What is Music Theory?

Music theory is the understanding of written music, and it provides a language for composers and musicians to communicate with each other. Children that understand musical theory can read a page written by a composer hundreds of years ago, and understand what that composer wanted them to play, and how. How amazing is that?

For children, music theory is mostly about how music is written on a page, and how to interpret that written music. This can include understanding what a note is, what a scale is, what a key is, and what accidentals (sharps and flats) are. Composers use written music to communicate which notes should be played, for how long, and in which key.

Music theory also helps guide musicians on how to play written music. Composers use written symbols to communicate how they would like their music played by the musicians. For example, composers can use these symbols to tell musicians to play quiet or loud, or with quick or long notes.

Music theory is very important for children who want to read and play music. In addition to providing an understanding of what is written on the page, music theory can provide children with confidence in their abilities, and give them the skills they need to progress in their musical studies for years to come.

Three Reasons Why Music Theory is Important for Children

1. It Helps Children Understand How Music Works

Music theory helps children understand how a piece of music works. When learning music, kids may be curious about how each note was chosen, or why a song sounds the way it does. Music theory can help musicians see the thought process of the composer, and understand how the composer would like a certain piece to be played.

Children can also use music theory to understand which notes work well together. An understanding of intervals, scales, and keys will help children see why notes are placed together, or why some keys require sharps and flats.

For children that play in, or want to play in, ensembles or bands, music theory will show them where their part is in the whole of the ensemble – making it easier for them to play with other musicians. Understanding how written music works makes it easier for different musicians to play in harmony at the same time.

2. It Helps Children Learn Music on Their Own

Without an understanding of how music is written and read, children can only learn music by ear and memorization. This often requires musicians to listen to a piece of music multiple times until they can play it by themselves. Though this is a valuable skill, how would they learn a piece if it had never been recorded before? Learning only through memorization creates many barriers in learning new music over time.

Children that understand music theory will find it easier to progress in their learning, as they can practice and learn new music on their own. Theory also makes children more confident in their abilities and more likely to want to continue learning music over time. Learning a new piece of music on their own can make children feel accomplished and proud of their skills, which will make them more satisfied with their musical education.

An understanding of music theory will also make it easier for kids to learn different musical instruments. Music is similar to a language, and much like learning languages, it is easier to pick up a new on after you have foundational knowledge of another. Similarly, for children that want to learn to play more than one musical instrument, music theory creates a foundational understanding that makes it easier for children to pick up multiple instruments.

3. It Allows Children to Adapt and Personalize Music

Though composers had general guidelines in mind when writing their compositions, it is the personalization and individual style that a musician brings to a song that makes it more memorable. An understanding of music theory makes it possible for musicians to add their own personality to a piece of music, and make it their own.

For children that are interested in learning many different styles of music, an understanding of music theory will make it easier for them to play these styles, and learn the fundamentals of each. In particular, for musicians that are interested in learning to play jazz, music theory makes improvising — a central part of jazz music — much more accessible.

Children that are interested in writing their own music will need a strong understanding of how music theory works, so that they are able to communicate with other musicians about what they want them to play. Composing and writing music is an advanced skill, but learning music theory early will build a strong foundation for this creative practice down the road.

Music Theory as a Foundation

Learning music theory will help your child become a well-rounded musician, and make it possible for them to progress further in their musical education. For children that have ever considered learning new instruments or writing music themselves, music theory will be a key piece in their musical journey. Even for kids that are happy to play just one instrument, music theory will help them understand how music works and how to play their instrument well. For children that want to play music with other musicians, music theory makes it much easier to understand what their part is, and how to play well with others.

Though some kids can find music theory difficult, the music teacher can help pace the theory lessons and make sure not to overwhelm the child. Learning theory at the same time as learning how to play an instrument will also make theory lessons easier to understand. Piano in particular is a great instrument to learn when you are learning music theory, as it allows you to visualize intervals and scales, while also hearing how notes work together.

How has your child’s teacher incorporated music theory into their lessons? What are some of your tips for keeping kids interested in music theory? If you are a musician yourself, how has music theory helped you?

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