Music Theory for Music Majors

This is the first of an important two-part series by Dr. Joel Clifft, director of Keyboard Studies at Azusa Pacific University and adjunct professor at USC Thornton School of Music (see bio below), about why music majors are required to take music theory classes.

See Music Theory – Part 2

by Dr. Joel Clifft

Music theory is an important part of the foundation for any musician for several reasons.

First, it deepens our ability to understand the structure of music. Let’s pretend you had to give a speech in a foreign language. How important would it be to understand the meaning of the words? It would be impossible to give the speech with the appropriate inflection and pacing without having a thorough understanding of the meaning and structure of the speech and all of the words in it. Music theory, like language, enables us to understand the structure and meaning behind a musical composition.

Secondly, music theory allows us to speak with other musicians in a common language. It serves as a short-hand for referring to important points in the music. So, if the cellist says, “Let’s make the modulation more dramatic,” everyone knows which part of the music he’s referring to.

Who Benefits?

Music theory is helpful for every kind of music major. It allows composers to analyze the work of other composers so they can develop their own style. It allows music education majors to read the score and figure out where the brass section has an incorrect note written. It allows commercial music majors to improvise in an unrestricted, wide variety of styles. It allows jazz majors to transcribe solos from their favorite artists. It allows the classical pianist to understand the formal structure of Beethoven.

Our goal in requiring students to study music theory is not to simply torture them with the same hoops that we had to jump through when we went to college. A deep understanding of music theory makes a literate musician. It makes a musician who can not only speak the language of music, but read and write it as well.

How does learning music theory boost music performance?

There are two things that performers have to constantly work at –– reading music and memorizing music. A deep understanding of music theory makes both of these tasks infinitely easier.

Reading music has a lot in common with reading words. When we first learn to read words we must sound out each individual letter before we can form the entire word C – A – T, CAT. Then, over a period of time we begin to recognize the entire word with a glance. Later on we can recognize a group of words in one single thought. This is what allows us to become fluent readers. In music, groups of notes form chords, and groups of chords form phrases. Music theory is what allows us to recognize these chords and phrases and become fluent readers. Show me someone who is good at reading music and I’ll bet they also are good at music theory.

Performance majors, by and large, are required to perform their music from memory. Many young musicians rely heavily on motor memory (tactile memory). This is the most unreliable form of musical memory. Have you ever seen someone miss a single note and then completely freeze on stage? This is a result of motor memory –– the fingers only know where to go based on where they’ve been and one mistake can completely derail the performance. Harmonic memory allows us to store large sections of music and thousands of notes in our memory under just a few common chord progressions.

Performers must understand the structure of every piece they perform and this is impossible without a solid music theory background. It’s very embarrassing if your teacher says, “Start at the recap,” and you don’t know where that is. Knowing the form not only impresses your teacher though, it enables you to understand the piece as a whole. A holistic understanding of the piece has an impact on every interpretive decision you will make.

Dr. Joel Clifft  is the director of Keyboard Studies at Azusa Pacific University. He also serves as an adjunct professor at USC Thornton School of Music. His iPhone app, Music Theory Pro, has received rave reviews from “San Francisco Classical Voice” and the KTLA news in Los Angeles. He is also an active collaborative pianist and has performed with Midori and Ma Xiaohui, among others.

See Part 2 of Making it Through Music Theory here.


  1. Stephen,

    I like the concept of your research paper. There is definitely a need for a new approach to this subject.

    There are basically three common reasons why someone would 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. I have some responses to each of these viewpoints. In fact, is posting my new article addressing this: Music Theory: Beyond Boredom.

  2. Stephen

    Dr. Clifft,

    I am a graduate Music Education student at Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado. I am interested in writing a research paper that studies the question of why so many college music majors seem apprehensive about learning music theory – with the end goal of finding a better way to teach it. I know there are good sources out there which are related to my subject, and wondered if you could suggest some.

    Thank you so much for your help,


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