The Value of Learning Music Theory

by Dr. Kristin Sponcia


I don’t have a particular memory of learning music theory.  I know I had workbooks in which I completed assignments pertaining to writing and recognizing various pitches, rhythms, and other aspects of music notation.  When you study how to play the piano, as I did, the theory comes alive under your hands.  The piano keyboard is a perfect learning tool, simultaneously activating kinesthetic, auditory, and visual learning styles.  It’s also a great gateway instrument because it provides a solid foundation for learning any other instrument.

I suppose I internalized some of the theory concepts organically, merely a by-product of practicing as often as I did (even as a young pianist, I enjoyed it so much that I never had to be told to practice).  Part of learning how to read music is recognizing patterns, and our brains naturally gravitate towards this way of organizing visual cues, so I probably noticed some of those (musical form, commonly used rhythms, etc.).  When I got to college as a music major, theory was not difficult, thankfully.  Most of it was learning the formal terms for symbols, patterns, or concepts that I already recognized.  (Until the curriculum got to atonal music, naturally.)

Over the years of my teaching career in colleges, secondary schools and private lessons for young people,  I noticed that many students thought music theory to be dry, boring, or overly fussy.  It’s a little bit easier to “sell” to younger students because the method books make it seem like a cool coloring, matching, or copying game. But older students don’t want something that seems to be designed for the elementary version of themselves.  Hence, we teachers attempt to make it palatable for them.  

Most people aren’t taking lessons because they want to major in music or become a professional musician.  So, why bother with learning all this “extra” stuff on top of scales, technical studies, and repertoire?  It may seem like it’s just one more “to-do” on your list, but studying music theory is inherently valuable, whether you’re a first grader, a high school senior, or an older adult.  What we gain from understanding the nuts and bolts of notation, the road map of musical form, or discovering various compositional techniques directly enhances and deepens our understanding of what it is we are playing (or singing).  It’s not just about the “what” to play anymore, with the aid of music theory comprehension, it’s now about the “how,” “when,” and “why.”

For example, let’s take one of the pieces I learned in college, Sonata No. 8, in C Minor, Op. 13, “Pathétique” by Ludwig von Beethoven, a late classical-early romantic period composer (listen here).  I’ll tell you in layman’s terms what drew me to this particular work: the dramatic shifts between slow and fast tempi (speeds), the tension of the “crunchy” chords, the challenge of the right hand crossing over the left hand frequently and returning quickly to its position above the left hand, the way the first and second themes sounded in key of their first appearance contrasted with their reappearance in a different key later in the movement, the technical prowess required to play the fast sections with accuracy and musicality…I could go on!  From my description, you can tell I had (and still have) a particular affinity for this Sonata.  I think it’s just as exciting to listen to as it is to play it (which is definitely not the case for all the pieces I have learned!).

So, how would knowing music theory enhance my appreciation of it?  How could it aid in a deeper understanding of Beethoven’s compositional intentions?  How could it make the playing and memorization of it easier to tackle?  Why would I want to study the theory behind the work?  Wouldn’t knowing these things somehow eradicate some of its magical qualites?

Like most of life, it’s all a matter of perspective.  For me, understanding the compositional techniques made playing and memorization much easier.  I experienced how this understanding amplified my admiration of the particular choices of pattern repetition, construction of each melodic theme, and the dissonance of those “crunchy” chords and their resolution.  Being able to point out all these spectacular examples of compositional prowess did not lead to a less magical experience of the piece, but to a sparkling clarity of Beethoven’s genius.  To have a more microcosmic comprehension of how his mind worked, to understand why some of his choices were sensible and others innovative,  and to feel how the keys felt under his hands when playing the piece as he wrote it only enhanced its magical qualities.

With the “Pathétique,” Beethoven was following the conventional sonata format of the time.  However, he added this extremely slow section before the introduction of the first theme each of the three times it appears in the work (initial appearance in C minor, second appearance in G minor, and last appearance again in C minor near the end of the movement), which was unusual and a prime example of his heavy influence on expanding and evolving the sonata form.

On a more practical level, understanding the chord progressions was a great aid in memorization not only because it helped me remember what to play when the same material appeared in a different key, but it also helped me follow the storyline of the song.  In other words, I better understood what Beethoven was trying to do with those particular chord choices, whether they appeared as root position blocked chords or arpeggiated triads.  It was easier to follow the start and ending of each theme and section.  I easily noticed the slight deviations from the original statements in their reappearance.  

I could continue, adding more technical terms and analytical findings, but I am hoping you get the point I’m trying to make: music theory is the vehicle through which we can comprehend music from its largest overarching concepts down to the finest detail of a motif (a small cell of pitches that appears multiple times in a piece, providing compositional cohesiveness and, in operas, referencing the appearance a particular character).  Through a deeper understanding of music, our appreciation for it expands into previously unexplored intellectual, emotional, and spiritual territory.  Isn’t that just magical?!

To learn more about Dr. Sponcia's Ultimate Music Theory Classes, click here.



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