Why Music Theory Can Be A Waste of Time

Why Music Theory Can be a Waste of TimeBack when kids still asked what Google was, a lot of us had to take music theory classes. Now, I can still point out which fingers Schumann cut off. Maybe some people will point out that they were paralysed, but to a pianist, the fingers might as well have been cut off if you can’t move them.

I can’t remember how many years he spent torturing his fingers, but Google can. And it was a waste of months of my time, memorizing mundane details about composers’ lives, about which years they wrote which letters to their secret lovers, that happened to influence their music a little.

I wouldn’t have done it if the music curriculum didn’t require it to get a piano diploma.


At the end of the day, this is also what is wrong with the education system. People are memorizing facts and spitting them back out, then forgetting them right away.

Okay, people may argue that this teaches the discipline of studying and digesting facts. So give me one music history course, not three; ask me to write essays to think about these facts, not spit them out and draw timelines.

The classical music composition courses are so useful in learning music theory, and which chords precede which, because they teach you how to think. Memorization and regurgitation does nothing except ruin your mental health; I didn’t look up a statistic to back this up, but show me one person who said, “Gee, memorising this textbook made my life so much better!” and I will write about it here (for the record, I find it easy to memorize things, but the exams stress me out).


The other day, I was talking to my mom about taking courses in computer networking and systems.

“I can’t stand the operating systems course,” I say. “I don’t understand the professor’s accent and I don’t understand what’s going on.”

“But the networking courses will be useful in the future, right?” she says.

“I think so,” I say. “But I will probably hate them.”

I’m trying decide whether these specific computer science courses are just another hoop to jump through to make me more competent in the tech industry, or if they’ll just contain useless information that I will forget right away.

It’s hard enough to invest time and energy into learning a new skill, but the state of our education system is still at a point where I doubt whether I’d be able to master the skill through a world-class institution.

I’m not stupid and I am willing to put effort into learning. I’m also willing to pass—or ace—exams, but you can ace all the exams you like and still have very little practical knowledge and also hate your life at the same time. Many people who are at the top of their field in research or industry skills are not necessarily great instructors.

The courses where I have learned the most are where instructors take the time to critique my work and rip apart my mistakes, so that I can come back with a fresh set of mistakes for them to rip apart. The instructors were passionate enough to teach me to think about the world through a new lens.

In a design class, the instructor would draw red marks all over my project work that I spent hours printing.

In a music theory class, the instructor would cross out chords that were a semitone off and ask me to play it on the piano, so that I can see for myself that the harmony was wrong.

In a law class, the instructor, a partner at his own law firm, took our calls on his cellphone.

I put in more effort because the instructor demanded it, and I enjoyed the subject simply because the instructor’s passion shone through. It sounds like a no-brainer, but I learned so much because I enjoyed studying with the instructor.


Today’s education system is broken, but we can still make the most of it by studying with the instructors who are the most passionate and the best at teaching. Maybe we still have to give exams to push most people through the system, but students can still ask for personal feedback from the instructor. Maybe some parts of the course will always be about memorization, but critical thinking should be the bulk of it.

Maybe I will miss the education system in a year, but right now, I am sick of all the times I had to memorize a textbook to ace an exam.

Maybe I’m disenchanted, but this operating systems course is the first course that I have wanted to drop out of, in my entire life. Having this knowledge on operating systems does not make my life better at this moment in time; in fact, sitting in the class makes my life a lot worse. But it’s too late to drop out.

Instead, I’ve decided that if I find a good instructor to take a computer networking class with, I will do so. But otherwise, I’m going travelling.


(FYI, I cycled through three music history teachers and ended up teaching myself the course because I was the most passionate (read: desperate) of them all; I needed to pass the courses to get my piano teaching diploma. I aced the music history exam, but I still can’t tell you when Schumann ruined his fingers.)

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Maria Bengoechea
5 years ago

Hi Grace, I cannot agree more with you. I was a 35 + yrs experienced Montessori teacher and trainer before becoming a Suzuki piano teacher. I quit my teaching job mainly because when things are not done properly, is not so bad. But it is just a waste of time. I decided to devote my time (I am currently 63) in useful meaningful training and education. And I found it in my piano teaching. Education has to be meaningful. It has to offer a constant feedback of teach- learn aporoach while maintaining honesty and commitment. It has to view the… Read more »

kuete yanick
kuete yanick
5 years ago

Waoh!!! Great article and a great comment from madam Maria………I really enjoy reading it over and over. Thanks!