Theories. Need it or not need it??

November 28, 2012 at 07:29 PM · Hi, I am Joanne from Indonesia. I started playing the violin actually rather late (around my college time). Here's the problem. Now that I have got this teacher who only teaches me mostly repertoire (he once told me that theories won't be necessary as I'll figure out myself while playing the repertoires). I have been wondering if he does so cos he's been considering my age with no possibility of being professional violinist and so why bother focusing on theories? On the other hand, I think I need those theories as my foundation to play, to actually understand the music.Tell me what to do. Or should I get the theory book and learn it by myself?

Note :Sorry if my English is not that good. ^^"

Replies (30)

November 28, 2012 at 08:01 PM · Hello, one can NOT underestimate how useful it is to learn theory and ear training lessons for music students.

It's a huge advantage.

It shows you how to think and solve problems by yourself and if you want to be a teacher one day (I saw this in one of your posts), you really need some music theory and ear training lessons.

Not only does it helps one to have a better ear, it shows you how the music is made, fundamental chords and progressions, how to arrange and transpose music for different instruments when you'll want to play with other musicians, to understand other musicians talking about modes minor, major, key signatures, differents clefs, composers and SO much more!

It is very similar to what students learn in music college and university.

The closest an amateur can be from a professional musician is by following playing but also theory/harmony, ear training and, if possible music history lessons.

It opens door to beeing a more complete musician who can solve his own problems easier and do more things with his music.

Well, I do know that all this takes time and money but it's my advice...

It is a good and wise investment if you can afford it. And who told adults couldn't learn this...

Good luck,


November 28, 2012 at 08:14 PM · “Well, I do know that all this takes time and money but it's my advice...”

Not necessarily. Lessons are great, but consider the following.

My son’s swim coach is the Band Director and Music Theory Teacher at our local High School Fine Art Academy. This is his first year as swim coach so after the Back to School Night meeting of the swim team, which took place in a piano lab, I asked him “how much for theory lessons.”

His response was “you don’t need lessons. All that stuff is on line.”

So hit the web.

I also a few other resources, two nice ones are as follows:

This is a link to Audiation Assistant

This is more for the ear and states “Learn the Basics of Music Theory without Knowing How to Read Music!” This is a link to The Great Courses: Understanding the Fundamentals of Music (get on their mailing list I got it for under $70.00 not over $200 as shown).


Pat T.

November 28, 2012 at 08:50 PM · Not everyone can self-teach. I can...but I'd really much rather not.

In addition, when you self-teach, you learn the stuff you find easy to learn well...and ignore the difficult material. With instruction (hopefully) you work through all the material - both easy and difficult.

As much as I appreciate the's not the best option for most people, especially as the main resource.

...and if you have a dicey internet connection...well...then it's really off the books as an

November 28, 2012 at 09:50 PM · The word "theory" is itself problematic. It implies something that is theoretical, or even hypothetical.

When I assume power I will forbid the word "theory" and substitute the phrase "building blocks" in its place.

Most of these building blocks of music are useful or even necessary, though not all at the same stage in one's studies. You don't, for example, teach a 6-year-old the difference between a modulation and a tonicization. That's the problem with just "going on line." One should be learning what is appropriate at the right time in one's development.

All teachers should be teaching the intervals (at the right time, of course), the basic principals behind the scales, the very basics of harmony, and rhythm.

Are intervals necessary? Yes, especially as the student tackles more advanced repertoire. They are unlikely to play an augmented sixth in tune if they don't understand what it is.

Case in point: on my music stand is Shostakovich Symphony 5, which I'm bowing for an upcoming concert. One of the trickiest places is numbers 32-36. A violinist that doesn't understand intervals has an iceberg's chance in hell of playing it correctly.

November 28, 2012 at 10:10 PM · I include bits of music theory and history in everything I teach for any level player. I don't offer a straightforward theory course, but I encourage my school-age students to take one if it is offered in their high school.

November 28, 2012 at 10:38 PM · I believe I'm right in saying that if you take grade 7 or 8 practical exams you are also required to take (and pass) grade 5 theory, implying that the content of grade 5 theory is the minimum requirement for advanced playing standard. As I think it should be.

All this was the case many years ago when I took grade 8 cello, but I don't suppose the requirement for a formal qualification in theory has changed significantly since. (If I'm wrong, I'm sure someone will correct me.)

As a general rule I think that if any musician is going to teach then a good working knowledge of theory is essential.

November 29, 2012 at 06:31 AM · Theory should be taught along-side lessons in the context of what you are learning to play. In other words, theory and practice go hand in hand.

For instance, beginning lessons would be learning the key signatures for the pieces are are playing, along with the bow-strokes, musical phrases, and intervals of the piece. In addition to learning HOW to do this, you should also be learning their NAMES.

Over time, comparisons should be made in the differences and similarities between key signatures, bow stroke types intervals, etc. It is a slow process, but one that will give you a solid foundation of the theory.

November 29, 2012 at 06:23 PM · For a beginning or intermediate violinist, ear training is the place to start. A trained ear, on intervals, will help your intonation significantly. You will hear small differences more clearly. You will also be able to identify intervals that others are playing in their music. Train by playing a note and then singing an interval. Over time, work your way up to at least a minor 9th, and down at least a 7th. Then reverse and have someone play an interval and you identify it. 5 or 10 minutes a day for 6+ months will make a difference in your intonation - just because you hear better.

Music theory is useful on occasion in classical music. In jazz, blues, pop music, it is an essential foundation for improvising. You not only have to know it, you have to execute it in real time - on automatic.

November 30, 2012 at 04:27 AM · Thank you so much everyone! I'll definitely find ways to learn theories or 'building blocks'=) by any means. I really want to be a music teacher one day so I guess there's no way that I can make it without those basics.

November 30, 2012 at 04:27 AM · Thank you so much everyone! I'll definitely find ways to learn theories or 'building blocks'=) by any means. I really want to be a music teacher one day so I guess there's no way that I can make it without those basics.

November 30, 2012 at 12:07 PM · Disregard her advice and learn as much theory as you can. Too much knowledge has never hurt music.

November 30, 2012 at 06:47 PM · Yes, Joanne, theory itu penting, hehe ;)

well, to even get accepted into a conservatory, for instance, you need to know the theory, too (besides having recital, playing sonatas, etudes, arpeggio, etc)...I don't know if your teacher was a conservatory student or not (and i don't know the requirement to get accepted into conservatory in indonesia), you know that there, not all the teachers have received a diploma to become a music teacher. there are teachers who teach because they've been learning violin for quite long time.

and in advance, you can expect a very motivated and curious students to ask what's the background story behind a piece that s/he's learning, IMHO this is important to learn, too, and students expect you to know a lot so if the student asks about this and you don't know, what will the student think? ;)

December 1, 2012 at 03:07 AM · Besides, you can make Music Nerd points, when you point out typos in your part during a rehearsal.

December 3, 2012 at 05:16 AM · "well, to even get accepted into a conservatory, for instance, you need to know the theory, too

You don't have to know a bass clef from your elbow to get into a conservatory. They'll be happy to teach it to you. You only have to sound good on your instrument.

December 3, 2012 at 02:13 PM · That is like saying Grammar, and english classes are not important in school, and that you'll just learn this by talking to other people.

Start looking into theory, it helps out tremendously, and is quite fun to see how music can be broken down.

December 4, 2012 at 09:29 AM · @scott: not all conservatories are the same ;-)

But I meant, of course you're right about intonation and such, but from the preparation before the student is qualified, this is a test when the candidate doesn't have enough graduation paper, there was a test, not "playing" but it's pure paper & pen.

Sorry, English isn't my main language, i speak dutch....we called such test a 18+/21+ test.

December 4, 2012 at 02:48 PM · @Vanessa: Yes, I do agree with you! ^^ I have just been wondering all these time whether my teacher has this same idea with me about the importance of theories. Anyway, I plan to get a grade 5 certificate from ABRSM sometime next year. So hopefully with all the materials and more-than-enough reason to pass the test, my teacher will somewhat assist me to learn it. ;)

February 5, 2013 at 05:36 AM · Hello.

Strange enough. I started my lesson when i was 18 at campus's orchestra and my instructor did the same. I run through Suzuki and etude. Sometimes we do some duet together. I have no intention on being a professional since I'm a late starter. But i knew that i have to catch thing up so i took a lesson with one of my senior who happen to be a piano and theory instructor! As far as i know, the theory itself is important. moreover when you play in orchestra and the conductor doesn't bother to instruct you on theory and technique because she assumed that i already understand.

February 5, 2013 at 10:33 PM · Hi Pal, I'm your neighbour,Singapore. I strongly susggest u change a teacher. Theory should be running concurrently with practical lesson!

Good Luck to U!

Steven Cheam

February 6, 2013 at 01:29 PM · When I was in the "kid program" at the Manhattan School of Music over 65 years ago, it was mandatory that I take a music theory hour along with my weekly violin lesson. The lesson was a one-on-one affair, the theory was in a class of other students of various instruments. By the 2nd year we were asked to compose at least one page of music for our instrument and piano. A mean task for an 11 year old.

There is "theory" (in a scientific sense) to music, but most of the practical theory is learning the sets of rules that apply to music as it is written and played all over the world.

Perhaps for jazz and other improvisational musicians an instinctive and thorough understanding of theory is essential to do what they do. My grandson is such a musician and he came to theory by doing, but found out last year when taking it as a university course that he had actually learned it mostly by doing for the previous 13 years.


February 6, 2013 at 04:25 PM · That is one of the most ridiculous things I have heard. Playing songs without an understanding in theory is like taking a creative writing class before a class on grammar. Theory is essential to understanding the music that you are playing. If the teacher thinks otherwise, go to someone different.

July 16, 2013 at 02:12 AM · This was posted awhile ago, but I just wanted to say you definitely need it! I didn't start learning theory until last year and it has already improved my playing so much! As people said before, you don't need lessons. I have been teaching myself from a book that is great! It's called "Elementary Rudiments of Music" by Barbara Wharram. It explains everything so that it is easy to understand and has lots of good exercises you can do. Lessons would be helpful for things such as ear training, but when just beginning, I would recommend this book! Hope this helped :)

July 16, 2013 at 10:34 PM ·

July 17, 2013 at 02:57 AM · Hi Joanne,

I agree with the rest of the guys and girls here that Theory is indeed important. It helps to build your musical foundation so you understand the music you're playing better. I know this because I only started Theory lessons when I was doing my Grade 5 practical and I understand that in order to go for Grade 5 practical, we would also need a Grade 5 in theory. I didn't really understood the music I played since Grade 1-5 as I don't really know how slow/fast is Andante etc. i had to listen to my teacher play to get a gauge of it. So basically I crashed right into Grade 5 theory from the start. It was a struggle with the transposition and stuffs but luckily, I managed to pass. I started the violin even later than you (at 21 years old) but that should not stop us from learning it the proper way with the foundation strongly intact. Maybe you should consider changing teacher if he/she is not listening to what you need to get to what you want. E.g. Your need for Music Theory in order to become a teacher some day.

July 17, 2013 at 10:36 AM · Of course theory is important.....that's the difference between a fiddler and a violinist...!

July 18, 2013 at 12:47 PM · I loathe the label, music theory. A theory is something that cannot be proven in the physical world, but can be rationalised, such as e=mc2. Music has no theory: a third is a third; three is a fact, period. A major scale or key is a mechanic, and follows the definition: either a scale is major or it is not, by definition. What people label as theory is in fact mechanics.

Yet, having stated my peeve, IMHO knowledge of mechanics will make any musician a better rounded musician. It will create a link between you and the composer, and give you the knowledge to comprehend the genius of the composer, such as Mozart or Beethoven.

You can go far via self-teaching, but eventually you will need someone to explain the fine nuances. For books, consider the ABRSM publications, which I have found to be among the best for this, as they are based upon the classical knowledge. You will not find notes described as "eighth" or "quarter": instead you will find "minims", "quavers", "crotchets", etc, which is the classical terminology.

good luck!

July 18, 2013 at 09:48 PM · A theory is an explanation which, hopefully, is as simple as possible but no more so. They lead to predictions or theorems which can be verified (otherwise they are not much use). Relativity has been verified literally thousands upon thousands of times.

Since music relies on physics I think we could call the mathematics behind it, a theory. But yes, mathematics itself is a different beast from "theories", being a descriptive tool, yet itself based on axioms (or useful, reasonable givens) modeled after quotidian experience.

Besides, more prosaically, people do tend to use the term "theory" to describe knowledge aside from its application or "practice".

July 18, 2013 at 11:43 PM · I loathe the label, music theory.

What are going to call it then? So that we all know what we are talking about?

You can go far via self-teaching, but eventually you will need someone to explain the fine nuances.

I hope you are speaking for your self?

July 19, 2013 at 01:07 AM · I think that it is never too late to expand you knowledge on music theory. The more theory I learn, the more I am fascinated with playing! "The Idiot's Guide to Music Theory" is a good place to start for real simple stuff, but if you want to know more than the basics I would suggest theory classes or a more serious set of books. Good luck!

July 23, 2013 at 08:24 PM · Although I too sense a slight cognitive dissonance in the term "music theory", it's not unique. Many computer manuals used to contain a section labeled "Theory of Operation", which gave a description of how things actually worked. Sadly, such descriptions are now largely lacking; most people seem to not want to know what's happening, preferring instructions of the form "to do X, push button Y", which they can blindly follow by rote.

Although many computer users can do what they want without understanding what's going on under the hood, no would-be musician can get away with such ignorance. Even if the term "theory" isn't the best, it's still there and people know what it means. I'm content to stick with it for now.

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