What Is Music Theory Definition Terms & History?


Jane Flores

Music theory is the foundation of music education, teaching musicians how to read and write music, understand scales and chords, and compose their own pieces. In this article, we will define the terms used in music theory and explore its history.

Definition of Music Theory

Music theory is the study of the practices and possibilities of music. It encompasses a wide variety of topics, including notation, harmony, rhythm, melody, form, and analysis. By understanding these elements, musicians can create and perform music that is both expressive and technically proficient.

Terms Used in Music Theory

  • Notation: The system used to write down musical ideas on paper.
  • Harmony: The combination of different notes played together to create chords or melodies.
  • Rhythm: The pattern of beats in a piece of music.
  • Melody: A series of notes played one after another that form a musical phrase.
  • Form: The structure or organization of a piece of music.
  • Analysis: The process by which musicians break down a piece of music into its component parts to better understand how it works.

The History of Music Theory

Music theory has been studied for thousands of years. In ancient Greece, philosophers such as Pythagoras explored the mathematical relationships between different notes.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, monks developed a system for writing down Gregorian chant using neumes. In the Renaissance period (14th-17th centuries), composers such as Palestrina wrote complex polyphonic works that required an understanding of harmony.

During the Baroque period (17th-18th centuries), composers such as Bach and Handel developed the tonal system that is still used in Western music today. The tonal system is based on the idea of a tonic note or chord that provides a sense of stability, and a series of related chords that create tension and release.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, composers such as Beethoven, Wagner, and Stravinsky pushed the boundaries of traditional music theory by experimenting with new forms, harmonies, and rhythms. Today, music theory continues to evolve as composers and performers explore new ways to express themselves through music.


Music theory is an essential part of any musician’s education. By understanding the terms used in music theory and its history, musicians can better appreciate the complexity and beauty of the music they perform and create. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced musician, studying music theory can help you take your skills to the next level.