Background Reading: I thought it was worth extending the recent discussion about music theory to the topic of teaching theory.

I think our default approach to teaching theory is sometimes too disconnected from the actual music we play. I believe this is a contributing factor to the view that music theory is a bunch of useless rules invented by people who can't actually play music (disclaimer: generalisation and stereotyping intended).

So, how can we teach theory well? To make this question more specific, I'm thinking about school-aged kids, not university classes. They enjoy playing music, but don't have a burning desire to know the 'boring' theory. How can we show them that theory is useful, and can make music more enjoyable? What theory should we actually be teaching? How do we make it relatable and understandable?

As an example, here's a theory worksheet on perfect cadences. There doesn't seem to be anything horribly wrong; it explains what the cadence is, gives an example from Ode to Joy, and asks the student to write a few cadences. But I have this nagging feeling that a student will fill it out, get it 100% right, then think "Well, that was useless. Now I'm going to go and play Let it Go, and forget everything I ever knew about cadences." I worry that this style of teaching contributes to the devaluing of theory.

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    I love this question. I've been thinking about this a lot. Inexperienced as I am, I actually do have a "student," and I've been thinking about how I would explain some of these concepts in a way that would make her tick. I will be keeping an eye on this thread. Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 23:50
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    Thanks for posting this question. Of course personal opinions will feature, but it's too thought provoking - and will produce some inspiring answers - to be thrown out. I hope!
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 8:06
  • It's good to set in a student's mind that music theory that music theory is just a way to talk about music. It gives a way to answer (or try to answer) questions like "why does this note sound wrong?", "why does this section feel more exciting?", "why is this tune so catchy".
    – mattliu
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 12:01
  • In your example, the teacher could play, "Let it Go", and change some of the cadences around and see how the students feel about them: Take a piece that the student cares about and show them what's interesting about it from a theory point of view.
    – mattliu
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 12:03

8 Answers 8


Teach students how to make music that they like. While experienced musicians are often very broad-minded, seeing value and beauty in many kinds of music, younger kids are often primarily interested in finding out about the things they like. Can you convincingly explain the structures of the songs in the charts/clubs/on your students' phones now? Could you make music like that yourself? If not, learn to do it before you try to teach it.

Introduce your students to the world of music - in a balanced way. It's great to learn about European art music from two or three hundred years ago. It's just as important to learn about Latin dance, Arabic scales, and Japanese folk music. It's as important to learn about timbre and rhythm as it is to learn about harmony and melody.

Introduce your kids to as many concepts as you can, and let them decide which ones they find useful and relevant to what they want to do.

Help your students understand what the different parts of music theory represent.

In particular, they should understand which ideas are...

  • Terminology and notation
    These will offer ways to relate and communicate musical concepts.
  • Style-specific rules and guidelines
    The fact that these are style-specific needs to be understood.
  • Fundamental musical concepts
    Don't be scared to get into the science of frequency ratios, the harmonic series, wave-forms, psychoacoustics - even the evolution of the auditory system. This is the stuff that will inspire your brightest students!

Teach your students to think 'theoretically' outside of the theory they already know. You could play them a piece or two that you think they might be very unfamiliar with, and ask them to write down what they think are the musical rules of that piece or style - then get them to follow those rules to make a new piece in that style. It's when doing something new that thinking theoretically can be most useful.

Don't "teach them theory" at all - give them the opportunity to experience music, inspire them to think about it, plant the seeds of the theory knowledge and let it develop and grow organically.


There are two ways of approaching music theory - as a music theorist (who may or may not actually play) or as a music practitioner (that is: a musician). The knowledge requirements are obviously different and in the context of this question I will focus chiefly on the practitioner's perspective.

Let's think about what (some) knowledge of music theory is worth to a musician. I can see at least three reasons to learn at least some theory:

  1. Communication with other musicians,

  2. Pattern familiarization,

  3. Creative shortcuts.

Let's take a look at each of them in turn.


Let's give it a name, so we can have conversations about it.

(the Mighty Mighty Bosstones on the origin of the term skacore)

As musicians we need to be able to talk about the finer points of music with other musicians and everyday language is not always up to the task. Sure, you can say "play this very quietly", as opposed to pianissimo, but most times the only alternative to standard musical terms that signify what you want ("play this bit with a 6/8 feel", for example) is to actually demonstrate what you're trying to say. Clearly, being able to express a potentially complex concept with a simple term is preferable.

Since we're talking about teaching, the two musicians who need to communicate are the teacher and student. It is, of course, possible to teach someone to perform a musical piece without addressing theory at any point (simply by demonstrating all the motions the student needs to go through in the context of the performance), but it will go a lot quicker if you are able to communicate on a conceptual level. Lest we forget, such basics as note names and musical notation are also parts of music theory.

Pattern familiarization

We can look at a piece of music as a long series of notes and rests that get us from the beginning to the end - and even learn to play by memorizing it as such, or we can look at it as construct made up of smaller building blocks. Crucially, these building blocks will appear in other music as well.

What kind of building blocks? Scales, chords, arpeggios, sequences, rhythmic patterns, standard forms, cadences etc. Everytime we are able to spot something we already know in an otherwise unfamiliar piece of music, our work becomes that much easier. Rather than examining and learning each note in turn, we can instead apply higher-level concepts that we are already familiar and proficient with.

In order to become familiar and proficient with such "building blocks", however, we must first become aware that they exist. One of the functions of music theory is identifying such building blocks, naming them and examining how they fit together.

Creative shortcuts

Sooner or later, we may find ourselves needing to actually create some music, as opposed to learning what someone else has written. This may be as involved as writing an entire piece from scratch, or as simple as "could you come up with a part over this bit?"

Again, it is possible to do the work by trial and error. However, it will be quicker and easier if we have an idea of what is likely to work and what isn't - if we are familiar with the options available to us and what they sound like.

A knowledge of music theory allows us to both become familiar with such options and to learn a system of classification that makes it easy for us to keep track of them.

A practical approach to teaching music theory

With the above in mind, two things become apparent: that it will be highly useful to the student to learn at least a bit of music theory; and that learning the theory should be subservient to the learning of musical practice.

In other words, the student should, first and foremost, be learning to perform music. However, as they learn to play, they should also be gradually learning what it is that they're playing and how it fits in with other things that they have already learned.

Let's try to compile a list of the most basic music theoretical concepts that every student should learn:

  1. A solid knowledge of rhythm (including rhythmic notation) is an absolute must for everyone. I always say that learning to count is the most important skill to master as a musician.

The great thing about rhythm is that it is a skill that can be practiced from day one, even when the mechanics of producing sound from an instrument are still a deep, dark mystery. In my teaching practice, I have always started out my beginning students on clapping exercises, letting them get a feel for rhythm without having to deal with the fiddly motions of playing an instrument.

  1. The basic names of the sounds one is learning to produce should be taught at the earliest opportunity, though probably no sooner than when the student is first called upon to play them.

Students should be learning the names of the notes they play (trivial, I know, but nevertheless important), chords (especially with pattern-intensive instruments, such as the guitar), articulations and so on (specifics will depend on the instrument).

The reason for this should be clear: the student will be called upon to play these things over and over again in the course of their study. The teacher needs a concise way to communicate what the student needs to play and it is much easier for the student to be thinking along the lines of "here I'm playing the C major chord", as opposed to "I need to put this finger here and this finger here and that finger there and..."

It is also likely that the student will at some point in the future find themselves playing with others outside the classroom and here the ability to have meaningful conversations about what is to be played will be invaluable.

Teaching some appropriate form of musical notation is to be encouraged with regards to this particular issue. It need not be standard musical notation from the beginning, if a simpler commonly used system exists (I am thinking of tablature especially, in this case, because it offers an unambiguous notation system for an instrument where the same note can potentially be played in six different places, or more). The point is for the student to have some way of taking notes of what they need to play, for when they don't have a teacher to show them, and to be able to explore written music on their own.

  1. As the student learns to play, they should also be developing a mental framework that allows them to understand what they're playing and how it fits in with what they already know.

Faced with an instrument we are presented with a sea of musical possibilities. We need a way to break them down into bite-sized chunks.

Each instrument has its own set of "tricks" to make it easier (for example, the piano keyboard lets one "see" the note names; the guitar, on the other hand, makes it easy to transpose music to different keys, by shifting fingering patterns to different position), so specifics will depend on what is being taught.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are things universal to all (or most) instruments: things such as musical form, tonality, rhythmic templates.

In the context of such a framework, it is possible to isolate concepts common to a large number of specific pieces and to practice these in isolation. If we know how to play a C major arpeggio, say, we can fall back on this knowledge whenever we encounter it in a hitherto unknown piece of music. We can practice it in different keys, building up mechanical proficiency (that is: proficiency with the movements needed to execute a musical passage) and preparing ourselves for a time when we're required to play it in a musical context.

In all cases, however, we must first become aware that such methods for breaking music down exist, before we can turn them to our advantage.

General considerations

As previously stated, for a musical practitioner, playing should come first. Theoretical concepts need only be brought into the picture as they appear in the music the student is learning to play.

All things rhythm will need to be introduced pretty much from the beginning, even if we begin with something as simple as playing (or clapping) quarter notes while counting "one-two-three-four".

Similarly, as the student is learning to play individual notes or chords, we should be introducing the names we will henceforth be referring to them by. The ability to say "now play a B note", as opposed to "play with that finger there", is so important it is scarce worth mentioning. If the student is playing chords, they should know what those chords are called - with several notes being played simultaneously, the ability to "dump" a large amount of information into a single name is that much more important.

Once the student has a grasp of the basics, and learns to play some simple pieces, we can gradually introduce higher-level concepts. Musical form is something that is often forgotten, when we think of music theory, but it is both crucial to mastering longer and more complicated pieces and a fairly simple concept even for a beginner. By demonstrating how a seemingly monolithic piece of music can be broken down into "chunks" that are repeated and intertwined we are showing the student how to make their work of learning a new piece easier.

When the student begins to expand into different keys, we should be gradually explaining how the concept of keys works and how the various parts of the tonal system (scales, chords, cadences) can be isolated, practiced and applied. The goal is for the student to look at a piece of music and think less in terms of a long series of notes, but rather in terms of musical blocks that they can spot, identify and know how to play.

Practice makes permanent, so it is important to keep reinforcing these concepts in the course of our teaching. The student should learn and practice these elements of musical theory until they become ingrained. The easiest way to do this is to guide the student through analyses of the music they play - especially new pieces, once the student has a fairly good grasp on what they've been taught so far. Remember, the goal is to make it easier for the student to apply things they already know and can play in the context of learning new music.

From a teacher's perspective, this means we should be approaching our lessons analytically as we prepare them. We should have a solid idea of the theoretical concepts present in the music we will be teaching the student and look for ways that we can exploit them to the student's advantage.

Does a piece contain some concept the student is familiar with? Make a note of it and point it out.

Does it share a concept with other music the student already knows, that would make learning easier and faster? It may be time to introduce the concept and show the student how it is applied.

Have you already equipped the student with an analytical toolkit of their own? Great! Begin the learning of new music by looking over the score with your student and discussing all the places where the student can apply their existing skills.

If we want our students to take away a knowledge of musical theory that will help them with their musical practice, it should be clear that we need to examine our own. I firmly believe all teaching is also learning (Schoenberg seems to agree). Can we go beyond teaching our students how to play a specific piece of music, towards building skills and knowledge that will allow them to play different things with the minimum amount of extra work? If not, perhaps it is time to brush up on our music theory.

Edit: an illustrative example

After I posted this answer, I got to thinking that it could do with an illustration of the final goal we might hope to achieve in teaching theory to practitioners and it so happens I have a good personal anecdote.

At my sister's wedding I was asked to sit in with the band as a lead guitarist. They were playing a bunch of appropriate standards that I was familiar with, but had never played before. They asked me briefly before going on stage, so any kind of rehearsal was out of the question.

Luckily, the keyboard player had some brief notes (basically, chords and lyrics), so we'd agreed I'd just be looking over his shoulder. Then he tells me:

"There's just one thing: I'm transposing my keyboard to make my life easier, so the actual keys I'll be playing in will be different."

No worries.

What I'd ended up doing is having him tell me the actual key before he started a song. Then I would mentally apply a quick Roman numeral analysis to the chords he had written out to get an idea of where I am, harmonically, and that would give me an idea where I had to go melodically. Worked out rather well.

The moral of this story is that in order to pull it off, I had to go beyond what information I was presented with (which was both incomplete and not quite accurate). The only way to do so was to first isolate the general concept and then come up with an appropriate application, in terms what I actually played. Without a solid grounding in basic music theory (or a quick ear and perfect pitch) it would have been impossible.

  • Working on the mental model is crucial, I think. Maybe a top-down approach could serve it better because as listeners we start to get familiar with higher level things of a song (the tone, the mood, the rhythm, how it is constructed (verse, chorus, etc.)). Also, a teacher must make sure that theory is mapped down and rooted to hearing: I have seen guitarists who did not hear or know which notes were played over kick drum or snare - so sometimes the drummer had to follow the player, who could count, but won't feel.
    – atoth
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 12:46
  • @atoth I'd venture someone who can't play over a (relatively stable) drumbeat doesn't, in fact, know how to count. How can we count if we don't know where the ones are? W/r/t top-down, I'm not convinced TBH. I wouldn't try teaching basic essay form to someone learning to write their first words, much less, learning the alphabet.
    – user321
    Commented Dec 9, 2016 at 19:42
  • What you say sounds logical, but on the other hand I have encountered a lot of people who could count from 1 to 8 but were failing at finding the correct emphasis (is it 2-4 or 1-3?). Also we know of many people who are capable of "speaking essays" without knowing the "alphabet". It is the teacher's responsibility to check and verify if the dots were connected. The goal (e.g. playing on time) can't be the side-effect of a method.
    – atoth
    Commented Dec 13, 2016 at 14:06

Yout hypothetical student is correct, in the sense that "understanding perfect cadences" well enough to write a few of them in four-part harmony is a completely useless piece of knowledge except in certain musical contexts, and those contexts are most likely of minimal interest to him/her at this stage in his/her musical development.

The "traditional" approach to teaching "music theory" at an elementary level seems to be based on common practice harmony. Back in the 19th century that was a "live" musical context, but not any more. Even in the context of teaching the performance of "classical music" (whatever that is!) on "traditional musical instruments," there is at least a century's accumulation of good quality practical teaching material that lies outside it.

If the above correctly identifies the root (or at least one root) of the problem, I don't have a "solution" - but as a specific example to focus on, what would a "theory course" for keyboard students, designed to be used in parallel with Bartok's "Mikrokosmos," look like? I suspect "perfect cadences" would not feature very strongly in it.

And "Microkosmos" is hardly cutting-edge avant garde music, in 2016...

The various "elementary theory and musicianship" books by Hindemith were at least a start in the right direction - though they are now more than half a century old, and arguably Hindemith had his own theoretical axe (which never became a mainstream tool for music making) to grind while writing them.


(Let me begin by saying that that is an awful music theory assignment that you showed. I know it's not yours, but I would hate music theory if that's what I learned from as a student!)

First we have to define exactly what we mean by "music theory":

  • Is it music theory for classical musicians, or music theory for popular musicians?
  • Can the students read music, or are these students that only want to compose electronic music on their computers?
  • Will the curriculum include an aural skills component, or is it strictly written theory?
  • What is the overall output goal for which the student is learning (and the teacher is teaching)?
  • Do you prefer a more "vertical" chord-stacking approach (see the Kostka and Payne textbook) or a more "horizontal" voice-leading approach (see textbooks by Aldwell and Schachter; Laitz; and Clendinning and Marvin)?

Only then can we really start to answer this question.

And in addition to the two great answers already given from alephzero and topo morto, some further remarks:

  • Instructors must understand the distinction between and importance of contextual versus acontextual examples. By "contextual," we mean an example that comes from the literature (like the "Ode to Joy" example in the PDF you provided). By "acontextual," we mean examples outside of the repertoire (like the remaining two pages of "complete these authentic cadences" in the PDF). Students prefer contextual examples the overwhelming majority of the time, and the material "sticks" much more easily when you use actual musical examples.
  • Similarly, meet them in the middle when it comes to the repertoire you discuss. Too many music theory instructors insist on teaching the same phrases from the same Mozart and Haydn piano sonatas over and over again, and nothing kills a student's enthusiasm faster. If your repertoire doesn't include examples from Aladdin, The Beatles, and Lady Gaga, you're just plain doing it wrong.

Lastly, some sources on teaching music theory, even though they're both geared towards college professors:

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    I agree with you entirely on the theory example I gave; I found it randomly through Google, and didn't want to be too nasty. I wouldn't use it, but I do see similar examples being used all the time.
    – endorph
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 1:36
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    I figured as much. Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad music theory teachers out there...
    – Richard
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 1:39
  • Actually someone tried to analyze the Lady Gaga songs :) slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2014/03/…
    – teodozjan
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 21:53

I'm that awkward violinist who didn't know a lick of theory -- and didn't care to -- until about two years of playing, and really still didn't care to until he took up piano. Why piano? Well, think about it from the green-horn violinist's perspective. The violin is pretty abstract when it comes to music theory. The notes are basically points on a string that you need to memorize -- physically and sonically. Because of this, it's usually easier to learn with a method like Suzuki, where you become proficient technically fairy quickly, but at the expense of reading music.

It's the only reason I'm here typing this today and not playing video games, if that makes sense. I would have quit years ago.

Because of Suzuki, I could enjoy the violin sooner than I would have otherwise. But... Theory. Yes. I couldn't read music at all until about two or three years into playing, and very poorly until I joined my first orchestra. So, about a year or two ago, I took up piano "for the theory" and as a supplement to the violin.


Because I had never played before, and my piano teacher didn't really know any other curriculums that well, I started with a book that was basically geared for a kindergartener. I was fairly proficient at sight-reading at that time, but I literally got no joy from playing "The Computer" or "The Watchman," or even "classics" like the "Boogie Woogie Goose." I like pre-modern stuff the best.

Then, not that long ago, my teacher started showing me how to improvise hymns.

The beauty of it. Wow. My musical world had opened up. I no longer viewed music as prewritten notes on a page. Suddenly, the world of composition, and improvisation had appeared in front of me.

All of the sudden, I wanted to learn about chord progressions -- things that would never have mattered to a violinist. I wanted to learn about melodic decorations.

My teacher started by showing me how to find the "chords" of a song. Find the key signature, pick the first note of the scale, make your triad, repeat for the fourth and fifth notes of the scale, and you have three chords that sound delicious in this key.

"Yay!" I thought. "Now I can play any song I have a mind to! I can improvise!"

Take a different situation.

"Alright, child. Today, we're gonna learn about CHORD PROGRESSIONS! Isn't that exciting?"

[Blood curdling scream, rips hair out]

I didn't even realize I was learning that stuff. I was taught it as a way to make music, in the context of making music.

I've since then pursued music theory more independently, but my teacher has taught me how to roll out chords (1, 5, 8 + 3 + 3... I wouldn't care that much if I couldn't apply it to my own music), and I learned about melodic decorations on my own time... I'm learning music theory because I see how I can apply it in the context of entertaining myself.

When I'm in a bad mood, or bored, or happy, or sad (or basically whenever I walk past the piano) I sit down and improvise. I can apply it. Anything that pertains to it, I want to know.

What about reading sheet music?

I figured out that I can have a whole orchestra in my backpack whenever I have a score with me. I teach myself songs, and enjoy lording my proficiency over my less sheet-savy friends.

Entertaining, huh?

All of this stuff, if taught in a text-book format, would be in one ear, and out the other.

Here's my proposition:

Music Theory on a need-to-know basis, and by need, I mean want.

Tell the kid, "Hey, today we're gonna look at a couple of cool songs that use [blank]."

"Sounds cool, huh? Did you know that you can throw [blank] in wherever you want? Yeah, I think it's neat too. Let's try some. Here, stick it in this piece."

Or, if [blank] can't go wherever, show the child all the places in songs that he likes that [blank] appears.Most importantly, show the kid that he can use [blank].

There is the occasional item of theory that's so theoretical that it can't really be applied in everyday usage, but the student will be motivated once he finds the reason, even if you can't show it to him.

I've begun the menial task of memorizing my key-signatures. It's hard, and if I had been forced to do it before, there would be many a tear shed -- and key signature forgotten.

Now I want to learn them, because I want to point at a scary looking score and say, "That's F Minor!"

There's my ten cents.

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    You've talked about part of 'your journey' and that's always something worth remembering... that any student is somewhere along a long journey, and it's worth working out roughly where they are! Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 8:28

I think the great (re-?) revelation of our age is the importance of motivation in learning and playfulness.


If you are a songwriter you will probably learn theory because of curiosity and to write better songs. Those who are in a big band needs to know how to read sheet and improvise. Your friend next door only wants to listen and play songs he hears on radio, so he needs only ear training and basic scales/chords.

All these people would need different approaches. If they get what they need maybe their natural curiosity kick in and will learn more.

Also people from different genres may not like to learn a totally different genre at first. (I really hated to play boring classical guitar compositions in C major - just to learn sheet reading)


Why should learning be a pain? Just imagine a fantasy game, for example, where you can cast different spells by playing different scales. You made learning scales fun and effective and enjoyable.

If you ever played a strategic game you probably had learnt a lot about managing resources, constructing machines, etc. All by a side effect of a fun experience. Now I would be really happy to play games that teach me music theory or train my ear.

Providing tools to the user of theory

As I said in motivation, you should have multiple kind of courses for different needs. For example as a songwriter the ideal approach of learning music theory would be a searchable "database" of notation, theory and musical examples combined to each topic - so I can search for the next step when I write a song (examples):

  • convincing key changes
  • gluing parts rhythmically together
  • writing vocal harmonies
  • turning up the heat emotionally (tricks on drums, orchestration, harmonies)


Without opinions ("4 note chords are more sophisticated than playing triads"), but with lots of playable examples, preferably multiple genres and countries.

Never forget that music meant to be heard and understood sonically.

The power of community

You are not alone. There already really nice materials on YouTube from you can learn how to teach best a certain area if you are open. There should be music-loving developers who would love to work on a music teaching related fun app for a phone. There are forums you can try and test your teaching methods.


You take a leaf from the best composition teacher of the last century:

Dieses Buch habe ich von meinen Schülern gelernt.
Arnold Schoenberg, Preface to Harmonielehre, 1911.

"I have learned this book from my pupils."

Schoenberg's style of teaching was exploratory: if you look through his theoretical and didactic writings, there are ample examples from the literature. The nature of this exploratory style of teaching is to involve the students in working out how real music works. Doing it this way absolutely requires you to refine your own understanding of the music as you teach it, frequently through the insights of the students themselves. It certainly requires you to refine your approach as you see what works and what doesn't.

Translating this approach to schoolkids isn't all that different from teaching 19-year olds: you need to relate it to what they're doing (which, in the case of schoolkids, is learning to sing and/or play progressively more complex pieces). It becomes a case of "Hey, when it sounds like we should take a breath, that's a phrase. Now, look at what this piece and this piece do when the phrase ends..."

Pace alephzero, you do need to work from a basis of common practice. So much of modern and postmodern music takes its departure from it, and, frankly, most of what schoolkids will be learning to play on their instruments is quite likely to be from smack dab in the middle of that period, not Mikrokosmos.

This is also taking a leaf from the great Modernist: the man who taught composers as diverse as Webern and Cage taught almost exclusively common practice theory. There are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. It is easier to come to conclusions about music that is primarily from the past. There has been more time and effort spent in figuring out its workings.
  2. Because it has been codified to a greater extent, it is more apt to the task of developing the student's ability to manipulate tones to do what he/she wants them to do - musical "calisthenics", if you will. To accomplish this task, you need to set clearly limited goals for the exercises lest you swamp the student with too many poorly understood decisions to make. Modern music is by no means as well understood or codified, so the problem of forcing decisions prematurely becomes that much greater. This isn't unlike fine arts: if you master a basis of life drawing and perspective, you can do pretty much anything you want afterwards. You have the necessary skills and control.

Myself, when I'm dealing with younger students or beginners, I like working with Schoenberg's Fundamentals of Musical Composition as a guideline: a logical progression through the elements of music, all related to scads of examples taken from real music (and the examples written specifically to make a point also make real music).

  • Yes, Schoenberg was great. Writing music by almost randomly selecting tones. What artistic... vision? (Just kidding, I like some Schoenberg stuff, but somebody's gotta make fun of him.) Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 15:14
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    @GeneralNuisance, so long as people bear in mind that at least half of his output was tonal (even into the 12-tone years), and that it was very good tonal music. My own standing joke is that Schoenberg was Wagner's best work: just have to listen to the Gurrelieder to understand where AS was coming from.
    – user16935
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 19:10
  • When you say that 'Modern music is by no means as well understood or codified' - what period are you thinking of? And are you referring to particular styles? Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 20:01
  • @topomorto, pretty much anything after 1911. If you listen to, say, AS's free atonal pieces, mid-period Bartók, and Roslavets of around the teens and '20s, you realise that they have a fair bit in common, and that Forte's set theory (which is the only one that nominally covers all of these) does a not very good job of explaining what seems quite functional about them. If you listen to classic twelve-tone music, you realise that the theory does a piss-poor job of explaining Lulu or AS's Piano Concerto. Theory from that period is really ad hoc, and that still remains true for today's music.
    – user16935
    Commented Dec 2, 2016 at 22:22

It is important for people to realise that music just like any profession has a professional language. Training in music theory is also a training in a musical language, so that the candidate hears another musician say things like 'modulating to the dominant' the candidate actually understand what that means.

It is also an education in how music is notated, the really eloquent way in which the world has devised a system that people can understand and perform music to a remarkable manner of uniformity. Regardless of nationality, religion or language.

If a person wants to play someone else's music or have a way to get his/her music performed by someone else then there is simply no other way to convey these concepts but by these forms of notation.

It is also worth noting but people cannot seem to accept it, but music just like any other art can be studied in a scientific manner. Art is not just something that the muse or god has bestowed upon a chosen few, it is something you can work on or at. You can train at it, you can practice it.

Music is ultimately nothing more than a trade. The heights of art in the Renascence was brought to the world by the guilds, which among other things where a trade-school for the arts

It is a skill that you can develop and ultimately it is a skill that anyone can do. Some people find music easier than others, but ultimately success boils down to the ability of the candidate to motivate him or herself, not by anything he or she is born with. Believe me when you are at conserve and you have to do your performance exams on a 07:30 winters morning you have to be really dedicated to do it well.

It is a test of will-power, of work-ethic and of hard-work

Music Theory is the centuries worth of exploring into what makes music good? What makes a catchy tune Franz Listz asked himself that question just as many times as David Guetta did?

You know I just graduated from Conserve, but I would really like to be able to buy myself food, how am I going to sell my music effectively. Chopin asked himself this and so does Taylor Swift.

That is why we study music theory, so that the trade of music, theoretical underpinning are made clear to us

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