How Much Music Theory Do You Need?

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© Chad McDermott –

No doubt about it: music theory is an essential for every music student, no matter the skill level or age of the student. As any seasoned performer will tell you, a basic understanding of music theory helps you learn music faster, and interpret it more easily. As any teacher will tell you, it can be difficult to persuade students of this.

I often have dedicated and eager students ask me about taking music theory instruction, either as additional lessons with me or in an outside class. I always encourage it, but I also try to help them understand what they really need to know.

Music theory is fascinating to me. I love the intricacies of harmony and voice leading. I actually enjoy species counterpoint and writing fugues. But this is more pedagogy than is helpful or necessary for most students. What follows below is my list of essential theory information for all students, what you absolutely need to know to get the most benefit for your playing without an extraordinary investment of money or time.

Beginner basics:

  • Note reading – names of the notes and placement on the staff in whatever clef(s) you use
  • Rhythmic reading – note values and rhythmic patterns
  • Understanding time signatures


  • All key signatures, major and minor
  • All major and minor scales


  • How to form and play triads and seventh chords
  • How to write and/or play a I-IV-V-I harmonic progression in each key
  • Understanding how chord inversions are formed

Terms and signs:

  • All the most useful Italian tempo designations
  • Common signs, symbols and abbreviations

This is far from a complete syllabus for a theory curriculum, but a working knowledge of these things is fundamental to musical literacy. It should help any student understand much more about his craft and learn music more easily.

One more valuable tip: For each piece you play, research the composer to learn a little about the time period in which he or she was writing, as well as the composer’s nationality and style. Be sure you understand all the foreign terms, signs and abbreviations. Does the title have a particular significance? Learning what you can about each piece you play will help you be musically informed AND help you play better too!

I welcome your comments on this post! Do you have questions? What do you think I left out that I should have included in my list? Are there things I need to explain further? Let me know…

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  • Michelle

    Thank you, this is very helpful! I have started teaching a few students, and this is great info to have.


  • Heidi

    Are there any specific supplemental theory books you recommend either harp specific or in general? I’ve been using Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory for my students, but would love to know if there are others out there worth checking out! Thanks!


    • Anne Post author

      I like the Alfreds books, too. I have also used the Harp Olympics series and find that some students really like the integrated approach. And then, many of my students do the ABRSM exams, so that takes a little more focused study.


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