How Long Does It Take to Learn Music Theory?

Learning music theory is a skill that all musicians should dedicate time towards in order to develop a holistic education in music. From learning the musical alphabet to harmonizing melodies, music theory covers a wide range of musical topics that can be applied to all genres of music. Despite its complexity and many rules, learning music theory provides a theoretical framework musicians can work from to improve their practical performance in any instrument.

It can take as little as a few hours for musicians to grasp the basics of music theory and can take up to a year to get a solid foundation in understanding general concepts in melody, rhythm and harmony. It will take approximately 2 years for musicians to reach an intermediate level of music theory and around 3-4 years to be considered proficient and advanced in music theory.

How Long It Takes to Learn Basic Music Theory

Basic music theory skills typically begin with learning basic rhythmic values and reading the musical alphabet. Learning the names and associating the rhythmic values of each note will only take a matter of minutes and will take some time to internalize and memorize. Learning the musical alphabet and reading music is slightly more difficult, as beginner students in music theory will need to read music on both the treble and bass clefs. This process will also take a matter of hours, but may take a week for students to be fluent in reading music. After understanding basic musical notation, music theory students will be introduced to accidentals, which include sharps, flats and natural signs that change the pitch of a note.

After a week of studying music theory, students should now be able to write simple musical scales and understand the musical distances between notes (eg. whole steps and half steps). By understanding scales, beginner students should now have a basic understanding of simple key signatures such as C major, F major and G major and be able to name the key of a melody simply by looking at the music sheet. After a month of studying music theory, students will be introduced to musical intervals and be familiarized by the names of certain intervals, such as octaves, thirds and unisons. Learning intervals typically leads into understanding how tonic triads and simple chords, which will greatly assist understanding in harmonization and general musical performance for pianists and guitarists. By the end of the first year of learning music theory, musicians should be able to recognize differences in simple time signatures and be aware of rhythmic grouping rules, alongside musical markings that indicate the way music should be performed (eg. Played loudly [forte], played in a detached manner [staccato], etc…)

How Long It Takes to Learn Intermediate Level Music Theory

After approximately two years of learning music theory, musicians should have a strong foundation in the basic skills of music theory to further build upon. At an intermediate level of music theory, musicians should be able to transpose simple melodies into different key signatures and be able to recognize relative majors and minors of key signatures. After understanding the rules of major key scales, intermediate level students should now familiarize themselves with minor key scales and be able to label the “quality” of intervals, whether they be major, minor or perfect intervals. In terms of understanding the rhythmic elements of music, intermediate level students should be introduced to compound time signatures and understand the rhythmic grouping of notes in this special type of time signature. Musicians should also now be able to recognize the forms of musical songs such as ternary, binary or rondo form.

In terms of harmonization of music, intermediate level students in music theory will begin to harmonize cadences in four-part vocal style and piano forte style. To begin with, students will familiarize themselves with perfect and plagal cadences in major key signatures and learn how to follow harmonization rules. At this level of music theory, students should also be able to write rhythms to poetry or lyrics in various time signatures, which will help skills in composition moving forward.

How Long It Takes to Learn Advanced Level Music Theory

After 3-4 years of studying music theory, students should reach an advanced level of music theory, where they are capable of harmonizing melodies and begin to analyze music. Advanced level students should now be able to recognize all 15 different key signatures, their relative minor and major keys and be able to write scales in all keys. They should also be able to recognize harmonic modulations within a melody and be introduced to new types of cadences, such as the imperfect and interrupted cadences. After being well-versed in cadences, students will start to harmonize melodies in 4-part vocal style for choirs and will need to use various rules in music theory in order to avoid typical mistakes, such as voice overlapping and consecutive fifths and octaves. Musicians will also be exposed to first inversion chords and learn to set melodic lines to poetry and lyrics.

In terms of learning advanced rhythm, advanced level musicians will learn unique time signatures such as 6/4 time and 12/8 time and be exposed to syncopating rhythms and learn how to group these types of rhythms in music. By having a solid and advanced understanding of harmony and rhythm, advanced level musicians should now be able to analyze musical works and understand how the theoretical aspects of music are incorporated in creating a beautiful sound.

Why Should You Learn Music Theory?

Learning music theory is an integral component for understanding the fundamentals of music and becoming a great musician in any instrument. Having a good foundation in music theory enables musicians to understand how music is written and how to interpret works in a more nuanced and mature manner.

  • Learning music theory improves practical performance of an instrument

Although most people can naturally “feel” and “hear” when music does not sound right, having an understanding of music theory will enable musicians to understand mistakes in music and how to overcome these problems. By learning music theory, musicians will have a deeper understanding of the musical processes of the songs they play, ultimately improving the practical performance side when playing an instrument.

  • Learning music theory helps musicians compose their own songs

Musicians who have a background in music theory will have a greater understanding on how to compose songs and soundtracks. By knowing the basics of music theory, musicians have greater freedom and control over their compositions and can use their knowledge in music theory to personalize and adjust different sounds, rhythms and harmonies in their music.

  • Learning music theory will improve creativity

Although music theory is bound by a strict set of rules that stifle creativity and expression in music, musicians well versed in music theory can apply the rules when they see fit and be in full control of the music. Musicians with a background in music theory will help them brainstorm new musical ideas, melodies and chord progressions, alongside combine different aspects of music theory together to create a unique sound in compositions or practical performance on an instrument.

What Skills Do You Need to Learn Music Theory?

When learning music theory, musicians should keep in mind the importance of creativity, logical thinking and having a flexible mindset.

  • Skill #1: Creativity

As music is an artistic outlet that allows for the freedom of expression, musicians studying music theory should remember to stay creative and be experimental with the various rhythms and harmonies they create. As there is no one correct answer when harmonizing cadences or melodies or setting rhythm to music, musicians are free to explore different types of harmonies and rhythms as long as they stay within the rules of music theory.

  • Skill #2: Logical Thinking

Often cited as a “creative math that has no correct answer”, music theory is a complex field that requires musicians to have a high level of logical and critical thinking skills. Musicians are required to use basic mathematical skills when studying rhythms and time signatures and be able to problem solve and rearrange notes when they face problems.

  • Skill #3: Flexible Mindset

Unlike the natural sciences and mathematics that often have one correct answer, music theory is often left up to interpretation and creativity. As a result, musicians who study music theory must have a flexible mindset and understand how there can be multiple ways of harmonizing a melody while staying within the boundaries of the rules of music theory.

How To Learn Music Theory

Musicians are often encouraged to learn music theory by textbooks such as the Blitz Books, Master Your Theory, and Essential Music Theory series. To begin with however, musicians can also enrol in several online courses to learn the basics of music theory and can supplement this learning with YouTube videos online. Furthermore, having a piano or keyboard will greatly complement learning music theory, as musicians can physically touch and aurally hear what they are learning on paper into a practical context.

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