Why Do I Have to Take Music Theory as a Music Major?

"Know the Score" is the official blog of the Luther College Music Department. Students, faculty, and staff provide content on music tours, concerts, recitals and scholarship happening on and away from Luther's Decorah, Iowa campus.

“I have to take this course because my adviser says I have to take it. And I’m terrified.”

As a professor of music theory, I hear questions about why students need to take a theory course a lot, and why it benefits them to take it. The simple (and, in my opinion, shallow) answer is “you are taking this course because it is part of your degree requirements and because we say so.” That may very well be true, but it’s really not the whole story. I’d like to give you my take on the why and the how of music theory and how it affects you as a (potential) music major.

Music theory at the undergraduate level is basically the study of why music works the way it does. What specifically in the score makes Haydn so charming, or Beethoven so majestic, or Brahms so mysterious? At Luther (and at many similar institutions), we cover the fundamentals of music theory in four semesters, with the last semester serving as a study of larger works. Music theory is like a foreign language – it is beautiful to listen to, but until you really understand that foreign language and can speak it and understand it yourself, it makes study terribly difficult! Our job is to teach you that language.

Theory doesn’t just enrich you by making you smarter – it makes you a much more efficient and productive performer! During my master’s degree studies in music theory and flute performance, I learned very quickly that thinking about scales, etudes, orchestral excerpts, and solo repertoire in theoretical terms cut my work time nearly in half! Would you rather learn 20,000 individual notes or 15 patterns? Thinking about your literature in a thoughtful, intellectual way makes you a much more musically aware performer. Theory study doesn’t make you a “dry” musician: it makes the ground much more fertile for progress!

Theory is a lot like performing, too. A lot of the things we teach you in theory class are very similar to a math course in that you are learning to solve problems. You wouldn’t just read about being a good singer, you would take the information taken from a book and apply it! When you study a new concept in music theory, be sure to practice that skill every chance you get. When you are learning a new piece on your instrument or a new song or aria, notice everything you can about it – patterns that repeat, keys, chord progressions, and so on. Look at as much new literature as you can, as often as you can, so that you can apply what you learn in class!

I hope that you, as a musician, will think about music theory in a different way than before. Rather than thinking about it as a hoop to be jumped through as part of your coursework, think of it as a diving board to help you splash into the wondrous sea of art!

Amy Engelsdorfer