As I toil through seemingly endless exercises in preparation for the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Advanced Harmony exam, I often find myself asking WHY?!!?!? Music theory students are famously disgruntled. The rules, the complexity, the mind-numbing repetition… No matter how much someone may say they like studying music theory, everyone has a breaking point. A three-hour theory exam is enough to turn any bright young musical mind to mush. AND YET, I remind myself how incredibly valuable this skill set is and has been to me so far.
Many beginner singing students with no previous musical experience come to me having learned to pick out a tune from a favourite song by ear. They are often in search of improving their voice and working towards getting on stage. Approximately zero of them ever come to the first lesson saying, “I want to learn about music theory.” Here’s why learning music theory is important.
- For amateurs, music is required reading. Sheet music allows us to notate music in a way that a musician can pull from the page, even if she has never heard it before. The ability to read sheet music and even sight-sing is not just an expectation for the professional session singer or Broadway star. From church choirs to community musical theatre productions, singers are almost always given sheet music as the sole source material. Some generous directors might provide practice tracks, but in my experience they often don’t. A singer with ambitions beyond the shower or karaoke bar will eventually have to learn how to read music, which is the first part of any music theory studies.
- If you rely on other musicians, you must speak their language. While many singers I work with can accompany themselves on an instrument, often we singers rely on outside accompaniment, i.e. someone playing the music while you sing along. If you are being accompanied by a musician—or dare I say a band of them—you will need to know how to speak to them about what you want musically, and also understand what they are saying to you. If you can’t answer the question, “What key do you sing this in?” then you need music theory. And by they way, singers have an unfair but not entirely unearned reputation among other musicians for not knowing anything about how music works. Be the change you want to see in the world.
- It will get you out of the ditch. The reason why it’s easy to learn most pop songs by ear is because, well, they’re easy. But let’s say you landed a part singing in the chorus of your local musical theatre production and now the lines you have to sing sound a little weird. The notes sound atypical, the time signature changes back and forth. Even if you do have a version of the song you can listen to over and over again, it’s still tough to really anticipate those entrances. Never fear, music theory is here to help you count your way into the rhythms and wiggle your way into those accidentals (notes outside the key). When intuition fails, music theory is a logical system you can use to solve problems.
- You can learn other instruments faster. Have you ever met one of those people who seems to be able to play every instrument she picks up? It’s because she’s not really starting from zero with each new axe. She knows music theory! Knowing the scales, the names of the notes, the construction of chords etc. will help you find your way around virtually any instrument a whole lot faster. Why do I need to learn an instrument, you ask? Because being able to accompany yourself gives you the freedom and flexibility to perform whenever you want, without having to schedule or pay anyone else, in the key that actually suits your voice.
- Understanding music increases appreciation. I have always been the type of person who could be intensely elated or utterly gutted by a dramatic chord change. Now I am learning about the chords that do those things, and it honestly feels like a spiritual awakening. The♭III chord GIVES ME LIFE! The I-IV-iv progression is INTROSPECTIVE TEARS! These Neopolitan 6 chords add a little bit of OOH LA LA. The tierce de Picardie is a real eye-roller. There is so much life in these chords, and understanding the complexity of what the composer was doing really transforms the experience of listening to music. And a singer’s job is to FEEL THOSE CHORDS!!
These are five reasons why I think every singer should learn about music theory, but the big motivation I keep coming back to is songwriting. Deepening my understanding of harmony and harmonic progressions only makes me a better songwriter. I love using the new moves I’m learning about as I go.
Have you had your music theory today?