Why is Music Theory so Complicated?

Why is music theory so complicated? Guitar on an amp.

Unless you are a genius or a musical savant, I’m sure at some point in your musical learning journey you’ve asked yourself why music theory is so hard.

Seriously though, why is music theory so complicated for so many people?

Before I go any further and attempt to answer this question, you should know that this is my own opinion, and it will probably be very different than what you might see on Wikipedia for instance.

I’m also referring to music theory somewhat loosely and treating it as how I feel most people understand it to mean.

So, with that being said, we need to understand that music consists of three primary elements: melody, harmony, and rhythm.

I won’t be talking about one particular instrument, but instead, I will focus on the three elements of music listed above.

Each has its own theory, yet each one overlaps another, creating the whole thing we call music.

To begin with, regardless of what instrument you play, or if you play multiple instruments, one of the main reasons I feel music theory is so difficult at times is because music theory uses visual methods of describing what we are hearing.

Written music is a language of its own, and the notes that we hear have been transcribed onto paper. The problem for us as musicians is that our brains can interpret music so much faster than it takes to explain it. And that is what sheet music does. It explains the music we are hearing.

In a sense, that is a broad answer that covers everything, but there is still a lot more to it. Let’s jump into some other reasons why learning music theory can be such a headache for so many people.

Let’s start with melody and harmony.

Why is music theory so complicated? Acoustic guitar.

Melody and harmony involve working with sounds. Melody is the tune of the song whereas harmony consists of multiple notes being played in unison. Now figuring out what notes sound good together (harmony) can be done with the ear, or it can be dictated by theory depending on the key signature of a piece of music.

Melody and harmony require a lot of memorization. Memorizing where notes are on a stringed instrument for instance. You’ll also be learning different scales such as the pentatonic scale, the major scale, the minor scale, etc.

At some point you’ll be introduced to the circle of fifths and what sharps or flats each particular scale contains. Then, once you are comfortable with those you can start to learn about modes…

It’s not an overstatement when I say it takes years and years for most people to absorb this stuff. Repetition is the only way to retain all of the information.

And regardless if you’ve managed to memorize it, the hardest part is understanding it!

Do you know how many sharps a song has if it’s in the key of G (without Googling it?)

If you are playing in the key of G, and you want to play a chord progression that contains a D chord, should you play a D major or a D minor?

In a nutshell, the hardest parts of melody and harmony theory involve memorization and comprehension.

But, and there’s always a but…

Music is rhythmic, and therefore melody and harmony must be set to a beat. That’s where rhythm or percussion theory comes into play.

As a drummer, I naturally enjoy rhythm theory the most. I’ve always been the type of person who impulsively crunches numbers, so subdividing beats is a natural fit for me.

Rhythm theory is all about what you can do with percussion. It doesn’t focus so much on pitch (although drums do get tuned), it focuses on time signatures and how beats can be subdivided.

Drummers need to be acutely aware of what time signature they are playing in because keeping time is the drummer’s job.

Why is music theory so complicated? Snare drum.

If you don’t have a solid understanding of how time signatures work, or just want a quick refresher, I would highly recommend checking out my article on time signatures. It breaks down many of the most common time signatures and explains what simple, compound, and complex time signatures mean.

You can find that here: Time Signatures

In summary, the hardest part of rhythm theory is comprehension. There is some memorization required, but you’ll find it’s far less than what is required for melody and harmony.

The two main things you will need to memorize for rhythm theory are going to be the drum rudiments and where each drum is located on the musical notation staff.

As far as comprehension goes, you will need to understand how triplets work, how whole notes can be divided into half notes, which can be divided into quarter notes, which can be divided into eighth notes, and so on.

Once you have a solid understanding of note values, you’ll be in a good place with your rhythm theory.

Now being able to play the music on the drum set might be another challenge altogether if you haven’t developed your limb independence!

What to do next?

If you are brand new to music, music production, or are interested in learning to play the drums, you can check out my article: What is a DAW? – What Does DAW stand for?

You might also want to check out this article: Acoustic Vs. Electronic Drums – Which One is Right for You?

If you are looking at buying your first drum set or any other musical instrument for that matter, take a look at Zzounds. They have a variety of acoustic drum sets and electronic drum sets for purchase.

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Andrew has been a life long lover of music. Although starting his musical journey on the guitar, (we won't talk about his skills on that particular instrument) he found his true passion was for drumming and making music to share with others. He also enjoys writing blog posts about off the wall subjects that are very much real—such as Bigfoot, UFOs, and what's up with European mayonnaise. Why is it sweet???
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