Should singers learn music theory?

This might seem like a rhetorical question but it is constantly baffling to me how many singers cannot read a note of music.  I come across so many voice students who have spent years with other teachers and cannot discern a whole note from a quarter note and have never sung with actual sheet music in front of them.  This is highly disturbing to me and is crippling to a singer who is serious about their career as a potential performer.  A lot of singers ask me if it is really important for them to learn theory.  If you want to perform karaoke or sing in the car on your morning commute you can pretty much get away without it.  However, if you are even considering the possibility of college scholarships, getting a music degree, performing in a choir, going on Broadway, being in an opera, performing with a band, auditioning for All-State scholarships, or performing on any professional, semi-professional, or community level then music theory is critical to your success.

Save Money

Studying music for singers is critical because you save money.  Voice lessons an expensive but necessary investment.  Many students spend hundreds of dollars every month paying for lessons.  A student who does not know music theory will spend the majority of lesson time having the teachers play their notes to teach them a song.  A student who knows music theory and can learn the notes themselves can focus on technique during lessons and improve at a dramatically faster rate.  Student who go on to study music in college are highly likely to fail music theory classes multiple times unless they have a music theory background.  Retaking those classes can be very expensive, frustrating, and time consuming.

Confident Musicians

Singers who have invested the necessary time learning music are confident musicians.  Trust me as a singer there is nothing worse than going into a gig and not knowing what the “educated” musicians are talking about.  Knowing the terminology and the science behind music gives singers the confidence they need to perform at their best without being intimidated by instrumentalists and conductors who have been studying music for decades.

Sheet Music

Often times a singer will land a gig and be given sheet music they have never seen before and be expected to show up to rehearsal with it learned.  This happens all the time!!!!  If you do not have the ability to learn notes on your own you might try to find recordings.  This is highly risky because sometimes there simply is no recording or the recordings have different arrangements.  You also will have no way of knowing this because you cannot look at the notes on the page and decide for yourself if the recording is accurate.  I firmly believe every singer needs the ability to receive a piece of music and learn it on their own without outside help.

Respect for the beauty and complexity of music

Learn music theory will also grow a singers’ respect for the beauty and complexity of music as well as give them greater admiration for truly great musicians.  The depth of music is astounding and so much of its profundity is missed by those who do not invest the time to discover it.  The most remarkable performances and auditions I have every observed are without fail by singers who have a deep understanding of the music itself.  A singer who does little work will have a shallow performance and be hurting themselves greatly in the long run.

Music theory is often tested

Music theory is often tested during serious auditions either on the professional, collegiate, or even high school level.  Often sight reading and rhythmic exercises are given at auditions in addition to performing music.  Those who are hiring or judging for scholarships know that the best performers are well rounded musicians and the easiest way to find them is to weed out the students who have not invested time in learning basic theory.  I have gone to an audition before and all I was asked to do was sing a chromatic scale… that’s it.  I was never so glad in my whole life that I had learned music theory as a child.


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