Do I Need Music Theory?

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Dear Readers,

Music production, based on school-age band class, should be as simple as picking up an instrument and recording playing said instrument. Or in the case of a band, recording all the different people playing at the same time. This is, of course, not the case at all. Playing the instrument is only but a tiny piece of the puzzle. My adventure into music has involved a lot more research than I’d like to remember and I’ve come across various opinions on music theory in particular… and, well, I’m throwing my hat in the ring.

Most of the tutorials I’ve read or watched seem to say, “You don’t need music theory… until you do.”. Of course, some places have articles that tell you don’t need music theory but then they’ll have “top chord progressions every producer should know”. If you’re going to learn chord progressions, you’re going to need to know some basics in music theory. I mean, if you don’t get into some basics, how are you supposed to understand all that nonsense about chord progression anyways?

What is my short answer on whether or not you need music theory? It’s situational. I would argue that if you are doing any sort of traditional composition, you absolutely need to take the time to learn the basics. On the other hand, if you focusing on experimental music or work exclusively through samples – this endeavor may be a waste of your time. Sometimes, just using your ear and listening to the music is the best way of knowing if it works for you.

More importantly, spending a lot of time on music theory may lock you into a box that impacts your experimentation. So if that’s your target, perhaps skip the lessons because I feel this is one area where things are more science and less art.

In an art course, you will most definitely be told that you need to know the rules so you know how to break them. Music theory? Maybe that applies but it feels harder. Breaking the rules produces sounds that you now know are wrong whereas before, you may have found them interesting. And in so many cases, it’s not that you broke a rule: you just invoked a rule that you didn’t know existed.

Like now, I know better when to throw in borrowed chords from a parallel scale or how to switch from a major scale to its relative minor for added interest. Before? I just got lucky.

As with anything else in life, you’ll get what you put into this study. If you want to be a faster composer and spend less time experimenting or less effort on guessing why things sound good or bad together – spend time to learn music theory. Power through it, you can do it! But on the other hand, if you’re happy with the sound of your music and don’t want to learn music theory? Don’t feel bad about that choice because it’s totally fine.

Also, you should accept that if you want to learn music theory, you’re not going to get it done quickly. I don’t care how many of those videos you watch where the tag line is “learn music theory in 5 minutes!”, it’s not enough. Even now, as I write this article, I spent some refresher time and came across concepts I had completely forgotten and other concepts that were totally new. I have stacks of notes, books that I bought, and tons of bookmarks on the subject… because there’s a lot of information on it.

Point is: no one becomes an expert of anything over night so don’t sweat it. Just do what’s right for you and keep making your art!



P.S. I don’t know if I said it adequately enough above but learning music theory can help speed up your music making process by giving you more tools with which to assess your music… but it’s only one part of the puzzle. If you have to choose between this and some other skill – say, how to mix your music – do the thing that’ll give you the most return for your time now and come back to the other thing later. Don’t fret because you aren’t 100% knowledgable in all things right now. It takes time to learn a skill.

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