Why music theory is critical for vocalists

Many musicians, vocalists and instrumentalists alike, are proud of their ability to be excellent singers/players without ever learning to read music. Learning musicianship entirely by ear is indeed an incredible feat, deserving of respect and admiration, and with all the technologies available to us now, it’s easier than ever for vocalists to get away with learning pieces via youtube or iTunes. However, as a singer’s career advances they will find themselves in ensembles and performance situations where quick sight reading is essential and small errors on rhythms or rests are not acceptable. Truly great vocalists understand how their melody fits into the larger picture of the accompaniment and the instruments around them. In order to have this perspective, it is critical to learn music theory as a part of your voice study. As a singer versed in theory, here are some ways you will have a leg up:


Sight reading more quickly and accurately.

In the world of professional music, it is often the expectation that a director may not give you your sheet music assignments until you arrive at the first rehearsal. If you’ve never heard the material before, there’s no time to play it on YouTube and learn your part. The ability to follow along in these first rough rehearsals, and at the very least know when your melody line is going up versus going down, is essential.


Rests and breath marks.

One of the ways a singer creates top quality vocal tone is through breath planning, or knowing the best places for taking a breath and pre-planning them into your written score. Although music with simpler song structures (such as pop or folk) tends to be very intuitive in regards to where to breathe, as singers mature into more difficult repetoire this will not be the case. The rules of breath planning include being able to read rests and written phrasing.


Faster memorization.

Some people are whizzes at audio memorization, some excel at visual memorization. If you can read a score, you’ll have both audio and visual tools at your disposal, making the memorization process quicker and more thorough. Read up on additional memorization tips here


Working well with your accompanist.

When working with a live band or accompanist, there will be moments when they have specific questions for you about the score, including where to take pauses, where you’d like dynamic changes, where you’d like them to start your intro, and similar. If you can’t read music, these will be difficult conversations.


General musical professionalism.

All of the above points lead to one main idea - a professional singer needs to know their stuff. “Their stuff” not only includes great vocal tone, but also the finer details of the piece as a whole and how the vocal line fits into broader context. Directors and accompanists will respect you more as a musician if you can be a part of those conversations and don’t need to waste precious rehearsal time pointing out directions to a singer who can’t follow along.


More resources

To get started learning music theory, take a look at the Full Voice workbook series or Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory Course, both available on our website.


Theory is also something you can ask your voice instructor to include during your lesson time. For information on voice lessons, click here.