How Much Music Theory Do I Need? The Complete Guide


I remember as a child, I hated music theory, it took several years to realize the benefits of it, and the doors music theory opened for me! That’s why I decided to create this article; I want to help you understand why theory is so important and how much of it you need to learn!

You need to be able to grasp basic music theory concepts such as: pitch, intervals, circle of 5th, melodies, scales, modes and chords. According to your goals and choice of profession, you will have to develop a deeper understanding of how music theory works.

Read on to discover how much music theory you should know as: a singer, a music producer, an instrumentalist, a songwriter, a performer, a session musician, or a hobbyist.

Also, I have created an introductory guide to basic music theory concepts you will need as a musician that I believe you will find very useful!

Now, let’s dive into the post together!

Why do I need music theory?

I know that there are quite a few famous musicians who don’t know music theory at all; this is due to the simple reason that good music comes from the heart. 

But as someone may be able to speak a language, not knowing how to write and read makes his life much more complicated than it should be. 

It’s true that in order to progress, you need the right tools to move forward, music is no exception. If your goal is to write, produce, compose, or perform amazing songs, you will have to learn at least basic music theory.

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about WHEN do you actually need music theory?

When do I need music theory

My experience tells me that there is a high probability that you will need music theory in the following situations

  1. As a singer: when you learn new songs or sing a song in a new key
  2. As a music producer: when producing songs
  3. As an instrumentalist: when learning your instrument
  4. As a songwriter: when writing songs
  5. As a performer: when learning songs and playing live
  6. As a session musician: when you get hired for a gig
  7. As a hobbyist: when you want to learn songs for fun

You see, music theory is very is useful virtually in every situation I can think of.

Could you be in the above scenarios without the knowledge of music theory? Yes, you could…

But I guarantee you will make your life much easier if you at least learn basic music theory concepts. Also, knowing basic concepts will help you avoid possible embarrassment in front of your peers. 

Do I need music theory as a singer?

As a singer, there are moments where you absolutely need to know music theory; this could be while rehearsing in the studio, at a jam session or when writing a song together with a songwriter. 

Also, if you want to evolve as a vocalist, you will need to follow musical trainings which 99% are based on music theory. A simple example is when the teacher hits a note the piano, and you sing it; if you don’t know the name of the notes, you cant complete this exercise. Or the exercise where you have to tell if a chord is a major third or a minor third. 

Simply put, music theory will help you sing better and faster.

As a singer, you need to know at least the following:

  1. How chords are formed (triads). Knowing how chords do form will help you sing or record vocal harmonies with ease; since vocal harmonies are based on chords.
  2. How to read music. This will save you loads of time when you are on a deadline or in a situation where last-minute changes happen, and you have limited time to rehearse with the band.
  3. Understand basic musical terms such as: key, pitch, tempo, scale, interval, major, and minor third; you need to “talk the music language” to be able to communicate correctly.

As an opposite example, Michael Jackson famously did not understand almost anything about music theory. 

When he wanted to present a new song to his band, he would not tell them what chords or notes to play; instead, he had this fantastic ability where he would sing the melody and every note within every chord with perfect pitch!

Of course, the King of Pop was a rare example of such an outstanding talent; the rest of us are stuck with music theory 🙂 .

I mentioned before that a singer needs to understand only basic music theory concepts, but the right amount you’ll need as a vocalist depends on your goals and the genre you’ll follow. 

Some genres don’t require a large amount of musical knowledge while others do, ex — blues vs Jazz, Rock n Roll vs Classical, etc..

As I mentioned before, music theory gives you the ability to communicate what you want to your fellow musicians clearly and accurately.

Do I need music theory as a music producer?

Yes, 100%, you most definitely need music theory as a music producer! Again could we argue that some producers don’t understand music theory, yes we could, but shall we use these producers as an example and a blueprint to replicate in our own careers? No! We should not!

As a music producer tons of music theory concepts will be useful to you, I created a list (which is by no means extensive) to give you a taste of what you should know.

  1. When producing how to make sure all sounds are in the same key.
  2. How to transpose a song
  3. When and to introduce an instrument
  4. The circle of fifths
  5. How modes work
  6. How scales work
  7. Which notes are in a scale
  8. Which chords fit in a scale and which scale to use
  9. Basic chords and their structure (major, minor, dominant, diminished, half-diminished, augmented, 6th and 7 chords)
  10. First and second chord inversions
  11. How to add harmony on an existing melody
  12. How to add a melody on existing harmony
  13. How to remix a song
  14. Theory used in sound-design

and much more!

I could go on FOREVER; there are so many elements that contribute to the success of a song, but equally important is the source of information!

You could read a boring textbook about music theory, which will bore your mind off, or you can find a fun, clear, and simple way to understand the music concepts that apply to YOU without wasting time searching on the Internet jumping from one subject to another without structure. 

If you’re looking for a structured easy and fun way to understand practical music theory I have good news for you, I am about to release an excellent guide that explains practical and useful music theory concepts, and I GUARANTEE it’s the easiest and fastest way to master music theory and get results within minutes!

If you want to enter my VIP list and even get early access to the practical music theory guide, click on this link!

Use this guide if you are a songwriter, a producer, a singer, or an instrumentalist!

Do I need music theory if I want to learn an instrument?

I play the guitar for over a decade and almost from the started learning basic music theory concepts. However, there is an old saying: “Teach the sound before the theory,” and I believe it’s true. 

If you’re fired up and ready to learn a musical instrument, waste no more time and start today, learn basic concepts such as proper finger placement and posture. However, I wouldn’t wait much longer than a couple of months to dive into music theory.

Depending on your instrument of choice music theory will vary but in a nutshell, it’s good to learn about:

  1. The circle of fifths
  2. How scales work
  3. How modes work
  4. Chords and their structure
  5. First and second chord inversions
  6. Which chords fit in a scale
  7. Which notes are in a scale
  8. Pentatonic scales
  9. The blues scale
  10. Jazz chords
  11. How to form Cadences

And more…

Do I need music theory as a songwriter?

Again the answer here is yes; you do need music theory as a songwriter. 

Songwriters tend to need music theory when they compose new songs or make changes to existing ones. They need information such as:

  1. How song structure works
  2. When should the chorus “hit”
  3. How long should a song be
  4. When and how to build tension and release
  5. How to combine genres
  6. Popular lyrical schemes
  7. How to lyrically develop a story
  8. How to find the key of a song
  9. The scale a song is written in
  10. Basic chords and their structure (major, minor, dominant, diminished, half-diminished, augmented, 6th and 7 chords)
  11. How to invert chords
  12. How to transpose a song
  13. How to add harmony on an existing melody
  14. How to add a melody on existing harmony
  15. How to harmonize a melody

And much much more…

Of course, you can accomplish some of the above by experience and by ear (with years of trial and error taking the long road), but even if you can already quickly identify what you hear, understanding music theory allows you to accelerate this skill by miles!

Do I need music theory as a performer?

Yes, as a performer, you need to be able to understand at least the following:

  1. Scales (blues scale, minor & major pentatonic scales, etc.)
  2. Modes
  3. Which chords fit in a scale
  4. Know how to transpose a song
  5. The circle of fifths

And more off course.

Scales and modes will help you play the right notes while soloing since you need a basic understanding of thee to improvise on stage properly. Now, again, we could argue that some famous performers don’t make use of music theory while playing live, but this is the long and challenging road. 

It may take years until you properly develop the ability to play everything by ear, and even then, you would most likely be only “that good” in one or two specific genres. I have seen that happen a lot with old timer-blues players; they are great at playing old-school blues, but they struggle when it comes to more modern musical styles.

Do I need music theory as a session musician?

The job a session musician is quite diverse, you will be asked to play a different amount of genres within or out of the studio, with a wide range of artists. They will often call you when the solo artist is on tour, or if one of the band members cannot adequately play a specific part in the studio. 

Sometimes its the choice of the producer and others the artist to bring you in, nevertheless you should be able to perform professionally and learn fast the parts they need you for. A great way to minimize the effort you have to put into each session is through knowing how to properly use music theory.

Some of the music-theory tools you will need as a session musician are:

  1. Basic rhythm variations
  2. Major scales
  3. Blues scale
  4. Pentatonic scales
  5. Melodic minor scale (more for Jazz music)
  6. Which chords fit in a scale
  7. Which notes are in a scale
  8. Diatonic Modes
  9. Circle of 5ths 
  10. Circle of 4ths
  11. Basic chords (major, minor, dominant, diminished, half-diminished, augmented, 6th and 7 chords)
  12. Chord inversions (1st & 2nd degree)
  13. How to perform arpeggio on your instrument
  14. How to read notes and play what you read

And more…

Do I need music theory as a hobbyist?

I have heard many hobbyists argue that since they are not planning to write songs music theory is not relevant to them. I believe this is wrong.

First of all, you never know what the future might bring, at this stage you might have just a general interest in learning a musical instrument but as time passes this might change. Also even if you decide you never want to perform live or write a song music theory will prove to be a great tool that will serve you well even in the comfort of your home.

Music theory helps you memorize a piece faster, it helps you understand when a chord change or melodic element is going to come in, it helps you perform rhythmic parts of the song better, and it also helps you to communicate with your friends you might be playing with properly. 

These are just some of the benefits you will get by learning music theory!

As a hobbyist you should know the following:

  1. Basic rhythm variations
  2. Circle of 5ths
  3. Basic chords
  4. How to perform arpeggio on your instrument
  5. Some scales (based on your genre of interest)
  6. Which chords fit in a scale
  7. Which notes are in a scale

And more…

Since we saw some of the music tools, you might need different scenarios; let’s now continue with an easy introduction to basic music theory! Enjoy!

The Easy & Basic Music-Theory Guide

Here is a list of the basic music theory topics we will explore. Don’t worry, I promise I’ll keep everything crystal clear and very simple! 

a) Discover Pitch and why it’s so important

We use the word pitch whenever we want to describe if a note goes higher or lower. Listen to the following example. As you can hear our first note is lower than the second note; in other words, the pitch of the first note is lower than the second note.

Pitch, from a lower note to a higher note.

b) Explore Intervals, the base of everything

An interval is the distance in pitch between two notes; intervals can be:

  1. Ascending (going up)
  2. Descending (going down), or
  3. Harmonic (played together)

listen to the following 3 audio examples where I illustrate my point.

Intervals Ascending
Intervals Descending
Intervals Harmonic

intervals are often addressed to with the following terms:

  1. Half step
  2. Whole step
  3. Minor third
  4. Major third
  5. perfect fourth
  6. Perfect fifth
  7. Octave

As a musician, you use intervals all the time when forming melodies and chords. You also use intervals when you sing, even if you are not conscious about it.

With a bit of training, you will be able to recognize each interval and know the distance that characterizes each interval. You should also know when and why to use each interval since they convey different emotions.

c) An introduction to Melody

This is my favorite part, forming melodies! Creating a good melody takes a lot of practice. Music theory teaches you how to distinguish a good melody from a bad melody; what makes a melody exciting; and the tools to form a great melody.

We will explore some of the concepts that are necessary to build excellent melodies.

d) Scales, what they are and what to know about them

Scales are the building block on which melodies are created.

A scale dictates the “emotion” and “feeling” a melody has, and every genre of music has its own favorite scales, the ones that are used more often.

It’s true that most musicians don’t take the time to recognize scales by ear or learn how to form them by memory, but this lack of knowledge is proven to be very time consuming when you’re in the “zone” crafting new songs. 

You might argue that going online and figuring out what chords fit in a scale and which scale to use is just a few clicks away but trust me when I say it WILL compromise your work as you lose your flow.

here are a few basic concepts you should know about scales:

  1. the 1st note of a scale is the root note of a scale; this note indicates in which key the scale is atm, for example a scale could be in the key of C,D,E,F etc.
  2. The 3rd degree of scale tells us if it’s a major or a minor scale
  3. The 5th degree of a scale creates tension and wants to resolve back to the root note
  4. The 7th degree also creates tension and gives us an unresolved sound

let’s now move on to chords

e) Make a melody sound stable

If you want to give the impression that a melody is fairly stable and predictable, try using a lot of the first note of the scale otherwise called the root note. As an example, listen to the famous happy birthday song to get an idea.

f) Make a melody sound exciting 

I’ll let you in on a little trick; if you want to add excitement to your melodic lines, try using more the fourth, the fifth, and the seventh note of the scale. Don’t ask me why, but these three notes can add a significant amount of tension to a melody, plus that tension needs to be resolved with the root note.

Listen to the first 40 seconds of the song Havana by Camila Cabello – ft. Young Thug. You will notice that because the composer makes such a great use of tension and release, you probably want to listen to the entire song, even if the track is built upon a melodic theme that is pretty basic and recurring. 

g) Chords, an easy way to create them

I’m sure by now you have heard all about chords. Before we continue, lets first define what a chord is: “A chord is created from a combination of three or more notes.” 

Also, the reason why I’m referring to chords as a combination of three (or more notes) and NOT a combination of two notes is because two notes played together are considered an interval and not a chord.

h) 3-Tone Chords

As the name suggests, every three-tone chord is created by three notes, and all the notes we need are present in our scales. 

Also, every basic three-tone chord consists of the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of a scale. Finally, the 3rd and 5th note names are depended upon the 1st note of our chord (The root).

In order to illustrate what I mean, here is an example in the C major scale and two chords we can form based upon that scale.

As you can see above, each of the chords is constructed by a 1st, a 3rd, and a 5th note. Also, if we decide to continue down the same path, we can form all 7 chords that are present in the C major scale. These seven chords are:

  • I – C major: (c-e-g)
  • ii – D minor: (d-f-a)
  • iii – E minor: (e-g-b)
  • IV – F major: (f-a-c)
  • V – G major: (g-b-d)
  • vi – A minor: (a-c-e)
  • vii° – B diminished: (b-d-f)

As you can see above, each chord has a 1st, a 3rd, and a 5th note, and all the notes that we need to form these seven chords are found in our scale, the C major scale. The same principles apply to all scales and their chords.

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Conclusion

In this article, we have learned why, and when we need music theory, we also explored if you need music theory as a singer, a music producer, an instrumentalist, a songwriter, a performer, a session musician, and a hobbyist. In addition, we got a basic understanding of how pitch, intervals, melodies, and chords work through the Basic music theory guide!

I hope you have enjoyed this post! Bellow, you can explore our latest additions to our blog.

See you around!

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