importance of music theory

How Important is Music Theory?

Some of you may know that I’m a frequent user on Reddit. More specifically, the edmproduction sub.

Recently I posted a discussion type thread asking for people’s opinions on the importance of music theory in electronic dance music production. Though there were a few differing views, the majority of people came to the same conclusion that it was in fact important (but not necessarily essential).

I’ve included some of the responses below.

Anyone who knows music theory but adheres to it so strictly that they allow it to stifle their curiosity is a fool. Anyone who wants to create music and avoids or refuses to try learning music theory is also a fool – terist

The first sentence refers to something that I see many people use as an excuse for not learning music theory, that is, that it causes them to be less creative.

While this is certainly a possibility, it’s rare. Firstly because musical theory is so expansive that there’s literally no way to trap yourself in a box, and second because restrictions can actually cause people to be more creative.

Thanks to terist for this response.

It’s absolutely essential you understand just a little music theory, even if you don’t want to study it in depth. When I’m making music with other people, it drives me nuts when they don’t know what’s going on when I say, “the song is in D minor” or, “the major 7th shouldn’t be in this chord, try this note instead”. It makes it so much harder to work on music with them and be productive. I gotta sit around and let them dick around until they find the riff. I still play by ear and encourage my band mates to as well, but I also know all the words that go along with what I’m playing by ear so I can effectively communicate with them. The problem being they’re all trying to figure out a part that sounds good to them, but when everyone in the band is doing that, there may be one note in each part that’s clashing with another instrument, or with my vocal melody. And nobody realizes it until we record a demo, and I say “the bass is a whole step too low here, it’s clashing with the vocals”, and they all stare at me like I’m speaking French.If you’re only ever making music alone in your bedroom or studio, it’s not 100% essential, but any theory you learn will help you work more effectively. If you start working with others, it’s absolutely necessary. You’ve either gotta be able to read music, or speak it to make it in a group, or it’ll take you 5 times as long to come up with anything. – LavaLamps

LavaLamps (glowghost on Reddit) brings up a good point. Music theory can help a lot when collaborating with other artists.

Being a part of bands in the past who don’t know music theory, I can sympathize with this – it’s frustrating. So if you’re planning on collaborating with people in the future it might not hurt to learn a little theory!

One common misconception about music theory is that it is a set of rules. It’s not. It’s a set of descriptions. Music theory does not exist to create boundaries for what music can and cannot sound like, it exists to describe the music the people have made and try and describe why something sound good, or bad, or happy, scary, haunting, bouncy, etc. So it’s less of a gps, and more of a map. Music theory has done it’s best to lay out all the different paths you can take through music, and while there are of course some highways that you know most people will take, there are also always options to take a more scenic route, and hell, if you really are some kind of prodigy, then you can go forge your own path, and somebody will have to update the map. – Dionysus

I have nothing to add to this. Thank you Dionysus for this great comment!

It seems visual artists have little problem with color theory, photographers acknowledge composition and exposure. I don’t think any musical artist benefits from staying ignorant to intervals and the patterns they form.

The danger, imho, is that popular music has really settled into knowing what it wants harmonically. When you learn music theory very little of it is modern. You teach a edm producer the pentatonic scale and minor chord and they are pretty much good to go.

The other danger, which i feel is very real, is that you get deep into theory, and you start to really love the structure of music. You start chasing deeper and deeper connections within the notes and abandon pleasing the public. Same way the best photographers and painters work simply cannot be enjoyed casually. – gatortronic

This is something that could be talked about for hours. Listening to most modern music it can be easy to question the actual importance of music theory, “This song only contains one note!”

While the need for musical composition skill lacks in some particular EDM genres, it doesn’t mean that it renders theory unimportant. Music theory goes beyond simple things such as building a chord progression, it contains a huge amount of information that will, in my opinion, help you whichever genre you produce.

The last paragraph is also very interesting. Some of you may have noticed that you don’t enjoy production as much as you used to. This could be due to your increased knowledge in theory and technical, and at the end of the day I think it’s about mindset. If you open up your DAW expecting to make a ‘perfect’ song, then you’re probably going to be disappointed. Art is never finished.

All in all, I think that music theory despite being difficult to learn for some, is incredibly helpful. 

If you’re looking to learn music theory, check out some of these:

What do you think about music theory in electronic dance music production? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.