What is Music Theory?


These two words combined are worshipped by some educators and musicians, while despised by many others. Why is this? Lots of people say things like “I’m not limited by music theory.” But that’s crazy - no one is! Saying that is like speaking but saying you’re not limited by language when communicating. You’re using the medium of language. If you play any popular instrument, and you know a few chords, you know some theory. If you’ve called music good or bad, you have used the tools of music theory. Since you’re already in …let’s dig in!

What is Music theory?

Music theory is the study of compositional practices and possibilities in music. Music Theory is descriptive, not prescriptive. I think this can often get confused since the academic study of music usually focuses on parameters that date back to the Renaissance period in Europe developing through the Baroque era (especially the music of J.S Bach in theory class), through the classical period (Mozart anyone?), the Romantic Era (big furry Beethoven) and so on. There are stylistic conventions that these composers use, that are often emulated to teach points about chord function, counterpoint, musical form, etc.

Elements of Music

It’s useful to know what elements of music are being discussed in Music theory.

Melody: A sequence of single pitches and rhythms over time. Think of this as a single musical idea.

Harmony: How pitches are stacked on top of one another.

Rhythm: the durations of pitch and silence. This is what makes music move!

Texture: the number and variety of different voices or instruments in a piece of music. Gives music a lot of character - a symphony orchestra sounds different than a punk-rock quartet, right?

Form: How different passages of music are grouped together in patterned (or non-patterned) ways to give a piece of music a definable configuration. What the three-act drama is to film, the sonata is to musical form.

Tempo: how fast or slow something is played. Is it sloth-like or as fast as a cheetah?

Expression: Dynamics (how loud and soft) and articulation (way you play the notes) are hugely important to this element. This is what makes music so human!

Sound: this analyzes the pitches through sound waves and the overtone series. Maybe we the more “sciencey” side of music. This might also be where you include timbre (tone color) as well.

Where do I go from here?

A little while ago Ian and I made a fun primer video to start discussing music theory and other musical topics on our YouTube channel. Head over to see this discussion in video form, then join the conversation by letting us know what you want to see next!

I’ll be posting more music theory topics that I’ve found useful over the years, so check back often for more posts.


I completely agree with everything in this post. Especially all the “Ian” stuff.

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Tempo: how fast or slow something is played. Is it sloth-like or as fast as a cheetah?

My metronome only goes up to ostrich.

But seriously what’s the difference between texture and sound?

While they are both related, texture describes the layering of the instruments in a piece while sound describes the difference in tone characteristics in each layer of your mixture. So in texture, you might categorize “this ensemble is made up of 4 guitars,” whereas sound would say “looking at the unique characteristics of instruments 1’s sound waves, we can see that this is a guitar.”

Also, I think texture can make up multiple aspects of music combining together, such as how rhythms might have harmony overlay in dissonant or consonant qualities. Take any aspect of music and it can be approached that way.