What is Music Theory?

8278065-bassist-playing-bass-isolated-over-black-backgroundWhat is music theory? I had thought it reasonable to begin this explanation with a definition from a reputable dictionary. However, a quick glance in three different dictionaries did not, for me, reveal an entry or a definition for the term “music theory.”

Dictionary.com, an online resource, gives the following definition:


  •  The study of the theoretical elements of music including sound and pitch, rhythm, melody, harmony, and notation.


It’s a somewhat unsatisfying definition. It’s mostly the word “theory” that is unsettling. We all know what music is. Music tends to be defined as “organized sound.” This feels to most of us like a fair definition of the word. The word “theory” is understood to most, in the absolute sense. Merriam-Webster proposes the following definition of the word theory:


  • The general or abstract principles of a body of fact, a science, or an art.


Based on that definition, music theory is the study of the principles of music.  However, Merriam-Webster also gives the following definition of the word “theory”:


  • A plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena.


By that definition, music theory becomes a method for trying to explain some aspect of music. This is the potential definition that has always interested me. While I believe that the first definition is probably the most widely accepted, and probably the intended definition (i.e., music theory is the study of the principles of music,) the second definition, (that music theory is a set of general principles offered to explain a phenomena,) deserves some attention.

If we explore the latter definition for a moment, then the following question arises: What phenomena are we trying to explain?

I believe the phenomena is this: Why do certain organized sounds cause deep emotional reactions in human being, while others don’t? Why do certain organized sounds bring about overwhelming emotions, while other organized sounds do not? Why can a symphony by Beethoven cause one to question the meaning of their existence, and why can a song by Marvin Gaye make it impossible to stay in your seat?

In a broader sense, why is it that certain organized sounds create music that is good, and certain organized sounds create music that is bad? And can the study of the theory of music teach us to write music that is good?

The answer to the last question is fairly straightforward: No. Music theory cannot teach you to write good music. This is a very important thing to understand. Music theory is strictly the study of the principles of music. While the study of the principles of music can shed some light on why certain organized sounds tend to cause feelings of tension and resolution, or ease and dis-ease, we should not approach the study of music theory expecting that it will reveal a formula for writing or performing good music. We should simply look at it as a study of the tools that we will use. How we use these tools determines the artistic value of the music we write and perform.

What is consistently confusing to beginning students of music theory is that so many the elements of music are in flux, and therefore the principles used to explain them can never be rules. They are general guidelines which must forever intersect with our changing tastes, our changing perception of what sounds “good” and what sounds “bad.”

Here is the workflow of how this study of music theory develops: Musicians learn the general principles of music that exist during their lives. Those that are great artists develop new organized sounds – organizations of sounds that heretofore had not existed. Then, other musicians study what they did, and outline the principles that they created, therefore creating new fields in the study of music theory.

Here’s a practical example: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie knew all of the principles of music that were in practice in their geographical region during their time as young musicians. Through their own artistry, they developed new sounds, mixed various influences together, and developed a sound that had not existed until then. Then other musicians went back and tried to figure out “what the hell those guys were doing!” This (and this is an oversimplification, ) became the basis for jazz theory.

Colleges and other schools then teach the principles of music that were employed by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The theory in this case is this: If you want to sound like Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie, follow these rules. Use these scales, use these chords, use these rhythms, use these harmonies.

If you employ these rules, will it guarantee that you will sound good? Will it mean that you will create the phenomena of the emotional response that their music created? No. Why?

Well, for one thing, the era is different. What people have come to accept with their ears has changed over the last 50 years, due in part to the developments initiated by these two giants. Secondly, there is an intangible element (a phenomena) that these gentlemen possessed that cannot be taught, cannot be defined, and cannot be quantified.

At this point, based on these observations, we can say the following about music theory: Music theory is the study of the general principles of music and how they have been applied by artists at different points in history. If we apply the principles in the same manner as Mozart, our music will tend to sound like Mozart. A deep understanding of the principles of music as applied by Mozart will essentially allow us to copy Mozart. Does this mean that our music will be as good as Mozart’s? No. Will music theory explain the phenomena of the depth and genius of Mozart’s music to the extent that we will be able to turn out thousands of works of equal quality? Certainly not.

But, there must be specific, hard and fast conclusions we can draw from the study of music theory. Fortunately, this is quite true. In fact, there are many specific things we can and will learn. But we must look at the things that we will gather from the study of the principles of music on a spectrum. This spectrum will include things that are highly specific on one end, things that can definitely be defined in terms of right and wrong, and those on the other end of the spectrum that can only be defined in terms of their tendencies, and which are subject to our personal understanding of music, their historical context, and many other factors which are beyond our ability to enumerate.

Let us look at an example of a musical principle that is fairly specific. If we play the notes C, E, and G together at one time, we are playing a C major triad. It would be wrong to call this a D major triad. This is the nomenclature we have agreed on, and to say that C, E, and G is anything but a C major triad would be incorrect. (It might be called by a slight variation of this term, like a C major chord,) but it most certainly is not any kind of D major chord.

Now, taking this same example, let us attempt to say something else about this chord. It could generally be agreed that this chord tends to sound consonant, (that is, it does not sound dissonant,) and one could even say that it sounds “happy.” It would be difficult to argue, upon hearing this chord, that it sounds sad. (For a deeper exploration of this particular phenomenon, i.e. why a particular grouping of notes like a C major chord sounds “happy,” see the forthcoming entry on the “overtone series.”)

This is an example of the opposite end of the spectrum, the realm in which we can only make statements in terms of tendencies. We cannot say absolutely that this chord will always cause a pleasant emotional response in us. We cannot say absolutely that upon hearing this chord, we will suddenly feel happy. However, this chord tends to create an emotional response in human beings that they would relate to happiness. It tends to sound pleasant and consonant. It does not tend to sound disturbing or dissonant.

It is in the later end of the spectrum that students of music theory experience the most confusion. There is a large portion of music theory about which we cannot be definitive. However, we can set some ground rules that will clarify what it is we can be precise about, and conversely, what we can only define in terms of tendencies.

We can be more or less exact about the names of notes, intervals, and scales, about the spelling of chords, and much of the nomenclature of music. Much of this has remained fairly constant in Western music over the last 500 plus years.

What must always remain in flux is the emotional reaction a note, or more often a combination of notes will cause in a human being. Music theory will always, ultimately concern itself with what “works” musically, what “sounds good.” This has a tendency to lead us towards defining things in terms of “right” and “wrong.” Let us do our utmost to avoid these terms to define musical choices. Let us never go further than defining organized sound in terms of its tendencies. I.e. “this chord tends to sound dissonant. This note, when played in this context tends to sound consonant.”

The best possible way to deal with this inherent ambiguity is to focus on the terms consonant and dissonant. Without thinking too much about it, we can say the following: A consonant sound tends to give us a send of resolution. A dissonant sound tends to give us a sense of irresolution.

For a concrete example, go to any instrument and play the following two notes at the same time: C and E. You’ll notice that the these two notes, when played together, sound fairly consonant. They don’t create strong sense of tension. To really hammer the point home, go back to the instrument and play the following two notes at the same time: C and F#. You’ll notice that these two notes played together do not sound very resolved. In fact, in plain language, they sound kind of bad.

Try some other intervals: Play D and A together. Sounds pretty “good.” Now play a G and an Ab together. Not so “good.”

The truth is, the are neither “good” nor “bad.” All of the above examples have perfectly good uses in good music. But, we can say that some sound fairly resolved, and some seem pretty unresolved. In fact, the unresolved ones sort of beg for some kind of resolution. They create tension, that begs to be resolved.

This brings us the core of our discussion about the less tangible elements of music theory. After some discussion, you will find that these elements are somewhat more tangible than you might think.  Consider the following associations, and keep them permanently in your mind:

Dissonance = Tension

Consonance = Resolution


This is the key to understanding music theory at the more ambiguous side of the spectrum. The first step in learning music theory is to simply learn the names of the pieces of the puzzle. The names of notes. The names of chords. The names of scales. What notes are in the scales. Etc. The second step is to understand which collections of notes tend to cause tension, and what degree of tension, and which collections of notes tend to create a sense of resolution, and what degree of resolution.
The goal of this second half of the study of music theory is this:


To allow the musician to consciously and purposefully make use of consonance and dissonance in order to create a sense of tension and resolution in music.


Returning to our definitions of music theory: Music theory is, without a doubt, the study of the principles of music, with particular attention paid to how these principles have been practiced throughout history. However, in addition, it is also somewhat concerned with explaining the phenomena of the emotional response we have to music. We cannot write a set of guidelines that will spell out exactly how to use the principles of music to write or play music that is good. However, a deep understanding of the principles of music will allow us to consciously control the amount of consonance and dissonance we utilize in our compositions and performance in order to create tension and resolution. However, we must remember that the “phenomena” can never be considered a constant, as it depends as much on our musical choices as it does on the perception of our listeners.

What is this particular investigation so important? It is important for the following reason: people make the mistake of believing that “following the rules” of music theory will create good music. This is incorrect. One must always keep in mind that the principles of music are the letters of the alphabet, and the words of a language. These principles are the building blocks that the artist uses to write sentences and novels.

Therefore, what is our goal in the study of music theory?

1. To learn the nomenclature. (Names of notes, scales, chords, etc.)

2. To learn the tendencies of various combination of notes in terms of creating consonance and dissonance (remembering that these are relative terms.)

3. To master these ideas, and to integrate them into your playing and composition to the point that they become automatic.

4. To use these principles as a tool to be creative.

We will start our study of music theory by learning the language of music. We will learn what things are called. We will learn the alphabet of music. We will understand these things intellectually, and we will put them into practice with our hands. We will develop an understanding of the tendencies (the feelings of tension and resolution) of certain musical choices. We will practice these to the point that we can execute these things with little or no intellectual thought (in much the same way that we speak a language we have been speaking our whole lives.) During our entire course of study, we will keep in mind that our ultimate goal is to be freed creatively by the information we have learned, and not to be imprisoned by it.