English EN French FR Italian IT

Just what actually IS Music Theory?

MLC Marseille Head of Education poses the question; just what actually, IS Music Theory?

At MLC Marseille we have been holding modern music theory classes for the last few years with great success. Classes have been held at the school on Saturday mornings and are divided into groups of : level 1 Beginner (grades 1-3), level 2 Intermediate (grades 4-5), and level 3 Advanced (grades 6-8). During the COVID-19 pandemic we continued the classes online via live video sessions with our students.

Students have been returning to the classroom at the MLC for some time now. That said, many students still like to take the classes from home via a live video session. The teacher therefore appears on a screen alongside the students in the classroom. This makes for a fun and varied learning environment. What’s more, as the sessions are recorded, a copy of the lesson is sent to students for revision during the week.

What is music theory?

This answer to the question is not as simple and straightforward as it should be. Indeed, there a big misconception that the subject of music theory teaches us about how to make music. But, alas, it does not.

“What?!” You ask…

I always stress to my music theory students that music does not start on the whiteboard in the classroom. It starts with a musician playing an instrument.

This may sound romantic, but this is a notion that is very easy to forget in a classroom learning environment such as in a music school. In this situation, it can be very easy to invert the concept of how music is, and always has been, actually created in the first place. We can get confused into thinking that music is created by being written out first (which is where the theory must come in right?) and then subsequently being played. But this is not the case, nor has it ever been.

Writing out music on the board in a classroom or on a sheet of paper is nothing more than a recording process. We are used to thinking of recordings in terms of MP3s, CDs or alike. But what about back in the day before these possibilities existed? The only possibility that a classical orchestra could reproduce a piece of music during the time of W.A. Mozart, for example, was for it to be written out. The orchestra would receive the manuscript and thus be able to reproduce the music. This was the only way to record Mozart’s compositions. Thanks to those “recordings” we did not lose these classics, because nobody had the means to record and produce a CD of the music in that era.

So we could be forgiven for thinking that Mozart composed using paper and ink. But when Mozart wrote down his music, it was not part of the compositional process. The composition was done in his head beforehand.

This is where music is created – as an idea emanating directly from a musician’s creativity. Not through the application of music theory on a piece of paper.

So if music theory does not teach us HOW to make music, what does it teach us?

It teaches us about WHY music works.

Music is a natural phenomenon. Nobody decided that this is how it was going to be. We make sounds in certain ways, at certain times, in certain frequencies, and when those sounds come together in the right way, it creates an emotion. This is nature. The theory of music, like the theory of anything, doesn’t tell us how to do that, it attempts to tell us why it happens, so we may understand, and then go away and reproduce the phenomena. It shows us the “WHY”, so we may better work on the “HOW” in our practical lessons.

Understanding what we are doing is essential when learning a musical instrument, and at MLC Marseille we have found that practical instrument lessons underpinned by music theory classes (the “HOW” supported by the “WHY”), provides the best learning process for making excellent progress in your music education.

More to Explore