Plenty of Reasons to Learn Music Theory

10:09:00 PM Kevin A. Ure 0 Comments

This blog is long overdue for an update. My entire life I’ve focused on helping other composers to get their music heard, improve their compositions, and get the skills they need to succeed as a composer. Many of my students have gone on to be published, get high-profile jobs in music, and find venues for their music to be performed. I always promised myself that once I had a foothold teaching music online that I would eventually start to publish and promote my own music — that’s where this blog comes in.

When I was younger, I studied with Virko Baley. He’s a Ukranian composer with a very distinct personality and style of teaching. He was always coming up with new ways to get you to think about music. At the time, I was writing very melodic music, but most people who listened to my music remarked on how it sounded so “modern” and “abstract.” It wasn’t even close to being abstract. The first composer who accurately described the music I wrote was Curtis-Curtis Smith. I remember him describing my music as traditional chords being used in untraditional ways. To this day, I think that’s probably the best description of my music I’ve heard.

I basically build chords based on tonal principles, but I always use my ear to create chords in a way that’s not typically done. It’s not a theory-based way of composing. Virko used to harp on my seeming refusal to use music theory. One time he asked me how I would get out of a certain chord progression, and I arrogantly replied that I’d use my ear. I know better now, and I still use my ear. But, my refusal to look at what was already out there was likely just laziness or pride.

On one hand, using your ear is great. It forces you to think about the music you’re creating. On the other hand, if you’re trying to create effective music, there is nothing wrong with learning from the masters who spent their entire life refining their music. But, I have learned there is an, even more, important reason for studying theory — to learn from other composers.

When I picked up a Beethoven score in college, I could appreciate the music, learn from the instrumentation, and find ways to improve my own compositions. But, I was missing a very big piece of the puzzle. When you learn theory, you’re able to see how a composer constructs their music in a logical way that goes beyond simply motives and recurring themes. You’ll be able to see when they do something atypical, and you can form your own opinions to explain why they made the choices they made.

When it comes down to it, a theory is just a way to quickly absorb the life work of another person's greatness. It's the cheat sheet for all things baroque, classical, romantic, modern, and everything in between. When you study music theory, you can do in a few hours what might take you weeks and months on your own.

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