Do you love to sing? We’ll take a wild guess and say it wasn’t chord progressions and minor scales that caught your interest. But did you know reading music and understanding the theory behind it can actually help you as you learn how to sing? Find out more in this guest post by St. Augustine, FL voice teacher Heather L.
Music theory may not be the most glamorous part of being a singer — after all, no one’s analyzing Brahms’s first symphony at that summer music festival in town, and that new Meghan Trainor song doesn’t discuss inversions and triads. But you know what? A lot of the best vocalists have theory fundamentals down pat. Here’s a list of the best reasons why music theory can help you as you learn how to sing.
First, understanding music theory can make you a more versatile singer. It’s one thing not to know any music theory and sing simple songs, like “This Land Is Your Land“, but it’s another thing not to know any and then to learn “My Funny Valentine“, or “Lovin’ You“, or a Mozart aria! In other words, learning jazz, classical, and other genres requires some knowledge of music theory. Without it, we musicians wouldn’t be able to understand the symbols and the terms that are in the actual music. What does “piano” or “sforzando” mean? What does that funny-looking symbol mean? What does “D.S. al coda” mean? How do I count this measure? Music theory teaches us all of this!
For those who have no or limited music theory knowledge, learning how to read music is certainly not impossible, but it’s certainly not fast or efficient. I see the difference in my students every day. Music theory isn’t just a mundane chore or a rite of passage every musician has to get through. Think of music theory as a set of tools — explanations, vocabulary, ideas — that make you a better, and faster, music learner. Being able to see immediately that that particular passage is really just an F minor scale, and not just a bunch of individual notes, can cut your learning time in half.
Auditions and Competitions
Many vocal auditions, competitions, and scholarship opportunities are based, at least partly, on a music theory exam or assessment. I once lost an annual college scholarship only because another applicant beat my music theory test score. If I had only taken the music theory course offered at my public high school and studied even just the basics, then I would’ve gotten a huge help once I went to East Carolina University. Learning music theory opens up opportunities for you as a music student, competitor, and as a college student, because it prepares you for music theory placement tests.
Recently I was working on a song that I’m writing for my band. The theory knowledge that I have was the only thing that enabled me to write my ideas down on staff paper. Now that I think of it, if I didn’t know how to write the notes and chords of my songs down, then I don’t really know what I would do. Well, I could record it and then have my band try to figure it out by ear. I could play it and have someone else transcribe it, but it’s tough to find anyone who can do that, and they’ll usually charge by the hour or by the piece of music. Knowing your music theory means that you have a better understanding of how music is constructed, so you’ll be a more confident songwriter. Learning music theory paves the way for your potential career as a songwriter, arranger, or composer. And besides, you’ll be better able to write songs that fit your range!
You might have your heart set on being a solo singer, only ever performing alone. But even solo artists have to work with other musicians. The best solo singers in the world still have to work with orchestras and conductors, bands, and other talent. It’s essential to learn the very unique language of music in order to be able to communicate your ideas, your challenges, even just to talk about what’s going on in measure 22! Music theory is the key to learning how to “speak music.” Can you imagine being in a recording studio and understanding none of what the producer or the engineer is saying? Music theory allows us to talk about music that we’re studying or performing, because it’s like our vocabulary!
Singers are jokingly known for being the most clueless musicians when it comes to music theory. But we can change that perception! There are a dozen more reasons why singers need to learn music theory, and luckily, there are dozens of books for self-study, and even better, hundreds of music theory tutors online at TakeLessons.com who will be thrilled to help you learn today!
Heather L. teaches singing, piano, acting, and more in St. Augustine, FL, as well as through online lessons. She is a graduate of the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, and has performed with the New York and Royal Philharmonics, the New Jersey and Virginia Symphonies, the American Boy Choir, and the internationally renowned opera star Andrea Bocelli. Learn more about Heather here!
Photo by Fatihah Y