Is Learning Music Theory Important For Pianists?

Learning music theory is vitally important for pianists, no doubt about it. But you may still be wondering why.

You are sitting in front of the piano right now assuming that everything is fine. What you play is beautiful, and you can read the music. However, do you know what’s really going on behind those notes? Can you make informed musical decisions based on the key you are in, the inversion of the chords, and the harmonic rhythm of the piece?

To be fair, you need a justification for why you need to learn music theory, and there are several reasons listed below. As you read the list, remember that you cannot learn music theory overnight. It is a foreign concept for some people, and you should be patient with yourself. Signing up for London piano lessons, then, is an invitation to learn the ins and outs of music performance.

Music Theory Sits Right in Front of You

Music theory is happening right in front of you every time you sit down at the piano. 99.9% of all music theory examples in textbooks are piano music. Why? You can see music theory taking place. The pianist can see where chords are moving, where the passing tones and suspensions are, and where the music resolves (or doesn’t resolve.) You hear tension in the music, and you see it on the page. 

If you are playing (effectively) music theory examples, shouldn’t you know what is happening? You almost learn the composer’s original intent when you see the theoretical concepts they used. This does not mean you are breaking down the music to every signal note like you’re Schenker (if you really want to scare yourself, Google “Schenkerian analysis.”) You can see where the music is taking you.

Complex Music Becomes Simple

Complex Music Becomes Simple

Take this excerpt from Chopin’s “Ocean Etude,” for instance:

is music theory important for pianists

Perhaps the notes look daunting, and if you had to read literally each note, it certainly would be. However, we know music theory – and we can see that the first measure is simply a broken C minor chord, and so forth. So rather than learning hundreds and hundreds of notes, you really just need to learn one chord per measure.

You Can See a Justification for the Writing

You can see a justification for why things are written the way that they are. This does not mean that you expect the composer to do certain things to make your life easier, but you can see why it happened. You can also make musical choices if you understand the theory. 

For example, all these jumps between different positions are happening for a reason. You might find jumping around the keyboard to be difficult, but you can see why, prepare for these jumps, and anticipate them when you understand music theory. 

Some people even mark their music with particular chords and symbols as a reminder because it makes it easier to play. While you should not analyze the entire piece on the page, it might help if the harmony is confusing or you feel your fingers get confused as you attempt to land on a certain chord. Every little bit of help goes a long way because the piano is such a complex instrument.

You Can Read Scores or Play Them

A pianist can read scores and reproduce them easily when they know music theory. A score for any piece from a massive symphony to a string quartet makes more sense when you understand the music theory that is behind it (after all, would it really be possible to read 15+ lines of music if you couldn’t comprehend the underlying chord structure?).

Playing scores might lead to you wanting to be a composer. You can reproduce scores for composers if they need to know what it sounds like. Plus, you can spot errors or issues with the music because you understand basic music theory. This does not mean that all the things you see as errors are wrong, but you can certainly ask smart musical questions. You might find errors in printed music (some older editions were never corrected because the printing plates are decades old,) or you might help a friend who is writing music.

You Understand What You are Accompanying

When you are asked to accompany anything from a choir to a soloist, you can see what is happening on the page. You can explain to the people you are working with what you see, and you can give them guidance. Sometimes, a soloist, choir, or someone else needs you to step in and tell them what is going on. Plus, you can make musical decisions to hold that suspension just a little longer, slow down, speed up, or anything else that makes the music more beautiful.

You Learn How Each Line Should Sound

You will learn how each line in your music should sound. Yes, the music theory behind a fugue dictates that the same melody enters in different places and conflicts with other versions of that melody. However, an advanced pianist also needs to know how each line should be characterized. When you are playing advanced music, you will play some melodies heavier than others, subdue certain aspects of the accompanying left hand (for instance), or perhaps announce the re-entry of the tonic key with a louder volume.

You can read the music and see that the bass line over here should not overshadow the heavy melody over there. If you do not know what you are reading, it is hard to tell what is important what sits in the background.

Sign Up for Piano Lessons to Learn More

If you are interested in understanding music theory and its importance, please get in touch at your earliest convenience. We offer piano lessons in Westminster, piano lessons for kids, and we serve pianists in the areas surrounding Marylebone..