Music Theory: Beyond Boredom

There are three common reasons why students feel apprehensive about learning music theory. They are either intimidated by it, they think it will somehow stifle their creativity, or the study of music theory bores them to death.

By Dr. Joel Clifft

Since music theory is required of all music majors, how can music educators and music majors get beyond these concerns?

Reducing Anxiety

Some people like to compare music theory to math. When I was a kid I was intimidated by multiplication tables. The only way to really learn them is to drill them over and over until they become automatic. The trouble really comes if you move forward without learning your multiplication tables. It’s difficult to do exponents without a solid grasp of them.

In the same way, it is almost impossible to build scales without a firm grasp on key signatures.  If you run into trouble, it’s likely that you haven’t yet mastered an earlier skill.  Music theory is also likened to athletics in the sense that speed and accuracy are very important, so, as I see it, the best solution is a step-by-step curriculum that includes LOTS of drills for the basics.

Encouraging creativity

I have debated several times, both online and in-person, with people who are afraid that the study of music theory will stifle their creativity. I would concede that if you are using music theory as the primary driving force behind your compositions, they are going to be quite unoriginal (to put it nicely).

However, your ability to read, spell and understand grammar does not impede your ability to speak, does it? The understanding of the structure of music, like the structure of language, only enhances your ability to use it.

A deep and fluent understanding of music theory will only expand the possibilities at your fingertips and in your ears. In order to speak the language of music fluently, one must master the basics to the point that they become automatic and don’t impede the composer or improvisor.  Music theory helps us to understand the structure of music, but our ears should always lead our minds in the creative process.

Overcoming boredom

Traditionally, music theory is taught in a lecture format similar to a math classroom. There is often little interaction between and among teacher and students.

In addition, the repertoire most commonly used for examples, while quality music, does not appeal to the majority of students. This adds to the feeling that at best, music theory is a useful subject only for classical music. And at worst, it is only for old, stuffy snobs. Both are so far from the truth!

Music theory provides a powerful tool to understand, create, analyze, and even perform music at the highest level possible. This tool transcends any style or era and is essential for anyone who has a serious desire to pursue music.

But music theory needs to be made more exciting and accessible. We are so accustomed to having information available 24/7 at our fingertips that attention spans are now shorter. Education methods must take this into consideration and include mobile apps and online tools to engage students.

In conclusion, in order to overcome the apprehension that many younger music theory students face, I recommend the following:

1. Learn music theory methodically. Make sure each building block is solid before moving on. Drill!

2. Master the basics. In order to be fluent you must be both fast and accurate. Drill!

3. Have fun! Learn with a wide variety of music, including classical, rock, pop, jazz, metal, punk, R&B, etc.

4. Use technology. (Because who reads books anymore?)

Dr. Joel Clifft directs Keyboard Studies at Azusa Pacific University, where he teaches piano, music theory, accompanying, and ear training. He’s also an adjunct professor at USC Thornton School of Music. He created Music Theory Pro, an iPhone app also available for Mac computers and iPads. Music Theory Pro teaches music theory and ear training using cutting-edge technology.


  1. Eric

    Good 🙂
    The student must get a firm grasp of theory and ear training. How else will they learn the language?

  2. Joel Clifft

    Thanks Robby!

    I think your path is a common one – from fear to freedom. A firm grasp of music theory is actually a liberating thing. You have to learn the rules before you break them.

  3. Robby Ring

    Very good writeup. I couldn’t agree more. I had some of these similar oppositions to the study of music theory and classical music until I studied them. Then my creativity opened up a lot because I understood so much more about the elementary principles of music which is foundational for all kinds of music. Dr. Clifft is a great teacher too, that helps! 🙂

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