The Wigner--Eckart theorem is central to the application of symmetry principles throughout atomic, molecular, and nuclear physics. Nevertheless, the theorem has a puzzling feature: it is dispensable for solving problems within these domains, since elementary methods suffice. To account for the significance of the theorem, I first contrast it with an elementary approach to calculating matrix elements. Next, I consider three broad strategies for interpreting the theorem: conventionalism, fundamentalism, and conceptualism. I argue that the conventionalist framework is unnecessarily pragmatic, while (...) the fundamentalist framework requires more ontological commitments than necessary. Conceptualism avoids both defects, accounting for the theorem's significance in terms of how it epistemically restructures the calculation of matrix elements. Specifically, the Wigner--Eckart theorem modularizes and unifies matrix element problems, thereby changing what we need to know to solve them. (shrink)