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(part 8 of 20)
Circle of 5ths-4ths from Piano Revealed

Music theory

Basic music theory is very helpful as you go deeper into music composition, particularly understanding keys/scales/tonality, rhythm/meter, and basic harmony. On occasion it’s certainly good to learn theory when relevant to a specific composition. For example, if a student writes sharps and flats arbitrarily, without understanding keys and scale degrees, this is a good time to learn about how scales are constructed. However, music theory in general should be learned separately from composition.

A common yet serious danger arises from teaching music theory as though it’s the foundation of music composition. It is not! Creative improvisation is. Basic theory is very important and very useful, but far too often theory is introduced as a guide book to composition. Remember, much great music was composed before music theory as we know it today was even developed.

Music theory is based on music analysis. It can teach us interesting things about what a piece is made up of, but it doesn’t tell us anything about how the piece was conceived. You might be able to analyze ice cream to learn that it’s made of milk, cream, and sugar, but mix those up in a bowl and you won’t get ice cream. As stated before, improvisation is an inherently creative process, fundamental to composition, and of course music composition is a creative art. Music theory taught as a fundamental rule book for composition strips that creativity away.

Again, basic music theory shouldn’t be avoided, but in general should be taught independently of composition.