I am a keyboard player. I've been playing for 8 years now. The reason I ask this question about the purposes, differences and priority of theory and practice is that I've been noticing some resonating moments.

I studied theory myself and practiced by video mostly. Yet when I came to practicing reading notes or playing I noticed that theory isn't that much of need. When I read music sheets I look at the notes and play them. For me it doesn't matter whether the key is major or minor or what the name of the chord I play is.

I was wondering if other musicians notice that?

It happens so that when you play you don't have time to think about the notes and chords you play, but you think about how you play them. Does the minor or major even matter when you play from paper?

Let's imagine we have this piece (see image below). For a person who is playing it. Does it matter that it's E major, it could also be C# minor as far as I know. Does it matter what chords are considered to exist within the notes being played? I think only six things matter here:

  1. The sharps for the notes
  2. The triplet feel
  3. The pedal options.
  4. The dynamics
  5. The legatos
  6. The short fermata at the end.

The rest are simple notes that mean nothing really.


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    While there are situations where practice is more important and other situations where theory is more importsnt, I have yet to learn anything so esoteric that it has never once been useful, and I've learned a lot of esoterica, because I enjoy random knowledge. – Todd Wilcox Feb 6 '17 at 12:57
  • How often do you transpose on the fly? For many accompanists, this is standard fare, and knowing theory means it is much easier to transpose, because instead of playing Bb, Ab, you are playing the 4th and 5th of the key you're in. Change to G and you can play the 4th and 5th, and you don't have to worry about what the notes are, just the hand shapes, you know the 4th and 5th will always be Major. – EvSunWoodard Feb 6 '17 at 16:43
  • @EvSunWoodard I know the intervals and the chords and the circle of 4th and 5th. I know the theory, but in most cases while playing I don't find it helping. I was wondering. Many great musicians who play from sheet paper. Do they ever think of what chords they are playing or what kind of arpeggio they are playing? I think they just play without thinking much! – SovereignSun Feb 6 '17 at 18:15
  • This is not a complete answer, thus this comment: You get to a point where theory assists you in practice. For example, if a particular chord doesn't sound right the way you are playing it, it is likely to help if you know that it has a doubling of a fifth or something, which would mean that backing off of the doubled fifth might be the sound you are after. Likewise, if a third of a chord is not as present, knowing to provide more if it can lead to having shortcuts where you know how to fix things like that as they arise. – mkingsbu Feb 6 '17 at 18:37
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    I'd be surprised if you aren't aware of the key and mode at least on some level - this is what makes it possible in general to ignore the key signature on the page when playing. Thus, theory is useful to the degree that it results in your having an intuitive awareness of how to play harmonically. If you pick this up without a conscious analysis of the theory then you've made good progress, but in that case it is a matter of not knowing what you already know. You will find in time that you already understand much of the theory in your own terms, which may gradually translate to formal theory – Darren Ringer Feb 6 '17 at 20:41

As discussed on many other posts here, you don't need any theory in order to be able to play well, however it will really help you in a number of ways:

  • playing from a score is straightforward enough when you have learned your instrument well, and learned how to sight read, but understanding why the notes were chosen, and the progress of themes and melody, all comes from theory.
  • composing your own work is much easier when you have not just the skill to play, but also the theory to define the journey your music will make.
  • as you learn theory, you find you need to pay less attention to the notes on the score, and can focus more on the flow, the guidance, he composer's intent, the conductor, etc.

I began playing strings in the mid-70's and could play just fine. Didn't know any theory, but knew the notes. Then when I took up guitar in the 80's that was easy - playing notes I heard or saw on the Tab. But I find as I learn more theory it all becomes easier, I understand what my heroes are doing, and I can create much better music myself.

And I'm a newbie in theory when it comes to folks on this site!

Not sure what your last question means - if you are just playing from the score and don't know any theory, the notes are just notes.

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    I was composing with a collaborator the other day, and I thought, "hey we could use a diminished arpeggio right here", wrote that in and then came up with a chord that it resolved to stepwise. She loved it. So theory definitely comes into play. It feels cold sometimes but at the same time it helps create meaningful art, so the proof is in the pudding. – Todd Wilcox Feb 6 '17 at 12:55
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    Definitely. I wish I knew more. And I'm gutted Patrx2 left - every post he left led to so much reading for me. – Doktor Mayhem Feb 6 '17 at 12:56
  • I entirely agree, great answer. Theory can be incredibly helpful when collaborating, however, the extent to which it is helpful is largely determined by whether or not the other half of the collaboration is on the same page with the theory. It's too bad to hear Patrx left. Was there a reason behind that? – Basstickler Feb 6 '17 at 14:53
  • Nervermind the Patrx question, I found his post on the Meta, unless someone else left announced like that (just shows user###, so I can't complete confirm). – Basstickler Feb 6 '17 at 15:01
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    Yes, that is correct, basstickler. Very sad. – Doktor Mayhem Feb 6 '17 at 15:38

A lot of these questions come down to - "what is meant by theory"? Does 'theory' mean 'all musical knowledge'? Does it refer to the 'canon' of music theory commonly taught? Does it refer to musical ideas beyond a certain level of abstraction from an extant, real-world sound wave?

The English language is not rigidly-defined and there's no correct answer there...

When I read music sheets I look at the notes and play them.

... but I would say that if you are thinking in terms of 'notes', then you are using theory. A musical 'note' is a theoretical concept - a creation of human minds; a systematic abstraction of a physical event in the real world.

If you are using music sheets, then you are using theory; you are making use of a particular visual representation of music which bases itself around culturally-specific abstractions / models such as time signatures, key signatures, and the diatonic scale.

You may not actually be thinking analytically about major, minor, chord names, and so on. But that just means you're using some bits of theory, and not others. I, on the other hand, almost never use sheet music (I hate standard musical notation, personally), but I think about chord names and scales when I'm jamming. Again, that's using some bits of theory, and not others - just choosing the bits that are useful for me at the time.

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    That's a very good point. Most do use bits, we just don't tend to call it theory until a strong baseline has been built across broader theory concepts. – Doktor Mayhem Feb 6 '17 at 14:43
  • I actually don't! The way I started my fingers know where to press. If i stop and think then yes, i know what I am playing, but not while I am playing. I look at the note and my finger gives me tgat note, i don't need to thonk about it, I rather think about how I should play this note. – SovereignSun Feb 7 '17 at 6:55
  • @SovereignSun you've practiced enough and learned well enough to not need to think 'consciously' about each note, but I'm sure you did think about them while you were learning the skills, and that would have been the basis of the ingrained pathways in your brain that allows this skill. So you're still using the knowledge even if you're not consciously thinking about it. It's an example of what Dom says - you often learn it and seem to forget it, but that doesn't mean it's really gone! – topo morto Feb 7 '17 at 9:43
  • @topomorto Hmm. That sounds somewhat strange. It's like if you are reading a word you don't need to think about the letters the word consists of. You understand the whole word and it doesn't matter if some letter is capital and another is not you still understand it. – SovereignSun Feb 7 '17 at 9:46
  • @SovereignSun of course, once you're an experienced reader. But at some early point in their learning, most children have to think about the individual letters - they then form patterns in their minds relating to groups of letters, words, and even groups of words. I'm learning Korean at the moment and I'm just moving past the stage where I have to think about the individual letters! – topo morto Feb 7 '17 at 9:50

As I often mention on this site, theory is basically two major things:

  1. An explanation of what is happening within the music;
  2. A language used to read/write/discuss the music.

With that in mind, I would agree with other answers that suggest you can use parts of music theory at a time, in particular, when you are reading, you are using the language. In a spoken language, the more familiar you are with grammar, spelling and vocabulary, the easier it is read different books by different authors and be able to easily understand the writing, including its stylistic choices and themes. Translating that idea to music, be more familiar with the theory of it all allows you to read more easily and more readily identify the important parts of the music. When you're learning a piece, you need to identify the important parts to make sure that you're properly accentuating them.

This can be done without theory but it's much more difficult, especially if you don't have a recording to reference. One of the better ways I've heard the common use of theory described is that we learn it to forget it. The idea being that we learn the theory well enough to understand inherently and not need to think about the theory while performing. Identifying a modulation isn't inherently important for the performance but being aware that it is happening and how can be helpful for a performer in being able to emphasize the pivot chord or resolution to the new key. Being aware of what is happening can be invaluable in your interpretation. If you play Classical music, it often seems like there is no interpretation by the performer, just notes on a page that are played correctly, but it is actually very open to interpretation in some ways. This interpretation and emotive expression is basically what separates the incredibly gifted players with perfect chops and mind blowing speed from those that become stars. There are cellists that are better in technical proficiency than Yo-Yo Ma but he is so expressive in his playing that these small technical discrepancies are not important. In fact, the technical discrepancies are often a part of the emotive nature of interpretation.

In short, theory can help you play better without thinking about it at all in performance. I doubt that you will find negative consequences of learning theory but if you do, it probably has more to do with your teacher (or lack thereof) than the theory itself.

  • Yeh, I can see what you mean. When I am composer, when I am writing my pieces I think about theory, though not all of the time! I look at the chords I write and often based on the chord I have I add extra nites to it using another instrument and either adding a sequence on tge guitar or some harmony on the keyboard for instance. But when it comes to playing. I rake the musuc sheet and I only look at the flats or sharps within the key signature and nothing else matters. I start playing, most often slowly, because I can't do it fast, and I play it a couple of times. – SovereignSun Feb 7 '17 at 6:44
  • When I've played it enough to remember it in my head I start pkaying the way I feel it. The way i want it to sound. I wonder if other people do it the same way? – SovereignSun Feb 7 '17 at 6:46
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    Expanding slightly on an excellent answer. I listen to a tune, and can then play it in whatever key. Yes, I know a bit of theory, but I don't think it helps conciously. It's rather like we don't often 'rehearse' what's going to come out of our mouths (sadly, sometimes...) but it just happens. Or like the footballer who just kicks the ball into the goal - not going through the angles and how hard to kick. It's become intuitive, and that's difficult to examine precisely. There must be points along the journey when theory takes precedence, but we reach that level where it's pretty well automatic – Tim Feb 7 '17 at 8:44
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    and we are not aware of what's going on, because it's unconcious or sub-concious. How it is that players with no theory can hear something and just play it is another factor beyond my comprehension. Maybe it's merely experience they use, knowing their instrument intimately? – Tim Feb 7 '17 at 8:46
  • I would relate this all back to spoken language again. You don't have to know grammar and the parts of speech to be able to form a sentence yourself (composition) or to speak back what someone else said. It's more difficult when you are young, since not knowing certain words makes them difficult to repeat back and you wouldn't know how to use them in a sentence. Once you're familiar with basic sentence structure and have a wider vocabulary, you can form more coherent sentences. All this can be done without even being able to read at all, however uncommon it is to be able to do so very well. – Basstickler Feb 8 '17 at 17:19

I find that knowing theory can be a double edged sword. Reading well written stuff, it all makes far more sense, and therefore easier to play and remember, seeing the story of the harmonies unfold. Conversly, if a piece is not so well written, it's darned hard work. Like missed rests, or a chord written one way, but the dots show another (in E, Abm written instead of G#m, for a simple example). Knowing the theory allows corrections to be made, but that's not the point. But knowing also helps the player to communicate to others - instead of pointing to a fret/string and saying 'it's that note', being able to explain technicalities, things like that.

  • Most of what I know about notes started within Guitar Pro 6. So i can see if a bar is missing some rests and can tell one key signature from another. And yes, I know that in E major there are sharps and not flats. But when it comes to playing sheet music does earnestly every player think of what chord he is playing or what interval he has played, what note that is or whether the chord is a Abm or a G#m in E? I think they just play, because they haven't time to think about all this. It's all an automated process! – SovereignSun Feb 7 '17 at 6:52
  • I hear what you're saying, and generally it's true, readers just read, almost automatically. I wish I could. However, when reading chords in E, I certainly don't expect to see Abm. My mindset at the time I play in E is to expect, usually, to be asked to play diatonic chords, which over years have become engrained. So when something like tha cropped up, which it actually did, I was lost! – Tim Feb 7 '17 at 7:59

I'm going to differ from the other posters and state that an understanding of the functional harmony of the notes you are playing is critical to a proper performance. For most musicians. Not for you, because you're a keyboard player.

The notes written on a score are just approximations. In reality, unless you are playing a fretted or pre-tuned instrument like a piano, the pitch of a note has a bit of play. Singers, for example, will sharpen leading tones, brass players will even out perfect fifths, etc. This is because equal temperament is just a compromise-- everything is always a little bit off.

Even on a piano, the harmonics of your strings are actually a bit sharp, so when your piano tuner comes in he will always tune from the center outwards, and a good one will tune the strings by ear and not using an electronic tuner.

If you don't know how the chord functions, you don't know how to fudge the notes. Not so important for a keyboardist. Pretty darned important for a violinist.

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