The Importance of Music Theory

I will go on the record to admit, when I was a younger student taking music lessons, my teacher just said “You need to take theory classes. This is the day, this is the book, see you there”. Theory was a whole new and very foreign concept to me. Back in “those days”, we didn’t have the advanced education style of learning with theory. We had an old book (many of you know which one I am talking about already), with a big coil on it and all THREE levels of theory packed in to one. It was very dry, very detailed and almost like a book from the past.

Needless to say, since I have always been a very visual learner, I had an extremely difficult time learning theory. The class environment went very quickly and didn’t leave room for those of us who struggled. We were taught theory, I am pretty sure, in some type of super human language that didn’t allow for questions, discussion or even drop of interest to grow.

It is no surprise that I immediately “didn’t like” theory and scored poorly on all of the tests. In fact, I believe I even failed the first “basic” test. Well let me tell you, it wasn’t so “basic” when you had no clue what the questions were even asking. For many many years, I chose not to teach the required Basic, Intermediate and Advanced Rudiments levels which they were called. I “didn’t like” theory enough and just figured none of my students ever would either. Of course, I realized that if I wanted to be an excellent teacher and have a well rounded approach to teaching, I needed to force myself to find ways to teach the book with more engaging and educationally fun ways.

Case in point: in the Intermediate theory level, students are learning to answer questions formed in a more complicated way. For instance, back in the OLD days our question would be written as: Find the scale for the enharmonic tonic minor of C major scale, ascending and descending with a key signature.

Yup… did I just lose you as well? I am pretty sure many of my students already hit the panic button after hearing this foreign word called “enharmonic tonic minor”. What I appreciated is that I had many many students struggle with theory back in my earlier days of teaching. This forced me to think of new ways to approach such intense questions. With time and self education, and an incredible NEW theory course that was presented many years ago to us, life changed for myself and my students.

Why is Music Theory Important?

Think of theory as learning basic language arts in school when the student is in Grade 1 or Grade 2. They are taught to draw letters, uppercase and lower case, then they connect them to vowels, turn them in to words, and from there, put them in sentences. As weeks and months go by, those sentences become paragraphs, poems, lyrics to a song, novels or just basic journaling. Yes, they become essential to a well rounded education. Theory is the exact same in the respect that students must learn how to draw the notes they see in their music, pay attention to the details to properly shape a note, or create a clean stem or flag and so forth. Once they learn how to draw these notes, they learn their names, their values and how they fit in music. From there forward, they can easily apply these neat little drawings to what they are learning on an instrument.

Music, as they say, is just black and white notes on paper. But how do we understand what those “just black and white notes” really mean?

As students learn the basics of theory, how to read notes and count, they are encouraged to apply these basic skills in to more challenging questions. Think of it as basic Math. Learn how to add and subtract. Now apply it to problem solving questions. The education of “learning” never quite loses its pizazz when you have something to apply your knowledge towards.

At Skyline Music, our students thrive on theory. Many of them, even devoted instrumentalists, often first start their new book of theory with worry and fear… will this become just “more homework” to get done for next week? Something they “have to do” because its in a book which means “more school”? It’s quite the opposite. I have promised each and every one of my students that they will become addicted to theory. They will come to class begging to do theory. When they give me the look of “yeah right”, I remind them that theory takes very little time to work on at home compared to endless minutes and hours of instrument practice. Suddenly, ears perk up and eyes sparkle. In our busy world, there’s only so much more time our kids can spend on homework.

When students are given the most incredible music course books by Glory St. Germaine called Ultimate Music Theory, they are excited to start the first unit. Each unit starts off nice and slow, builds student confidence and repeats many questions multiple times to give students a sense of “oh this is so easy!” attitude. There really is some psychological genius behind this course. Let’s not forget, the new theory course also includes flashcards, comes with an interactive app and has unit tests for every single unit in the book. Not only are these tests meant to keep fresh what a student knows, it also challenges them on the newest concepts they have learned. Suddenly what was learned 3 weeks ago no longer becomes a battle to remember!

When students feel motivated and empowered, they will want to keep learning. I have had many students who only just want to do theory in class. Of course there is always a happy medium, but I can safely say that doing theory consistently gives instant gratification to the student. The answer is either right, wrong or almost there. And there is always a way to two to fix it. Try again. Ace it. We are done!

With the proper method books and approach to teaching a new language, aka “theory” to a child, I always approach it like this. Theory is the “fun” part of class. This doesn’t mean that the piano or any other instrument doesn’t count, by far, its crucial to have both going on, however, some days kids are so tired or stressed that they just want to sit down and learn rather than tackle an instrument. I have designated “work stations” set up for theory lessons in every room. Students are always invited to this area with their own set of erasable pens (a big highlight for making theory look fun? use erasable pens. It is almost like kids are rebelling against standard pencils being used in school), a comfy chair and a small speaker which will play music softly in the background to help students focus. I have had students love the idea of being able to listen to music, that eventually, they create their own playlists specially just for “theory day”.

When students have something to look forward to, theory is always there to ease the stress of a busy day. Adding in essential tools to help students learn is a must. It just doesn’t go by what is written in a book. Thanks to the Ultimate Music Theory course, I can proudly say that as former struggling theory student from years ago, I can now say that I adore theory as a life long student and as a teacher. Whether its from doing the basic note drawings right up to trying to translate how that “enharmonic tonic minor of C major scale” means, theory really is for everyone. It’s all in the application and the education. Theory can be casually learned throughout the year, or solely focused on with group or private sessions, but one thing it cannot be is… NEVER LEARNED. Theory like air is all around us. Songs on the radio are all started from a couple of notes on a piano. Someone either played them or wrote them down. From the few notes, came a song, chords, a scale, a progression and a number one hit on the radio.

Let’s bring in a new language to our musical journey. I promise, you will become addicted to it!

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