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I've been learning the flute (very slowly) over the course of the past several years.

I have a hard time reading music because I want to know the "why" about everything. I tried to dig as deep as understanding the circle of fifths. I understand very little about the difference in keys between different instruments and I feel like my attempt to understand this and my attempt to transpose sheet music is hindering my musical education.

On the other hand, I worry that I "miss" things when I just try to play the notes on the page. I realize that there is a LOT to learn in music, but I guess I'm having trouble identifying what I need to be learning and what I need to ignore for the sake of just playing the flute.

So here I am, still unable to play to my (or anyone's) satisfaction.

Would it be best for someone like me to take very formal music classes to quench my thirst for knowledge of music theory while taking basic music lessons for the flute?

Or would I be better off just giving up the "why" about everything and just learn to play and read sheet music (and ignore theory for now)?

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Scientist, eh? (Me too.)

I'm afraid the harsh truth is that to play an instrument well, you just need lots of practise. How exactly you do it, how you feel about it, how theoretically you think about it, all that is ultimately secondary – first of all you need to ingrain the subtle reflexes, fine-tuning of muscle tension, fingering changes etc. in you subconscious. Apparently that is the only way the human body can get up to the astonishing precision that's needed for making music, especially for highly sensitive instruments like violin, oboe or flute.

In other words: “shut up and calculate” – it's all nice to get philosophical and theoretical; it can seem to give a lot more satisfaction if you actually understand why you do this or that in such and such way. However ultimately you have to realise that all theory is just a bunch of empirically established useful guidelines, descriptive, not prescriptive as endorph says, and the real reason anything is done is just that somebody found out if you do it, it gives useful result (i.e. sounds good).
If theory can help to give you an incentive for playing music, then great – use it. If you actually find this theory interesting enough on its own, but can't really muster the stamina for practising you instrument much... then perhaps you need to consent yourself with the joy of listening, composing, and/or playing a less demanding instrument like guitar.

I actually always found it much easier to shut up and play music than I found it to just get on with my physics assignments instead of questioning every mathematical detail etc., starting from basics the lectures had never touched, just to ultimately arrive (far behind the deadline) at essentially the same result as everybody else.
What helped me a lot in music was that I always played a lot with other people. I don't know how much you play with other people, but if you only ever play by yourself then perhaps you should just jump in some cold water – find people on a similar level as yours, and just play. Again I'm afraid flute is not the most benign instrument in this regard; with keyboards or guitar it's much easier to just jam along with a band (even without really needing individual practise), whereas for string instruments it's at least quite easy to get a place in a larger ensemble at a back desk, where you can let the more senior players in the section “drag you along”.

Whatever you do, there's nothing you miss by playing existing music without understanding it on a theoretical level. You can always learn that later; actually having mastered to play the piece first will only make that easier.

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Music theory is (mostly) descriptive, not prescriptive[note]. That means it describes how music does work, it doesn't prescribe how it must work.

I raise this, because to properly understand the descriptive theory, I think it is necessary to actually play some music. Otherwise, as you've found, it gets very hard to understand. It'd be like reading a dictionary without ever reading any literature. Sure, you know the definition of 'quiescent', but if you've never actually seen (or heard) it used, you won't remember it.

That being said, there is some theory that is critical to learning to play. For example, learning to read the music itself. That's like learning the alphabet; you need to know some things before you can learn to read.

So, in your situation, I'd buckle down, and learn to play some music. After you've played a bit, pick the theory back up, and try to understand why those pieces of music work. A teacher can be really helpful in directing you here, but they will be more helpful with instrumental technique.

Theory is really useful, but it's easy to get the cart before the horse, so to speak. To get a proper understanding of theory, you really need to play music first.

[Note]: People may argue that some theory is prescriptive (e.g., the sonata form). As alephzero points out in the comments, this is questionable, because the original authors didn't follow these 'rules'. In fact, the 'rules' are attempts at description, that are sometimes regarded (probably incorrectly) as prescriptive. I believe a similar argument may be made for all such 'rules', and therefore my overall point still stands. Theory helps us describe music, it does not rule over music.

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    "To write a sonata, you must follow the rules, otherwise it isn't a sonata." Presumably by "the rules" you mean the "rules" that were invented by second-rate theorists in the 19th century after classical sonata form was already dead, which are still regurgitated in poor quality textbooks and web sites. Have you actually looked at any sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven etc to find out if they ever "followed the rules?" Most of the time, they didn't. (If you really meant "the rules" as discussed in something like en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Classical_Style, then apologies!) – user19146 Nov 12 '16 at 22:53
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    @alephzero To be honest, I was trying to avoid arguments with people who regurgitate said theorists. The point I'm trying to get across is in the first paragraph, and I didn't want people to get distracted immediately by some ostensibly prescriptive theory. I'll edit to make the intent clearer. – endorph Nov 12 '16 at 23:09
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    +1 for answer & both comments. Sometimes rules are retrospectively applied, & not only in music. But kudos mostly for 'play it first, figure it out later'. – Tetsujin Nov 13 '16 at 21:09
  • Well said. One particular value in understanding the theory is more to help one generate a similar sound or feeling when writing a new piece. I sometimes put forth as an example the massive "power chord" in "Owner of a Lonely Heart." You don't need to know its makeup -- apparently it's a synth sample based on a chord from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite - to enjoy it, but you'd need to dig up the source to be able to reproduce it. – Carl Witthoft Nov 14 '16 at 12:55
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Difficult to add to both endorph's and leftaroundabout's excellent answers, but my tuppence worth.

Some people just have to understand what's actually going on, to be able to do it. So, as a scientist, you probably understand how your kidneys work, for example. If you do, does it actually have any effect on how and what to drink? Before you knew, was drinking a problem? (not talking alcohol here, merely other liquids!) You drive, but did you study how gearboxes worked before you could? Trying to make a point that it's not always necessary to have the theory to be able to do things.

Your suggestion of a teacher is a good one. No-one else will help you along the playing route as well - they have the experience and knowledge, and will come up with answers that wiki amd google may not have the propensity to answer in a way you understand.

Something I do with some students. Assuming you can make notes play and find your way round the flute, sometimes try to play some favourite tunes without reference to the dots. And, make up your own , simple initially,tunelets, maybe with only a handful of notes that sound good together. If you want, with even limited theory, they could then be written down. Many, many players play that way, and on that journey, you will pick up your own theory, if you feel you have to. Remember, it's theory, not law! As a scientist, you must be aware of the more than subtle difference!

From my point of view, I find that for most people, the playing needs to come first, then theory tends to explain why things are like they are. Some of the more theoretical guys I play with don't play with as much feel and inspiration as those with little or no theoretical knowledge. Bizarrely, it's as if they're trying to make their playing fit into the theory they know - as if scared to play music for its own sake.

And try not to be a perfectionist (yet!) as most of us seem to learn from our mistakes. Try to let your playing flow, with any errors, rather than stopping each time you play a wrong note. And sometimes, that wrong note will actually sound better than what you meant to play!

So, your last para. Yes, just learn to play, BUT don't just do it from the dots, use your ears, and a lot of the more useful theory will reveal itself on the way anyway.

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If you just want to play music, there's no need to understand the theory so long as you can read the music and know what all the squiggles on the score mean.

I'm slowly working through the music theory syllabus (just done the ABRSM grade 3 exam). Be aware that the first few grades (up to grade 5) have very little about the "why" - it's just learning the notation and the terminology. So somebody at grade 5 should be able to read any music score and know what it means, but may have no idea why the composer wrote the notes they did.

You don't necessarily need a teacher to learn music theory. I get some help from my harp teacher when needed, but mostly it's reading the text books and doing lots of exercises.

  • If you just want to play music, there's no need to read the music, necessarily. – Tim Nov 13 '16 at 9:05
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As leftaroundabout said, it is extremely important to practice what you consider mundane because you need to get it into your subconscious. You don't want to even have to think about how you are playing something. Once you get to that point, you can start thinking about the why.

This may seem like mumbojumbo to some people, but it is true. Playing music is hard and thinking about music is harder, and you really can't do both at the same time without practice.

That being said, if you're serious about learning the theory just note what things sound good to you when you're playing from sheet music and take a mental note. Then try incorporating those notes into your improvisations. Theory is good, but an intuition is better and you can learn that from the masters. Once you try to go out on your own you will find playing music much more exhilarating and it will sound a million times more smooth, just plain better, and will be way, way more fun.

But to get to that point you need to master the basics. There is no way around that.

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If you want to study music theory, put down the flute and learn piano. If you want to play flute in a band, orchestra, etc., stop making excuses and do it.

If you're playing flute in isolation, without taking part in any group musical activity, I'm amazed you've lasted this long!

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I think trying to learn theory enough to get in the composer's head might be a good approach to enhance understanding of music. Recognizing things like a suspension, melodic sequence, a varied phrase, etc. supports understanding Classical style. Recognizing tonal and real answers in a fugue supports understanding Baroque style. The trouble is a lot of standard theory teaching doesn't take a good historical approach and uses descriptions the composers did not use like the textbook sonata model, academic fugue, roman numeral analysis, etc. Or people focus too much on proscriptive rules. You probably can't avoid reading a basic harmony textbook to learn standard terminology, but add to this with historical sources. You can probably say music scores are better teachers than textbooks! So play more than you read theory.

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