Ingredients of Music: Why Music Theory Matters

Ingredients of Music: Why Music Theory Matters

My piano teacher loved music theory. I mean, REALLY loved it.

He actually had previously taught theory at the college level, and he walked through most of that curriculum with me as we sat side by side at the full size keyboard at his house.

I would usually leave lessons with my head spinning as I tried to process everything he had just told me about chords, keys, and harmonic progressions.

But when I sat down at my own piano during the week to practice, a peculiar sort of magic happened. I actually started to understand what he had taught me, and I was amazed at how much sense it made.

It was an extremely satisfying feeling, similar to what you experience when you’re on a roll with jigsaw puzzle and you keep finding more and more pieces that fit together.

The more the pieces fit together for me, the more I wanted to learn, and I would go back to my next piano lesson hungry for more.

I didn’t know it then, but I was being given a gift: a contagious hunger for the knowledge of the processes that drive music. I was learning, and desiring to learn, the whys of music as well as the whats.

Not every musician has been given that gift. Many have not had a solid foundation in music theory, and while they might be excellent musicians anyway, they lack the knowledge of those whys that drive the whats.

That description could describe many of my own piano and violin students too. Although we progress through theory books and I try to pass along to them the gift that my piano teacher gave me, there is still so much ground we need to cover.

Those are the two reasons why I am diving into this new series:

  1. To help musicians understand the basics of music theory and how it helps them in their own musicianship.
  2. To provide a framework for my own teaching that I can continue to reference with my students.

So before we dive in to the wild, wondrous world of theory, I want to take a moment to answer the question you might well be asking.

Why Does Music Theory Even Matter?

To answer that question, I’ll turn to another passion of mine: baking.

If any of you love to cook or bake, you know the importance of following a recipe (at least, for those of us who lack the drive to experiment without one. That would be me.)

Now, in order for a recipe to turn out as it was intended, you have to follow it.

That sounds incredibly obvious, doesn’t it?

And yet we all know what it’s like to stare down in frustration at a ruined batch of cookies only to discover that we accidentally left half the required amount of flour out of the dough (oh wait…is it just me who has done that? Maybe.)

But measuring mishaps aside, we find that following the recipe is the surest way to produce our desired outcome.

The Whats of Music

Music is like that too. When we play a piece (or teach one), we follow the notes, rhythms, time signatures, dynamics, appropriate phrasing and interpretive decisions in order to produce the most excellent result that we can.

That process is called playing music, and it is one of the three categories to which this blog’s content is devoted.

But while playing music is an excellent and worthwhile endeavor (not to mention, the main occupation of musicians everywhere), it is only one part of the musical puzzle.

The Whys of Music

Imagine that you took that same recipe for those cookies (the ones you accidentally left half the flour out of the first time, but have now mastered), and decided to analyze the ingredients one by one.

Maybe you decide to use organic, cage-free eggs.

Perhaps using whole milk rather than low fat would improve the flavor?

And of course, some extra chocolate chips never hurt anybody, right? (Side note: has anyone ever actually followed the recipe when it tells you how many chocolate chips to add, or do you just measure that with your heart dump in half of the bag like I do?)

Now you have mastered that cookie recipe in a whole new way!

You have studied the ingredients and figured out what works and what doesn’t, and why.

You have opened up new possibilities for creative experimentation.

You don’t just understand the whats of the recipe, but the whys.

And that, my friends, is what this blog post series is all about: understanding music, another topic that this blogger is passionate about.

Diving deep into the whys as well as the whats of music will enrich your knowledge and musical abilities in a way that will both satisfy and excite you.

You’ll be able to appreciate the pieces you play and teach on a whole new level, and maybe you’ll even be inspired to arrange them in your own special way or compose brand new ones.

Do you want to reach that deeper level of musical understanding?

Do you want to enrich your playing and teaching with the whys as well as the whats of music?

Do you want to be able to pick out, analyze, and experiment with each musical ingredient, just like you do with a favorite cookie recipe?

Then buckle up my friends, because the adventure is about to begin.

All aboard!

Are you excited about this music theory adventure? Leave a comment below!


  1. Hi there, i’m really trying to get better at music theory and really appreciate why you highlighted this in the article. It’s funny because my piano teacher all those years ago also LOVED music theory… and I hated it. Now I wish I had paid better attention.

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