3 Music Theory Fundamentals Every Singer Needs to Know:

xbw-young-girl-at-piano.gif.pagespeed.ic.lAKfhFC1wsYou’ve probably heard them before, the glib one-liner’s about singers, especially sopranos, being terrible musicians. If you are an opera singer like myself, you may have heard worse. Operatic sopranos have long-standing reputations as Divas with large egos, (and bodies), who bellow around unmusically, shrieking at the top of their lungs, sucking up all the excess air in the room with overbearing, unmusical incompetence…

At least, that’s the impression we’re given, especially by people who don’t like opera. I’m sure there are some singers out there who accurately fit that description. However, they are far from typical, and the egotistical opera-singing Diva is a dying breed. In fact, opera singers today, especially sopranos, are held to ever-elevated standards of musical excellence.

Still, there’s a trend brewing with musicians today that don’t read music. Many have no interest in learning any theory at all and think it’s unnecessary for their music careers. They have all the technology they need now, to assist their abilities. Why bother learning how to do what good software and a recording studio can do?

…I find this line of thinking very disturbing. To me, this is like deciding to teach Italian without actually learning the language. Sure, you could memorize some beginner lesson plans, fake your way through a basic class or two, especially if you had native Italian speakers as friends. They might teach you a word, or maybe a couple simple phrases. You could pass this off to your students, but you’d have no grasp of the language. You probably wouldn’t know how to conjugate a verb, or even that Italian verbs were conjugated. You wouldn’t know that verb conjugations are multiple, and follow certain patterns that create a number of alternate words, determined by identifying articles, past participles, and a host of other grammatical rules you’d know nothing about because, hey, you don’t need any of THAT to teach Italian. In fact, you probably could pick up the language just by watching a bunch of Italian movies, so you might as well throw the whole lesson book out…

Seriously, budding musicians, especially singers, need to learn the tools of their trade. Music theory is its own language, one that opens and unravels music as we discover it, giving us access to nuances, intricacies, and infinite possibilities. It’s also the roadmap composers use to show us what they’ve intended. We need the roadmap to know how to bring their music to life.

Learning how to read music is not unimportant, it’s pivotal. It’s necessary. And it’s helpful!! Having to memorize everything, or relying on learn-by-ear methods isn’t even accessible for most people. Even especially-gifted musicians who have the rare ability (and I do mean rare) of hearing, and intuitively understanding the music and can reproduce it by ear perfectly, is a musical anomaly. Even those few often learn at least some music theory, if only to help the rest of us poor slobs who have to read music with our eyes and our ears, before committing it to memory or reproducing it accurately. Because music theory is also the roadmap we use with each other to ensure we’re all on the same page, musically speaking. It’s the primary form of communication between musicians, which I’m sure is irritating for people who don’t understand what the hell they’re saying.

But I digress…

There are at least 5 music theory fundamentals that every musician should learn. They not only make it easier to understand music, they make it easier on the rest of us who can get impatient at times when musical progress is delayed because someone, somewhere doesn’t know how to count, or find their note, or hear their key, or remember where or when to come in, or that they’re singing sharp or flat, or forgot to follow the Coda back to the beginning, and missed the second ending…it can get annoying.

Here are 5 music fundamentals that every musician should know:

1. The Music Staff & Clefs:

That roadmap I was talking about is what you see when you’re looking at a piece of written music. What’s written is a language called music theory, and its rules and symbols are applied to something we call the Music Staff:

music staff

Each line and space  of the music staff have a letter name that corresponds with a note creating a certain pitch. We’ll get back to that later. For now, we’re focusing on clefs. That twirly thing you see at the front of the staff is called a Treble clef, or “g” clef (the “g” because it circles around the staff line named g).There are other clefs that you should earn, but this blog is too long already. Let’s move on.

2. Time Signatures & Note Value:

Time Signatures are placed after the clef, on the staff, and they determine note value (or time/ beat value), and how much time, or beats, are in each measure. A measure is a space on the staff between two lines. For example:


The line you see in the middle of the staff indicates where the first measure ends. The top number of the time signature tells us how many beats (or how much time) is in each measure. In this example of 4/4 time, there are 4 beats in each measure. The bottom number determines what note gets the beat- in other words, the time value of each note. To understand this better, here is a list of notes with their value in relation to each other:


Since each measure in 4/4 time gets 4 beats, and the Quarter Note  gets one beat, then the quarter note gets the beat because 4 quarter notes will equal 4 beats, the amount we need in each measure. This is often the case, however not always, which is why it’s important to learn your time signatures and note values.

3. Musical Scale Note Names:

The other important music fundamental  to learn is the names of the notes on a musical scale. The musical scale is comprised of a pattern of notes that repeat every 8 notes:


As you can see from the example starting on the note C, seven notes follow, and the pattern repeats. (You may also have noticed the scale uses letters A through G of the alphabet. To start the musical scale with the note A requires using sharps or flats, and would take several discussions filling a number of blogs to explain their key signatures. The key of C has no sharps or flats, making it the simplest place to start and avoid confusion).
If you spend the time necessary to learn and apply these basic music fundamentals, you will have at least a rudimentary understanding of how things work in music, and what you’re looking at on a piece of sheet music. It also sets the foundation for all the other musical things you need to know if this is your chosen career. I hope this was helpful for some of you. Even if it wasn’t, at least you have something to reference if you need it. Good luck, music lovers and music students!  (You’re probably going to need it…)




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