How and how not to help your students with music theory

At its core, Music Theory is the study of the written manuscript. It is the knowledge of the symbols that make up written music, and the knowledge of how to effectively turn them into sounds.

An knowledge of music theory really helps musicians, rather than making them play better, it assists them to speak the same language as other members of their group.

What do you do to communicate it? how do you get across the important concepts in it, without frustrating or making the student lose interest?

I believe that there are three concepts which if you keep in mind when helping students to learn music theory will really help.

Critical Concept #1 – Begin with the sound, then move to theory.

Nearly all music teachers agree that music learning should start first with sound, and then move onto written understanding. Therefore it is important to always start with what something sounds like, then explain why it is the way it is. For example if showing students chords it is very important for a student to understand firstly how a major or minor chord sounds, the emotion that it is conveying and the reasons why a major or minor chord might be chosen for a particular situation. Once they can hear the aural sound, and its reason for being the theoretical knowledge will come.

Important Idea #2 – Learn one thing at a time

Music is a multi-dimensional language. What does that mean? Well it means that in order to understand written music many different pieces of information have to be absorbed at one moment. That is the concept that makes it most difficult. A music note has both a pitch (what note it is), and a duration (how long it is played for). Add to that it also has a dynamic (how soft it is) and also expression marks that have to be interpreted. That is why music can be so difficult to learn to understand music theory.

Important Concept #3 – Ensure it is always relevant

The final important concept with music theory is to have the music theory be relevant to the student. The music that the student is learning currently is the music that should be used to connect with their music theory. For example if a student is playing classical music then they shouldn’t be learning jazz harmony. The music that students are currently performing is what should be used as the basis for their theory lessons.

If when teaching music teachers keep in mind these basic philosophies then music lessons will be more rewarding and fun for music students of all ages.

The author, Kevin Tuck is an experienced music theory teacher, having taught music theory in schools and his own private music studio. He has studied music theory himself to a high level through all the major exam systems, and has had outstanding results in music examinations. Kevin works as editor of Music Theory Worksheets for the Fun Music Company.