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I've been learning piano, and I just got up to music theory. I find it very confusing, and don't see the point. My plan for learning piano is just to read and learn songs, and I know how all the notes and rests work. I think if I just practice learning songs, I'll gradually get better, and is that enough? Or do I have to learn all the chords and things?

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    Isn't it interesting and useful to know (for instance) that a major chord is formed on the 1st (root), 3rd (major third), and 5th (perfect fifth) notes of a given scale? – Strawberry Jun 22 at 13:06
  • I can’t see why you wouldn’t want to learn Theory. By gosh, it’s challenging but you’ll be so much more content with yourself if you bother to learn it. Nothing is easy. Make sure you take that onboard. – cmp Jun 22 at 18:14
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    I have been playing piano for about 15 years now and I still find theory quite confusing. I can sight read very well and with practice have learned classical pieces as technical as Fantasie Impromptu. I will say though, that I do have a desire to learn more music theory, especially because once you can play an instrument you will meet others who would like to play with you, and you need to know a bit of theory to improvise. Even if you don't focus on theory now, I highly suggest you build good practice habits early. Practice makes permanent, not perfect. Practice well if you want to play well. – Kai Jun 22 at 20:03
  • This depends on what you mean by "play piano". If you are happy playing pre-existing music (either reading from sheet music or by ear), you don't need to know theory. If you want to be able to improvise or write your own music, theory can help, but isn't strictly necessary. – chepner Jun 22 at 20:04
  • Not in a mechanical sense, but in practical terms you have to learn piano to learn music theory... you have to be able to play your own homework, etc. – Chris Stratton Jun 22 at 21:44

14 Answers 14

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First, I am curious to know what it is about music theory you find confusing and why you think there is no point to it. Also, are you taking lessons and is your teacher insisting you learn theory? Maybe you can comment on those things.

In a nutshell, no one HAS to learn music theory to learn how to play an instrument. There are literally millions of people who learn how to play an instrument without studying the theory that is behind how and why music works.

That being said, learning and knowing music theory can make your musical experience much more enjoyable. You will not only be able to play a song but also have an understanding of what you’re doing. Knowing theory can also be very helpful if you want to be able to improvise or compose your own music one day.

The bottom line is if all you hope to accomplish by playing the piano is gradually getting better by learning songs like you said then you can choose to put learning theory on the back burner for now. If you enjoy playing music and want to improve and acquire more skill I’m guessing your opinion will change and you will eventually want to start learning theory.

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    It could be the way the theory is being presented is not very clear. There is a wide range of quality when it comes to online instruction. A good place to start is learning all the intervals within an octave. Knowing these well will make it much easier to learn chords. Then learn major diatonic triads in a few keys you’re comfortable with. Check back here and ask questions anytime, there are a lot of knowledgeable experienced musicians who are happy to help you on this site. – John Belzaguy Jun 22 at 8:35
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This is a little bit like "Do I need to learn the alphabet in order to speak English?". The answer is no, with a but.

It is possible to mechanically learn to play the piano with no theory, but it's severely limiting.

Theory gives you the language to understand music, to talk about playing with others, to read music and to talk about it with others.

There's a million great free music theory primers out there on the internet, why not just spend some time listening to and watching some? Find one where the presentation style appeals to you and just follow along for a bit?


Edit: Oddly enough, since I wrote this answer a youtuber released this video about musicians attempting to collaborate without using the shared language of music.

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  • Or maybe like "Hooked on Phonics" vs. "whole language" :-) – Carl Witthoft Jun 22 at 13:27
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    A better analogy might be "Do I need to learn about meter and rhyme schemes in order to recite poetry?" – Barmar Jun 22 at 15:18
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    @Barmar: “Music theory” gets used to describe a whole range of things, some of which are much more basic for music than meter and rhyme schemes are for poetry. Does the beginner–intermediate learner need to learn about sonata form or serious harmonic analysis? Not necessarily, one can get by fine without those. Should they learn the names of basic intervals, triads, etc? Yes, almost certainly — they will be severely handicapped by not knowing those. – PLL Jun 22 at 17:45
  • @PLL In my analogy, I considered meter and rhyme to be fairly basic, analogous to scales and intervals in music. – Barmar Jun 22 at 19:11
  • I've only taken Intro to Music Theory (~40 years ago, taught by John Harbison!), and what I recall were things like intervals, chord progressions, and figured bass. – Barmar Jun 22 at 19:15
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Learning piece after piece will work but you'll be a lot quicker doing that with understanding. With the one piece at a time approach, you'll be considering everything in that piece in isolation.

With theory knowledge, you'll see patterns emerge in new pieces, and they will help you learn quicker. Not only that, but you'll be able to understand what's happening. And surely that makes the learning process better.

You can't help but learn some theory along the way, as you improve playing and meet more pieces, but if you're already armed with information, the whole process will be more enjoyable and productive.

You mention chords and their formulas. Yes, they seem complex, but you're going to play them, eventually, anyway. How much nicer to knw a piece is in key B♭, and expect to find some E♭ chords in there should be no surprise!

You may eventually decide to have a foray into other instruments - that same theory will get you on te way far quicker, too.

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  • These are all very good cases citing the benefits of learning theory. I particularly like the comment “ You can't help but learn some theory along the way” I meant to include a similar comment +1 – John Belzaguy Jun 22 at 19:30
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    You see patterns emerging anyways even without theory. – DKNguyen Jun 24 at 4:27
  • @DKNguyen - yu'd think so. I occasionally play with some who haven't clocked that when there's an E chord in a new song, there will probably be an A somewhere! – Tim Jun 24 at 5:49
  • @Tim Was this a piano? Or another instrument? It's much more obvious on a piano where the same fingering or hand shape is used are the same for the same chords (as well as similar chords under a different key) all the way up the keyboard. It's far, far less obvious on an instrument where something is always changing like a violin. You might have to play an ungodly amount of pieces on non-piano instruments before noticing patterns since there are that many more patterns so any one pattern is just encountered a lot less. – DKNguyen Jun 24 at 5:52
  • And it goes without saying that without theory, certain patterns will just go unnoticed either because they are used rarely or they are just varied enough so you never notice them. – DKNguyen Jun 24 at 5:56
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You could learn to read music just well enough to know which keys to hit when, how hard, etc. However, learning some basic theory might make reading the music easier. Without any theory, you will see one arbitrary bunch of notes, followed by another, and yet another. Knowing some basic theory, you will be able to recognize many common patterns: that bunch of notes is a C major chord and the next bunch is G7 chord; that sequence of notes is a C major arpeggio etc.

This would be like reading a sentence in a language that you know, e.g. English, compared to one that you don't, e.g. Finnish. With English, you would probably not consciously read each letter but recognize whole words. With Finnish, you would need to read each letter individually.

I am guessing that you don't know Finnish, you can substitute another language for the example. I picked Finnish as it uses the Latin script but it is not related to English and hence few words would be recognizable. So, I hope that this is a good analogy to reading music when you only understand the notes and not how they are typically used together.

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  • Finnish is a good example, because you might be able to mechanically pronounce it correctly even if you don't have the slightest idea of what the words mean. Finnish is written phonetically, with practically a one-to-one mapping between letters and sounds, the first syllable of every word always has emphasis with no exceptions, and pitch intonation is monotonically descending in every word and sentence, even in questions. But with English, you have to know the words and understand the meaning of the sentences to even pronounce the words in the intended way. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Jun 23 at 12:15
  • The main reason for my choice was that is very different to English but those are good points as well. A friend sings in a symphony chorus. She is often required to sing in languages that she does not know. Once it was Finnish and for the reasons that you give, she found it fairly easy. Malaysian, Indonesian, or Tagalog would do the job as well. – badjohn Jun 23 at 12:22
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No , but , if you want to become a well rounded Pianist , then knowing music theory, from rudiments of music to Harmony , you can enjoy making music and better understand the structure of music and how it flows from beginning to end. The chords are the words in music. To study music theory should make it easier to you to understand the patterns in the music you want to perform.

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  • I don't really want to be amazing, I just want to play things I like. – The Nuckster Jun 22 at 6:56
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    @TheNuckster: understanding the theory will make it so much easier to read, memorize and play the music you like. It will enable you, instead of memorizing "this note and that note and that note, followed by that and that and that note", to see, "end of the phrase, G7 resolves to C - alright, I've seen that a hundred times". – Richard Metzler Jun 22 at 7:27
  • Not sure about "the chords are the words in music"? There are many pieces of music which can't be distilled down to a chord progression... – topo Reinstate Monica Jun 22 at 9:45
  • Many English words are uttered which don't follow typical sentence structure rules. Oten thoses words are used to express feelings and emotions. AAAUUUGH ! – Thomas Jun 22 at 17:15
  • @RichardMetzler makes a great point. Once you know a bit of theory, you wont be so much just mechanically playing the notes, but understanding what the progression is doing and recognizing patterns. – Christopher Hunter Jun 23 at 23:06
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I'll go slightly against the grain of some other answers. In my opinion it depends what you want to achieve in the long run.

I've met a number of excellent sight readers and theorists who are absolutely hopeless at improvising. It's as though they're lost without a page in front of them - almost as if they don't hear the sounds they are making.

Some guitarists slavishly learn fingerboard patterns for their blues or rock solos. Then they wonder why everything sounds the same.

So, the answer depends on what you want to achieve. Do you want to play Jazz? Be a session player? Play along to pop ballads? Be a concert pianist/instrumentalist?

The reason I ask is that a certain basic theory is necessary in all of these but the type and amount of theory you need to learn are vastly different.

Note

Some exceptional people can both improvise freely and have an in depth knowledge of theory but these people are rare (and usually famous). Bach for instance or Mozart and quite a few current classical musicians. On the other hand there are talented people who have no theory at all and yet can hear a piece once and repeat it note-for-note.

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  • Hope this attracts some more upvotes despite being late to the party. This is a much better answer than the other answers that were posted earlier. – cmaster - reinstate monica Jun 22 at 14:46
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What understanding do you have of theory? what kind of concept is in your mind? You can learn hundreds of songs and if you are quicker after the tenth song you have built an implicit theory of songs and theory of learning.

Theory is nothing else than an abstraction and reflection of what we are doing: Melodies are built of scales and triads, so you will easily recognize that there are scales and triads in a song and you will transform this knowledge to other new songs. And you will learn by the way the intervals and recognize the intervals by ear and by sight.

You will learn from the beginning that there are chords to accompany a song and you will discover that there are rules how these chords are related and brought in context with each others. There are cadences, typical chord progressions and fifth-fall cadences. All this stuff is as as abstracted as the essence of all kind of songs you're still going to learn. Theory is nothing else than insight of what you do and transferring this insight to new situations, in this case to new songs. Apart of the cognitive insight you get by theory you mustn't forget the benefit that you win for your fingers, finger settings, motoric memory by practicing scales and chords, circle of fifths, arpeggios etc.

So it makes a lot of sense study theory parallel of learning songs. A good teacher always explains to you on your level what you can adapt and keep with you to practice in a new situation.

I know how all the notes and rests work.

This is theory too ! Many people can play piano and don't know how all the notes and rests work. They might say, I don't need knowing the names, all this is just confusing me. You know the advantage you have with knowing to read notes. Now the theory goes on: knowing intervals, chords, keys is nothing else than theory music on a higher level and you will read much easier (and improvise or play by ear) all songs and what ever you like.

Edit:

There is nothing more practical than a good theory,' wrote Lewin.

This link is for all practicians and theorists, but especially for students who think theory is stupid

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Well, you say you know how the notes and rests work (presumably on written music), and it sounds like you are stuck on understanding chords. But there are other musicians who are exactly the opposite - they are very comfortable thinking in terms of chords, but they don't know how to read standard notation. (In fact guitarists are often like that!)

Even when we consider people who know a lot about music - professionals, and music graduates - bear in mind that no-one knows everything about music theory, and very few people know no music theory at all (even you know standard notation, so you do know some theory!)

The question you should be asking isn't so much whether you could benefit from learning more theory, but more precisely, what theory might benefit you and when it might be worth taking the time to learn it. Of course to answer that question, you do have to dip your toe in the water and understand a little bit about the theory 'landscape'.

What you don't have to do is get into a mindset where you feel that to progress you have to learn books and books worth of music theory. Just always keep your mind open to learning the next thing as and when it might help you.

In particular, thinking in terms of chords can be very useful because:

  • working out chords by ear gives you a route into learning pieces for which there isn't any written music
  • being able to talk in terms of chords gives you a new way to communicate with other musicians
  • thinking in terms of chords can give you a framework for improvising
  • understanding the harmonic motion of the piece you are playing gives you a way to think about its structure that may improve the way you interpret the piece

...but if none of those things sound very relevant to you right now, that's fine too!

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The stuff I find confusing are all the chords and formulas for constructing them.

You need to know the formulas for constructing chords in the following situations:

  • if you need to construct a chord, given its type or name or other "specifications"
  • if you need to identify a chord's type upon hearing or seeing it

If you're fine with playing only written notes and pressing the keys you're told to, you don't need much theory to do that. Press the given buttons in the given order. You don't need to understand what you're doing, because your job is not to question orders. But then you'll be missing out on all the fun, IMO.

Identifying chords is very important, if you want to see the macro blocks from which music is constructed. See the forest from the trees, so to speak. If you can handle the larger components, you can be much more creative with music, play songs by ear and create your own compositions and arrangements. And it helps memorizing things too.

It's not rocket science: there's a root note and the chord is either minor or major. Even with on this very simple level you can already handle the vast majority of pop music. It's difficult only in theory. Practice is much easier.

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    "But then you'll be missing out on all the fun" Not quite. Great music sounds great, no matter how much theory the performer knows. And that is ample amounts of "fun", imho. You can even get a feeling for the music, for its dynamic, for its expression, etc., while remaining ignorant to the theory. I've heard there were some great Jazz musicians who couldn't even read notes... – cmaster - reinstate monica Jun 22 at 14:41
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    You don't even need to be able to identify a chord pattern to hear whether the music you are playing sounds good. True, once you identify repeating patterns like chords, you are doing (nonverbalized) theory. But being able to play a piece, and being able to hear that it sounds great does not need any of this theory. Because you are using what the theory exists to describe. – cmaster - reinstate monica Jun 22 at 16:12
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    Sorry, I don't get it. Do you really want to tell me that you've never played music that moved your heart without going through a theoretical analysis? The vast majority of people who enjoy hearing music can't tell a note from a rest, and still they enjoy it. And to the more savvy, it's a great experience to play a song they like, hearing the great music and knowing that they are performing it, without doing any theoretic analysis of it. Only very few people actually can explain the function of D chord within a C piece. I know that theory helps, but it's not necessary for having fun. – cmaster - reinstate monica Jun 22 at 16:41
  • @cmaster-reinstatemonica One more try. If the macro blocks and phenomena that theory gives names to are real and meaningful to you - by either commonly used names or your own made-up nonverbal associations, it doesn't matter - then you know what story you're telling and what it's constructed from, and you could even change the story if you wanted to. In my opinion, self-expression is fun, and mechanical execution of command sequences is not. Say something of your own, don't contend with "correct". Theory can give you tools for that, if you can't discover it all by yourself. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Jun 23 at 9:28
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You don't have to learn all of this if you just want to play piano. But its still very helpful because if you know, for example, how a cadenza is constructed it will be easier for you to learn new notes. It will improve your play when you know how different parts are highlighted by the use of unique harmonic changes or specific chords. In other words you will have more of those smiling "ahhhh" moments and this makes the play more rewarding, at least for me.

If this takes the fun out of learning piano for you then just leave it as it is!

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The short answer is no. You do not need to learn music theory to master any instrument. Mastering an instrument, imo, is more about perfecting your body movements and your physical connection to the instrument. It's about the physics and physiology of you and the instrument. Learning to master attack, and all the techniques available to create a large variety of effects.

That having been said, music theory naturally comes up in any instrument training. For one thing the very basic lessons of music theory are about music literacy. So, if you are sight reading then you are by definition studying the simplest elements of theory. There are many beginner theory work books that basically go over the grand staff, time and key signatures, reading notes, and rhythms. Identifying other markings are part of beginner music theory. Beyond that we get into things like, building chords, intervals, the circle of fifths, etc. It is here, imo, where theory get a little more intellectual and profound. It's not just a mater of literacy but of understanding how various ideas are connected, e.g. compatible keys, the harmonic relation between the I, IV, and V in any key. Theory of modulation, chord substitutions, harmony theory, etc.

One advantage of learning these things is that you will begin to understand basic patterns used in composition. This helps one become a better composer and arranger, and when it comes to learning a new piece of music seeing these patterns can be very useful.

Whether or not this is helpful to you is kind of subjective. If you can read, have good technique, and are more interested in classical performance than say improvisation, then theory may not provide anything useful. One the other hand the more you know then more you can do. That is my philosophy. If you are having trouble understanding the theory you are given by a private teacher then perhaps it just wasn't explained well. If you are self taught than that is a big challenge. Theory is often not presented in a systematic graded manner. Especially if you are looking a youtube videos etc. You may be getting a smattering of disconnected ideas that don't seem to relate to each other or what you already know. Look for a low level work book and read through it.

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When you were a toddler you learned to speak by imitating your parents. If you were never taught to read, you could grow up fully functioning and be able to navigate your way through life but you would be handicapped to a certain degree. But you were probably taught the alphabet, how to sound out words, how to read, how to speak foreign languages, how to do research, how to teach yourself to learn and how to expand your vocabulary, experienced the independence and enjoyment of travel and are eligible to get better jobs.

You learned the "theory" of vocabulary and that alone can change your life. Take the word "passion," it doesn't mean to love, it means to suffer. You know this because you took Latin in HS. For example, Jesus dying on the cross is called "The Passion of Christ." He didn't love dying on the cross, it was his suffering. Just like by sitting at the bedside of someone dying, you show them compassion or com = with and passion = suffering. Compassion means to suffer with.

Most words come from Latin such as ab = away and duct = to lead. Put them together and you come up with the word abduct which is what you do with your fingers when you spread them out, they lead away from one another as opposed to adduct which means to lead toward. Aqueduct - water away. Air duct = air away. This is the power of vocabulary. You can figure out every word you hear that was previously unknown to you.

Music theory is the vocabulary of music. The alphabet. You can see that knowing how to read and understand words can benefit (good + to do) all you do in life well, music theory can do the same for your musical life.

A person who can speak but not read is considered illiterate. A musician who can play but doesn't know music theory is musically . . . .

If music theory doesn't make sense to you then you probably have a teacher who doesn't understand it either. Anyone who understands theory gets very excited about it and they love to share how it is all sinuously networked.

It is like taking algebra, geometry and physics in HS. They may not make sense and you may not think you will use those disciplines in real life and that is because your teacher probably failed at teaching you to apply the theories. However, if you ever buy a house and do home repairs, you'll discover (dis = opposite, cover = bury) that algebra, geometry and physics come in real handy. In fact, if you become a pianist, you'll discover that algebra, geometry and physics comes in real handy because playing is about physics and ergonomics, not the fingers. Piano playing isn't merely matching dots on a page to a key. And, it isn't just regurgitating memorized theory. It is about getting down to the roots and ripping them apart. You'll be able to listen to every and any style, age or genre of music and hear how it cross-polinates through the ages. You will hear music and not just hear mere music but exposition, entasis, episodes, subjects, permutations, augmentations, stretto, modes, superimposition's . . . It isn't just "music." It is everything combined into one or, uni + verse.

What you don't know, you don't know. But once you know, it changes the world. But be warned, you won't enjoy working with musicians who don't know what you know because they will limit your full potential. What they don't know will hold you back. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Mediocrity is fun when you are surrounded by mediocrity.

Don't you want something more? Like, the universe?

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Well, you'd certainly learn the basics of music theory like notes, intervals, accidentals etc. Learning music theory is not actually very important if you don't plan to be pursuing music very seriously. A basic knowledge would serve the purpose of being able to play and impress. So it's your choice if you want to dive into the deep abyss of music theory or not.

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In theory, no. However, it is very useful to learn it as when you get on to harder pieces, it will be useful to know your time signatures and things like that. When I did Grade 5 theory, it was a pain and I cried over it but now, I thoroughly understand every bit of music and how the music should be played. It pays off. But if you don't want to do it, you will be able to learn music, it just won't be as easy. As I said, when you get on to harder pieces, it will make it much easier to understand the music, not just the notes, if you learn theory. It is a useful thing to know but it is not essential.

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