The Importance of Music Theory

An understanding of music theory can help to make you a better player. And here’s how.

I’ve always been someone who has been legitimately interested in music theory, and not simply because I wanted to be able to “talk shop” with the music nerds or sound sophisticated at cocktail parties (which would have been a huge waste of time anyway, since I don’t think I’ve ever been to a real cocktail party). Don’t get me wrong, I was a music nerd and still am – and I enjoy talking shop. But some people (sometimes mistakenly) believe music is supposed to be only about free expression and inspiration, and consider music theory to be a dry, boring, cerebral way to think about music.

On the contrary, I saw music theory not as a way to take the excitement out of music, but rather as a way to explain and communicate the very things that got me so excited about music. There are a lot of conventions, patterns, and constructs that are being utilized when you hear your favorite piece of music, or something fresh and new that catches your ear. Sometimes referred to as the “rules” of music, they are really all part of what falls under the heading of “music theory.” To me, being able to talk about it meant I understood it. And to understand it, meant I could copy it. And if I could copy it, I could fool everyone into thinking I was a good player (haha… kidding… sort of… not really). What I mean is, if I could understand it and copy it, then I knew I owned it.

This is why I always try to sprinkle some applicable music theory information into my lessons, both with my private students and here on the site. I’m hoping that students start to realize that if they understand the concepts I’m using in my playing then they will also understand that it is transferable to any other music they might be learning. If I can get a student to understand not just how to play a tritone substitution, but why they work and where/when to use them, then I’ve just taught that student a whole lot more than a simple tritone substitution – I’ve taught them how to be their own teacher. I’ve armed them with the information necessary to not simply mimic my playing, but to utilize the idea in their own playing.

Having a deep understanding of music theory makes me a better player because it allows me to make sense of what I hear and helps me organize that information. Being shown that a tritone sub works great in the fourth bar of a 12-bar blues would not be helpful unless I also knew why it works. Then, I can use it in different keys and in different places within the tune. I think of music theory as that intersection where music knowledge and technique meet, allowing me to express some of my own musical creativity and ideas.

We have a new lesson being released on the great jazz standard, Body and Soul. In this lesson, I will be sprinkling in a whole bunch of music theory information including topics such as tritone substitution, ii-V-I progressions, and bebop scale harmony. Believe it or not, learning how to play Body and Soul is really not the point of this lesson. Of course, I want all of my students to be able to add this tune to their repertoire, but I think an understanding of the concepts that I’m using in order to create some of the “advanced” jazz voicings and structures is infinitely more valuable. in this way, Body and Soul is simply the vehicle that I’m using to get this information out. Once you’ve watched this lesson, one great way to see if these concepts are really sinking into your grey matter is to try to use them on other tunes. Because remember – if you understand it, you can copy it. And if you can copy it, then you own it.

Let us know if you’re interested in some more lessons on music theory topics.

**UPDATE** We have now released a new music theory course at Check it out!

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Willie President
Willie Myette is a pianist, serial entrepreneur and author of over a dozen books on piano and music education. He received a scholarship to Berklee College of Music and graduated in under 4 years. Willie is the creator and president of online piano instruction sites Jazzedge® Academy, Jazz Piano Lessons and HomeSchool Piano.

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