5 Music Theory Concepts Every Musician Should Know

There are some core theory concepts that all musicians should know about, regardless of what you play. Matt Vanacoro sets out five of the most important.  

Music theory is one of the most important topics any musician can study in order to reach their highest potential. Knowledge of theory helps you compose, perform, understand and appreciate music at a much deeper level. If you’re ready to join the gigging world and get out there, here are 5 concepts you should absolutely have in your toolbox before you step onto the stage.

1 - Form

You can’t talk about the arrangement of a song without a solid understanding of form and the vocabulary to compliment this understanding. It’s not as simple as knowing what a verse, chorus, and bridge of a pop song is. Will you know what to do when the keyboard player tells you to solo over 4 choruses of the ‘A’ section then jump to the coda? You won’t get far as a working musician without a solid grip of form and its accompanying terminology.

2 - Functional Harmony

Knowledge of functional harmony will absolutely be the one thing that helps you learn material the fastest. Being aware of chord tendencies will help you predict what the next chord in a song will be, and will help you hone in on mistakes when one player isn’t in sync with everyone else. What if a situation arises where you need to play a tune in a different key? From songwriting to performing, knowing the functions of chords is essential to reach your top musical potential.

3 - Consistent Rhythm

There is nothing more annoying than being saddled with a musician who is always pushing or pulling at the tempo. As a performing musician, it’s your utmost responsibility to not ‘be that guy or gal’. Practicing with a metronome can help you develop a steady internal pulse, and playing a variety of styles will help you develop your ability to syncopate and play ‘off the beat’. It’s all well and good to be able to play in 7/8, but if you don’t have a solid internal clock while you’re doing it, nobody will care.

4 - Ear Training

Like functional harmony, ear training will help you learn songs at an astonishing rate. Being able to hear a musical line, internalize what you think the notes are, then repeat it on your instrument is key to being a successful musician. You’ll also be able to pick out mistakes, properly arrange vocals, and identify intonation issues with a performance when your ear is attuned the way it should be. 

5 - Reading and Literacy

This is a topic that can be controversial, but it really shouldn’t be. I’ll make this simple. You should learn how to read music. Yes, you. I know there are plenty of heroes out there that many of you may have that don’t know how to read music, and many of my students quote them back to me as they cry out in pain during sight reading exercises. ‘Paul McCartney doesn’t read music!’, they’ll say. My usual witty response is, “You’re not him”.

Can you be a musician without learning to read music? Sure, it’s possible. Will you be an even better musician if you do learn how to read music? Yes, it’s absolute. Learning to read will get you more gigs, let you learn more music, allow you to be in situations where music is being composed and there isn’t a recording yet, and generally allow you to reach the highest level of musicianship you can.

Those are my top 5 musical qualities I look for when hiring folks for various projects. What are your  ‘must know’ concepts?

Matt Vanacoro is one of New York's premier musicans. Matt has collaborated as a keyboardist in studio and on stage with artists such as Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), Mark Wood (Trans-Siberian Orchestra), Mark Rivera (Billy Joel Band), Aaron Carter, Amy Regan, Jay Azzolina, Marcus Ratzenboeck (Tantric), KeKe Palmer, C-Note, Jordan Knig... Read More


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