The bare minimum you need to know about music theory

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I think part of what gets people hung up about embracing the fine arts is that they assume you need to be an expert to enjoy them. That you need to have taken a university class in it, or have studied it as a kid. 

Hogwash.

Let me level with you. I have a master’s degree in classical music, and it’s not like I sit in a concert hall thinking things like “ho ho! What a clever use of the secondary dominant in the passacaglia section. Clever bastard – he leans heavily on the Neopolitan, but it really works! It really works, by god!

Out of all the musicians I know, only maybe two listen to music that way, and they’re composers.

Myth busting time! Classical musicians are NOT sitting there listening and seeing the music notes and chords and technical markings light up in their minds, like this:

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For me at least, it’s really more of this situation:

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Here’s how it works: let’s say I want to listen to a piece of classical music to relax or even meditate. I put on my headphones, kick back in the comfy chair in my office, and listen to Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony (a personal favourite, and absolute tearjerker). My objective while listening is to go on the journey the composer created through the music, not to analyze every moment. My goal is to feel allll the feels and not think about it too hard. In this setting, I use very little of my active, chatty, thinking brain when I listen to classical music (the part that talks in your head all day), and I listen much more with my emotions and my inner being.

Now, let’s say I feel particularly moved by Tchaik 6 (that’s how musicians refer to it) and I want to understand why. I can go read an academic paper about the compositional devices the composer uses in the music (the music theory behind what I’m hearing – which notes are where and why), and understand on a technical level why the music is so powerful.

I can also do the reverse. If I’m hoping to have a more cerebral, engaged listening experience, I can read up on how the composer put the piece together and what makes it special. I can find out what to listen for. I can learn what makes one of the most celebrated pieces of all time such a classic.

Whether you want to read before or after (and I encourage you to try both), you will need some very basic building blocks of music theory knowledge to get you going on your classical music journey. For now, let me give you the first, giant, foundational piece of music theory knowledge you can use immediately: music theory is all about one big thing: something called the “tonic.” The tonic is home base. It’s the key of the piece. If you sing the song “Doe, a deer, a female deer…” from The Sound of Music, the tonic is the note on the word “Doe” (or, more accurately, the first note in any scale, which is written do). When you listen to that song, you can hear that there’s a little more tension in each note as they move away from do. When they sing “re, a drop of golden sun”, your ear doesn’t want to stay on re – it wants to get movin’! As they move through all the notes, and get way up to “ti, a drink with jam and bread…” your ear really, really wants to get back to do. (Which is why the line is… “that will bring us back to do!”)

Have no idea what I’m talking about because you aren’t a Sound of Music superfan? Listen to the song below and see if you hear more and more tension in each note as they move away from do, and if you feel like your ear has “come home” when it lands back on do.

Great news – from that song, and from the little progression up the scale and back to do, you know almost everything you need to know about music theory (for now at least!). Your ear wants to get back to do. NEEDS to get back. Classical music (at least, until the early 20th century) is all about going away from do, and how to get back to it. Composers create complex progressions of chords that evade and deny the tonic (do), and satisfyingly return to it and celebrate it, and that’s part of how they create emotion in their pieces.

Want to hear it in action? Watch one of my all-time favourite YouTube videos: conductor and classical music advocate Benjamin Zander brilliantly demonstrating how music is all about this progression away from home and back again. And now that you know that, you’re fully equipped with the absolute most essential building block of music theory knowledge: it’s all about do, baby.