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The Secret Weapon That is Music Theory

In conversation with one of my more advanced teenage students, I asked him what he considered to be the benefits of learning music theory. He paused a few moments to give the question some thought, and then answered, “Music theory helps me to understand my pieces better.” He went on to provide a few examples in his repertoire. As his teacher, I must say that his reply provided me with a moment of satisfying pedagogical gratification. Although further discussion did also prompt his admission of “studying theory to pass the exam and get the comprehensive certificate,” his thoughtful comments confirmed that students can grasp the purpose behind the study of music theory if they understand its practical application.

As teachers, we want theory instruction to be more than a means to an end in the context of examinations and certificates - our goal is to create well-balanced musicians. Ones, who, long after their formal training has ended, will set a score on their music stand and be able to read, play, understand and interpret the music, deriving enjoyment and relaxation from the exercise.

The many practical applications of music theory

Music teachers understand that along with ear-training and sight-reading, theory is an essential component of musical training. Some music students, however, may regard written theory simply as extra homework, an extraneous or unnecessary add-on to instrumental practice. As music teachers, we want to break that mind-set. We need to help students grasp, in a practical way, how music theory can be a secret weapon for making the most of their practice time and essential tool for effective learning and interpretation of their repertoire.

I’ve assembled below some of the most practical reasons for studying music theory. I acknowledge that the list could be much longer, but I’ve tried to keep the average student in mind. During a lesson, if I need to digress into a discussion of some point of theory relevant to the piece at hand, I find it useful to explain why we’re doing so. I try to reinforce the theory/learning/performance connection, from the beginner level onward.

1. Theory is the language of music

As with any language we learn, we strive to be literate; speaking, reading and writing fluently. Music theory, as expressed through notation, represents the vocabulary, syntax and sentence structure of sound and silence. Our ‘fluency’ in this musical language enables us to express ourselves accurately as we read, play and interpret the score. It also provides us with the means and freedom to compose in a way that is understandable to others, a tangible expression of musical creativity.

Once we learn a language, we can communicate with others who also speak that language. Knowledge of music theory creates a musical code or jargon which is useful at the lesson, or if playing with an ensemble, as in “Let’s take this movement from the beginning of the Development section”.

2. Theory helps us understand how music is organized

In the music of the common practice period, for example, an understanding of major and minor tonality helps us grasp why a piece may sound ‘happy’ or ‘sad’. An appreciation of how dissonance is created and resolved helps us understand why certain chord progressions satisfy the ear. In the case of 12-tone music, music theory helps us to find a pattern within what can seem to be a chaos of sound.

Music theory enables us to make sense of the architecture of music, whether considering the overall structural analysis of a work or its smaller components. We can differentiate sonata form from binary form, while understanding how the two are related. A comprehension of phrase structure clarifies the relationship between antecedent and consequent phrases and their associated cadences.

3. Understanding theory changes the way we listen to music

The theory-savvy student can listen critically to music, picking up on a modulation, a deceptive cadence or the recurrence of a subject in fugue – and identifying them as such. This aids them in connecting the interpretation of a work (particularly one from their repertoire) to the score, understanding the musical effects of various compositional devices.

4. A grasp of music theory facilitates learning pieces with speed and accuracy

A clear vision of how a work is constructed speeds up the learning process, making the most of often limited practice periods. Grasping the ‘big picture’ of a work and identifying its components, such as the divisions of sonata form or thematic repetition, helps establish an intelligent and time-effective plan for learning a new piece.

Understanding scales and chordal structure helps us to read music as note groupings rather than individual notes, improving sight-reading. Understanding notation, from basic rhythm through to irregular groupings, hemiolas and syncopation, assists us in reading music accurately the first time around. We can thus minimize practice time wasted on unlearning mistakes then relearning passages correctly.

5. Theory as a memorizing tool

Many students depend on motor memory for learning pieces by heart. If this type of memory fails, the performance can stall. Multiple memory resources are the way to go. A knowledge of music theory can bolster memorization by (1) enabling an understanding and recall of chordal hierarchy; (2) understanding and visualizing phrase and section structure (i.e. in sonata form); (3) and having a solid grasp of the overall structure of a work.

In conclusion, it is evident that the study of music theory, even at the rudimentary level, is vastly beneficial to the music student. It is an invaluable tool for facilitating accurate sight-reading, thoughtful interpretation and memorizing. The study of music theory is well worth the time allotted to it, whether as a component of the instrument lesson or as a separate course. How to thoughtfully incorporate theory into the lesson plan will be the subject of a future article.

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©2019 Gayle Colebrook