To most people, understanding music means knowing and interpreting the lyrics of their favourite musicians, along with the fascination of a guitar or drum solo here and there. And to say that is far from actually understanding music is an understatement.
Educated musicians and talented performers can be two different worlds but they are still connected by the natural phenomena they are studying and using, as well as a shared love for pleasant sounds. But for anyone trying to excel in the field of music, both in theory and in practice, they need to have a thorough understanding of the underlying music theory.
What is Music Theory?
This topic covers a vast array of subcategories and its history and application are as long and wide as humans have lived and composed. It has been proven that even prehistoric cavemen played some sort of crude instruments, one-note flutes, and drums, and surely even before that – they could sing. And to accomplish any of this they needed to have some sort of knowledge on how sound is supposed to behave to make it any good.
Today music theory is the study of the practices and possibilities of sound. It is usually taught in musical academies on a higher level though some people get into it when very young while learning to play an instrument. There are, of course, informal and cheap learning resources online today that are a good option for beginners too. Note that, in essence, music theory is a separate field from the practice of music, ie. playing and instrument.
Acoustics, the physics of mechanical waves, is related to music theory but is not a part of it. While physics covers the subject of the natural phenomena itself, as well as waves traveling through other mediums apart from air, music theory covers the area where the sound is applied to music and how to understand it.
How to Learn and Apply It
Even though music theory in itself doesn’t need to be applicable, here we are interested in how we can apply it to better our own performance. Some people will learn a thing or two along the way, by trying to learn new songs for example, and will therefore first need to know how to read musical notation.
Others will go a little deeper and will maybe try to write down a tune they made in their heads, but all of this is just walking on the edge of what the theory has to offer. Starting young is the best advice anyone can give you, the same being with languages and motor skills, as the brain adapts to it the quickest at that age, but for those who didn’t have the opportunity starting later is better than never.
Formal music schools are the best solution as a thought out curriculum should include everything needed for someone to become an independent and virtuous musician. A good way to apply such theoretical knowledge is by covering songs of other artists but now adding differences that you understand how to fit in.
Music Theory and Composing
The very highest application of music theory is composing, that is – orchestration. It is usually studied as the last field of music theory, as it requires previous knowledge of other levels, as well as knowing how different instruments perform. Orchestra level composers are a rare sight and are highly regarded in the world of music.
To get to this level one would need to build up on:
- the basics of music (notation, musical scales, etc)
- harmony (the relation and connection between chords to make a harmonious whole)
- polyphony (arranging several melodies into one texture)
- musical form (the structure of compositions and performances)
- acoustics (the physics of waves and sound) and
- metrics (the relation between recurring patterns)
As you can tell – composing a thought out song, not to mention a whole symphony, is a highly skilled process and requires serious preparations. Of course, we have all heard of child wonders that have excelled in this field at a very young age, but however amazing – they are extraordinary exceptions and most composers take years of hard work to become good enough to perform on stage as conductors to their own plays.
Understanding music is much more than knowing lyrics and how to write down a few cords. Humans have developed a very sophisticated system of recognizing and using patterns that appeal to our ears and expanded on that to create a whole science.
So for any aspiring musician to become better in their craft they need to know at least the basics, if not in-depth, the theory that has been built up by many previous generations of talented practitioners and theorists.