1) What is music theory?
Music theory is the language of musical construction. Those who understand the language of music, those who can read and write music are called musicians. Just as people who share a common language communicate everyday, musicians communicate through a common musical language.
The language musicians communicate in is not by speaking but rather by the use of sheet music. Sheet music contains information that allows musicians to play the same piece of music on their instruments regardless of which language they speak. People all around the world communicate through the language of music and that is why music is called the universal language.
2) Do I need to know music theory in order to play a musical instrument?
This is a tricky question and the answer is yes and no. Allow me to explain. If some noise or sound has rhythm, a melody, and harmony, it can be called music. Without these components it is simply noise or organized noise.
A musician, someone who understands music theory and is able to communicate in the language of music, will compose a piece of music and know what they are doing and why they are doing it. A musician will know the name of the notes, chords, and scales they are using and more important, they will know why the musical composition works or sounds good.
A musician does not need to hear the musical composition to know wether or not certain notes and chords sound good when played together, because the theory has already determined what note and chord families will sound good together and why it is so.
On the other hand many people who play music, do play by ear. Many of those who play by ear do not know the name of the notes, chords, and scales they are playing, yet they are able to create a musical composition that is pleasing to the ear of the listener.
Players who learn and create music by ear have developed a good sense of pitch and as they continue to train their ear, their ability to identify notes, chords, and qualities of chords, will improve.
Typically, those who play by ear are limited to playing simple forms of music like blues, rock, pop, and country. It is very difficult to play classical and jazz music without some form of musical training and a decent grasp on music theory.
People who have the ability to learn complex forms of music by ear have an extraordinary musical gift and they might even be considered musical prodigies.
To help draw a distinction between musicians and those who play music by ear I offer this example. A person who uses a computer may not have a clue about how a computer works, yet they can type a letter, send an e-mail, or surf the net. The same is true with music.
So, if a person who plays music by ear creates a musical composition that pleases the ear then they are likely applying principles of music theory wether they realize it or not.
3) Is music theory only beneficial to musicians?
No. Many studies have concluded that those who study music and the arts excel in school, career, and in life.
A degree in music is most always a liberal arts degree and therefore does not limit one to just being a musician. There are many career paths one can pursue with a music degree.
A person who understands music theory will typically pay close attention to the music they are listening to. Musicians will listen for rhythm, melody, harmony, note juxtaposition, point counterpoint, dynamics, etc … The better someone listens and can understand the nuances in the music they are listening to, the more they can enjoy it.
4) What is tablature and is it the same thing as reading music?
Tablature would not be considered reading music. Tablature is a system that shows guitar players exactly what notes and chords to play by showing where to place their fingers on the neck of the guitar. Tablature does not give enough information to play the music as it was written, with tablature you must know the song to be able to play it as it was written.
Tablature is a very effective tool for musicians and players alike and is widely used by both. Accurate tablature will allow a player to to copy a piece of music very close to the way it was written if they are familiar with the piece of music.
Tablature is not the same thing as reading music but it is a very useful tool for learning note for note transcriptions, and is a good learning tool as well.
5) What is the best way to learn music theory?
I believe the best way to learn music theory is through formal musical training. Music study can be acquired at a school that teaches music or by way of private instruction or tutoring. Learning music theory without the assistance of a teacher is possible but it would be a challenge.
My own experience is that the best time to learn music theory is when a person is young, between the ages of 8 and 12 or when a child is in elementary school. The chances of successfully learning music theory seems to be much better when the music training starts at an early age.
To read discussion on this topic visit my blog and remember, in music ignorance isn't bliss, it just means more work!