How and how not to teach music theory

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

An knowledge of theory assists people who play music, not because it makes them play better, but because it helps them communicate better with other musicians.

So how do you help students learn it? how do you get across the critical parts of it, without overwhelming or making the student lose interest?

I have come up with three critical ideas which can assist in this area.

Critical Idea Number One – Start with the music, then move to theory.

One thing that nearly all music teachers agree with is 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 critical for a student to understand at first how a major or minor chord sounds, the emotion that it is conveying and the reasons why a major or minor chord might have been chosen for a particular situation. Once they can hear the sound, and its reason for being the mechanical knowledge will come.

Critical Idea Number Two – Learn one concept 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 taken in at one moment. That is the concept that makes it most challenging. A note has both a pitch (what note it is), and a duration (a length of time it is played for). Add to that it also has a dynamic (how loud it is) and also expression marks that have to be interpreted. That is why music can be so challenging to learn to read music.

Important Concept #3 – Keep it 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 relate to 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.

Hopefully if music teachers students can learn to approach the study of music theory with these basic concepts in mind then music lessons will be more fun and rewarding 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 learned 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.