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What are some of the essential music theory concepts to memorize?

I just started looking at music theory earlier this week, and I have to admit that it's pretty overwhelming especially since my only background involves playing the guitar--basic chords, playing songs by tabs, etc. Also, I realized how useful music sheet notation is. It abstracts away from the instrument and has an immediate focus on theory. But I'm not quite sure what's essential and what's not. Of course, this depends on the goals of the learner. My goal is to be able to compose with enough theoretical background. I don't plan to write sheet music, take music classes (although I'm taking a few online classes on coursera), or play the instrument proficiently by any means. What I want to do is analyze the songs that I like and ask myself why I like it in order to achieve my end goal, which again is to compose music.

This is my progress so far:

  • I'm confident in reading the treble clef, but is reading the bass clef necessary? Rhythm seems rather useless also.

  • I'm using a midi keyboard so I can apply what I learned (I don't have the fretboard memorized, so I decided to take this path). Someone mentioned that in order to get the intervals down on the piano, I should just learn the 5th interval from each key. I noticed a pattern and it stuck, and it's allowing me to find other intervals with ease. Any other tips?

  • The intervals of the various triads, 7 chords, and sus chords. Would you guys add something here?

And things I plan to do (or maybe not depending on your opinion):

  • Learn the 10 essential scales (7 modes and a few others like the altered). I don't think I really need to know them at the top of my head, but taking note of what notes they're comprised of should be enough to know which notes I can play when I see a certain chord. My goal doesn't involve improvising, and I can afford to make time to think.

  • Learn the different key signatures and their relative keys.

  • Learn the chord progressions for major and minor keys. The basic I-VII pattern.

  • Hopefully by now I can finally understand the use for borrowing/applying chords and learn their use cases.

Do you guys have any suggestions? Additions you'd like to make? I was actually inspired by the last todo item to ask this question, and the reason is because while I understand it, I can't see the bigger picture in terms of applying it to my own composition. I'm juggling a lot of concepts in my head (which is great for learning imo), but while I'm at it, I'd like to add more todos so I'm constantly overwhelmed.

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    It's not like music theory is just a checklist of items to memorize. How you use the ideas is much more important and most people approach how to use the theory in different ways. – Dom Feb 11 '15 at 18:56
  • I agree, but my focus at the moment is like learning the basics of a foreign language. I want to get up to speed just enough so I can understand specific concepts much easier. Hopefully by then I'll apply it in various ways as you have said. My concern is that I may be learning stuff that's useless for what I'm doing, or possibly missed something that's pretty important to music theory. – user18822 Feb 11 '15 at 19:03
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    Sounds like you should take classes. You have enough interest in music theory to begin with. So don't underestimate theory, there are no shortcuts to it. – r lo Feb 11 '15 at 19:27
  • This question might be closed as too broad and or opinion based. But I have many of the same goals as you do. I am a singer songwriter and I play guitar & some keyboard. I have always played by ear but as I become more advanced in my songwriting and composition, I have developed an interest in learning more theory. I have actually found this site to be very helpful in that regard. I look for questions that interest me or ones that I want to know the answer to b/c I feel it may help me with my goals. Then reading the answers gives me information I can apply. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 11 '15 at 21:18
  • Popular music is rather eclectic nowadays: It borrows from all genres and cultures. You need to know everything to understand why you like it (and even then you will fail sometimes, it's art in the end). One particular song might be easily analyzable with some classical theory but you'll eventually run into jazz harmonies, polyrhythms, additive rhythms, Indian scales, microtones and what not in one of your favorite songs. – cyco130 Feb 11 '15 at 23:33
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It is more essential to be able to hear (recognize exactly) and to sing everything you learn than to memorize it. Music theory is only a structured way of thinking about music. If you are not able to hear what you are thinking about then it is merely words and ideas, not music. Learn to hear and sing intervals, then 3 and 4 note chords, then chords with extensions, scales, chord progressions; these are the building blocks of composition or improvisation. Doing exercises on paper and then not hearing them on the piano is not absolutely pointless but it is not very smart.

As for the intellectual side of things, first you probably should memorize the circle of fourths or fifths, and then if you practice ear training in the 12 keys eventually you will memorize scales, chords and whatever you need.

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    I disagree with this. Not everyone learns or composes best with auditory methods; you don't have to hear a sound in order to produce it. – Matthew Read Feb 12 '15 at 0:41
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    You certainly don't need to, however the way to achieve freedom and facility in composition is to hear things. You just mentioned sound. Isn't it contradictory to say hearing is not important when it comes to sound? If composition is about creating "pleasing sounds" as it's usually said, the best way to create these sounds is to be able to hear them, not to go around feeling in the dark for good melodies or progressions. – mcpca Feb 12 '15 at 0:43
  • @mcpca i agree. People learn best by doing the actual thing, rather than a simulation. – mey Feb 13 '15 at 11:05
  • I really like this answer as it simplifies many of the things that i need to keep track of. I never saw sheet music that useful other than as a means of communication, but that isnt my intentention in the slightest. – user18822 Feb 13 '15 at 16:41
  • I have written melodies for two years now and only in the last two months been playing and listening to them. You have to be familiar with the tenants of good melody writing before you play anything. – Neil Meyer Mar 3 '15 at 8:19
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but is reading the bass clef necessary? Rhythm seems rather useless also.

Cough, cough. In baroque times, accompaniment was written down by writing down the bass line and rhythm and putting numbers for the type of chord/harmony to be played above the bass line.

While the numbers are gone these days and replaced by explicitly writing out the right hand, the bass line is still the foundation of the harmonies. And "rhythm seems rather useless also" is also a bit audacious: the rhythm is the skeleton of music. Even if you are not fond of looking at bones themselves, a collapsed heap of flesh has nothing to hang its features from.

When trying to read piano music and interpret the chords/harmonies, not looking at the bass part is making you miss essential stuff.

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First off, you need to understand what music theory actually is. Wikipedia defines it as:

Music theory considers the practices and possibilities of music. It is generally derived from observation of how musicians and composers actually make music, but includes hypothetical speculation. Most commonly, the term describes the academic study and analysis of fundamental elements of music such as pitch, rhythm, harmony, and form, but also refers to descriptions, concepts, or beliefs related to music.

I don't completely agree with this definition, but it highlights an important point that being able to read music is fundamental to being able to understand basic elements in music such as:

  • How to read notes based on the clef (treble, bass, alto , tenor).
  • A basic understanding rhythms and time signatures.
  • Intervals and scale patters.

These are very basic ideas covered at the beginning of any music theory book because understanding this is necessary to progress in topics such as:

  • Chord construction
  • Form
  • Harmonic Analysis
  • Counterpoint and Voice Leading
  • Modulation

If you are interested in this topic there are a ton of books that will help you understand the topic better and they should be laid out to put the fundamentals necessary to go deeper into the actual theory.

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What are some of the essential music theory concepts to memorize?

If the subject matter is taught in a intellectually engaging manner then it is rarely needed to make theory an issue of memory.

I'm confident in reading the treble clef, but is reading the bass clef necessary?

Yes. you will find it useful to be able to read bass sheet music.

Learn the 10 essential scales (7 modes and a few others like the altered). I don't think I really need to know them at the top of my head, but taking note of what notes they're comprised of should be enough to know which notes I can play when I see a certain chord. My goal doesn't involve improvising, and I can afford to make time to think.

If you can get your head around semi tones and whole tones you can learn any scale starting on any note. That is all a scale is in essence a bunch of notes a set amount of semitones and whole tones apart.

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In my experience, here are the essentials:

  • Progressions. Know your I, IV and V chords for all major keys cold. If not for all keys, in all the common keys you play: E, A, D, G, C or whatever else you do. Relative minors (minor vi chords) are probably just as important.
  • Scales. There are dozens of kinds of scales, but majors and minors are essential and first. The way to learn about them is not to worry so much about sharps and flats, but where half steps occur and where whole steps occur in every scale. It is same for them all. For major scales, half steps between three and four and seven and eight. For minor scales, between two and three and five and six, no matter where you start.
  • If you are playing anything with a blues base - jazzy stuff, rock and roll included - learn your blue notes for every key you play in: minor third, flat fifth or augmented fourth, and flat seventh.

If you know all this stuff already, you should find a nice self-teaching tool. I used a Harvard Press book on music theory with some great exercises in the back. I was taking the A Train in those days, (I HAD to take the A Train) and got a lot of work in between Inwood and midtown Manhattan.

As for reading, if you are working with keyboards, you want to master the bass clef. It may feel like heavy going, but in the end will be worth it to you. Just drill, drill, drill. Be patient AND persistent, and you can't go wrong.

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The bad news is that at first there is going to be drill drill and then some more drill; the good news is that you will be able to able to finish this drill [of chords} in less than two months if you practice daily for not more than 5 minutes. [Yes 5 minutes ....it is not a misprint]. I believe you have a good Ear Training app; learn the chords [major and minor] by heart and from there you can progress. This is the key. Take the time. You will be reworded for it.

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