If you are not well versed in music theory, it won’t be a smooth transition to the next chord of the song. This can only be achieved by applying music theory.

The second place where this can be used is in DJing. If you are a DJ and a performer, knowing music theory would help you a ton with arranging songs based on so many factors and correlations rather than just the tempo and scale of the song.

When you look at the mixes of producers who are well versed in music theory there is a significant difference in how they structure their songs.

The ability to understand the chord shapes and structures will help you to manage them properly in your DJ set, rather than cutting them off in the middle. This is a major contributor to why certain DJs are famous for their mixes.

If you are a drummer, playing by ear might seem cool at first. When you start playing at events the first thing you’ll need to work with the keyboardists is music theory.

The advantage is that you can perfectly sync your time signature with all other players in the band. All in all, if you are a playing in a band, you need music theory to shine through.

Music theory can cover up a lot of mistakes if you are knowledgeable in it. You’ll be able to sweep through tracks and analyze songs faster too. If you are improvising, music theory is your best friend.

You can learn as many songs as you want; if you want to get better at the music you need improvisation. You cannot do improvisation without really understanding music theory. If you don’t know anything about it, you will be circling through the same five chords over and over again.

The one other important place where you will need music theory is in music production. Unlike other areas of music, here you need to do everything to make a song.

You will start with instruments and also add drums. You cannot take any shortcuts when it comes to music production. If you aren’t knowledgeable in music theory, it will be exposed very easily in your production.

You will spend a lot of time looking for things and getting stuck as well. The best music producers are people who are well versed in music theory and can handle composing things and differentiating between the intricate details in a song.

This is where good producers differentiate themselves from the ordinary ones. There is a radical difference between a song that is produced by someone who knows music theory and someone that doesn’t.

This is why I would encourage you to learn music theory as early as possible at your own pace. If you take it all in at a time, you would get confused take it steadily; you will get better at it.

Components of music theory

When it comes to music theory, there are so many intricate details to it that you can’t put together in a single post. The depths of music are vast and have been explained by people according to their understanding in different ways.

In this article, I have compiled them into five important aspects of music theory that you should pay attention to while learning it.

These will determine how well you are learning music theory as well. Sometimes you might get started with something and lose focus completely and end up learning things that aren’t that important when it comes to music theory.

Every single component that is explained below is vital in determining how you should structure your learning of music theory.

Tempo 

One of the important components of music theory is tempo. You cannot have a song without tempo. The tempo is also referred to as ‘beats per minute’ or BPM. It’s a number that represents how many beats are there in a particular period.

Tempo has so much significance in modern-day music production because it dictates how music is evolving and how much it should be optimized to produce a song.

We have songs today that vary in bpm right from the start and end with varied bpm as well. These tempo changes make the song interesting to listen to and add flair to the overall composition of the song.

Out of all the elements in music theory, this is the easiest to grasp for most people. The higher the tempo the faster the song is. The lower the tempo the slower the song is.

The energy of the song is also depicted by the way the tempo is chosen. An old-school hip-hop song has a tempo of 87 while a new electronic dance music song has a tempo of 127.

Thus tempo dictates how well the song is produced in a particular genre and how strong the song is in terms of the energy being conveyed.

Some songs deviate from the norm significantly. Some songs have a bpm that is very unusual but they convey more energy through the lyrics and other components.

Learning about tempo is the first, most basic step when it comes to music theory. You have to understand how tempo works in different genres of music.

Time signature 

If the tempo is the speed of the vehicle then the time signature is the model of the vehicle. Depends on the model of the vehicle the speed varies, just like that depends on the type of time signature the tempo varies.

The time signature is nothing but how many beats are there per minute in a song at a regular interval. This varies a lot in songs according to the genre.

When you get started in music production, you have to learn time signature from the get-go. This will allow you to take more time to learn and understand how the system of different time signatures works.

Modern-day time signatures are simple because of how easily understandable they want to make the song. Having a viral song is more important than having a complex musical song.

From a musician standpoint, you have to learn all the complex time signatures from the start and get good at them. Differentiating a 4/4 from ¾ is a great place to start for time signatures.

Once you develop that skill you can move on to learning 7/8 and 5/4. Once that’s done, you can then move on to the next set which includes 6/8 and 2/4.

Learning these 6 sets of time signatures, at the start will kick start your understanding of music theory, as you will be using this in every song you produce.

Scale

If I have to highlight certain elements as vitally important in music theory then those would have to be scales and chords. You can adjust all other things but, getting scales and chords wrong are the rookie mistakes that any newbie producers makes in their production journey. Learning these will ensure you are safe in all aspects of music production starting from melodies to the bass of a song.

When you look closely at scales, they are 8 key routes that you can have in music and they dictate the path of the song sonically. There are 12 major scales and 12 minor scales.

There are countless are subcategories of scales as well. When you are starting out, being proficient in the 12 major and 12 minor scales is essential to writing a song in any scale.

There are some tools that make the process of learning scales easier such as taking piano lessons on the side. When you start focusing on scales the cohesiveness of the song is always on point. Scales determine the mood of the song or audio track.

A minor scale will always sound more dramatic and sad, while a major scale will sound fun and happy.

Harmony

The next thing that you’ll have to learn in music theory is harmony. Harmony is what makes all the elements of the music sound good together. If there is no harmony then the song would sound like noise.

Even if all the elements are put together properly it won’t sound good as there is no harmony. This is the next important aspect of music theory following the time signature.

Harmony is created if there is an equal distance between two frequencies of sounds. This is why, when you press three or four keys in a piano at regular intervals, it sounds nice and in harmony.

Having the time signature to even the smallest of all the elements in a song to be in harmony is the most important learning that you will take away from music theory. It’s all about how well do you harmonize things in a song.

Harmony acts like glue in between the rhythm and the musical notes that are played in the song. It brings all the elements in the song together and makes it more effective. If there is one thing that you should focus on more in music theory, that would be harmony.

Chords

In simple terms, chords are music notes play at regular intervals throughout the scales of the song. When you look at chords in a song, there would be about 3 to 5 chords that are used repeatedly in a song. It’s the same for a song that is in major or minor scale as well. The chords depend on which scale the song is written in and how the melody is structured throughout the song.

Every major scale has three basic chords that might be used more often when compared to the other chords; these are first, fifth, and sixth note chords. This is the same for minor scales as well. Learning these first and then moving on to the complex chords will help boost your application of music theory.

You can learn chords for one major as well as minor scale and apply it over all the other scales as well. Chords work based on intervals which will make the learning process much smoother.

Best places to learn music theory 

Even though there are so many avenues in learning music theory, the best place to start in today’s fast-paced world is through online courses. They tend to make the process of learning easier as you can learn in your leisure time without worrying about anything else.

The two best places to learn are Udemy and Skillshare. A lot of people will suggest YouTube but the problem with is that the videos won’t be cohesive and you can’t learn in peace as you are likely to get distracted very often.

Skillshare

The beauty of Skillshare is that you don’t have to pay for individual courses. It’s like a Netflix subscription where you pay and get access to all the content. This makes the process of understanding how the courses are structured easier.

It also allows you to browse for the course that suits you best. This is not the case with a lot of other platforms like Udemy. When it comes to Skillshare, the low price, as well as the community of people that take part in discussions, will help you learn music theory faster.

Udemy             

A lot more people use Udemy compared to Skillshare. The difference between the two though, is that you have to pay for each course separately. Also, unlike Skillshare, which lets you access everything for a set price, you are asked to pay for each course that you want to start learning in music theory.

The advantage of having Udemy is that you can choose your course and learn without spending much more money on all the other courses. Paying this single course fee will also get you lifetime access to the course.

How do I start learning music theory?

Learning the fundamentals of music such as chords, time signature, and harmony are some of the things to start learning as a beginner. The different scales that are available in both major and minor are a great place to start as well.

If you are frustrated with choosing where to start, start learning about time signatures, they are a good fun topic to start learning music theory as a beginner.

Can I teach myself music theory?

Yes, you can teach yourself music theory. The only problem with teaching yourself is that you have to depend on a proper source for your self-learning resources.

You cannot have a mediocre course or a product teaching you about music theory. This is one of the reasons why a lot of people who want to study music in depth take music degrees in the university.

How long does it take to learn music theory?

Music theory is vast. You cannot put a date and say that you can learn everything within that. The better way to put it is, music theory is an ocean it depends on how far you can swim.

The deeper you go the more interesting it gets. Music is so vast because of the influence of cultures and people. Modern music theory has been shaped by thousands of years of music that has been carried through people.

Is it easy to learn music theory?

Yes, it is easy to learn music theory. The best attitude to have when you learning music is to take it one step at a time rather than getting overwhelmed by how much you have to learn in it.

Always be sure about what you want to do with music theory and you can make the learning process much simpler and easier.

What are the 12 keys of music?

The 12 keys of music are made up of three sets. The first set is the white keys being C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Next are the flats including E, A, B, as well as sharps include C and F.; these are all on the black keys. So, when you add up all these you will get 12 keys. There are 12 major scales and 12 minor scales when it comes to music.

How can I learn music theory fast?

Music theory is vast. You cannot expect yourself to learn it fast. The better approach would be to find out what is required in each section of music that you are working on and learning it step by step.

This would make your process of learning music much faster than worrying about how to learn to complete music theory in one go.

Conclusion 

When it comes to music theory, the important thing to analyze and work towards is perfection and absolute clarity about whatever you have learned. If these two things are missing, you cannot fully understand and apply the concepts that you have learned going forward. Even if the pace at which you learn is slow, having a solid understanding will help you to progress faster.

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