Friday, August 22, 2014

Why You Should Teach Music Theory

I'll admit, music theory was not my favorite subject. While I love performing and teaching music, and I think music history is fascinating, music theory often feels dry to me. So when another teacher recommended I start teaching my violin students some theory, I was more than a little hesitant. I thought my students were too young, and anyway they'd hate it. Happily, it turned out I was wrong.

After thinking about it, I started using books from the "Theory Time" series in the lessons I taught. They start with basics like music notation and counting rhythms, and I realized that I'd unintentionally left some gaps in my students' understanding of music. Some rules, for example, I'd lived with for so long I could barely remember learning it myself. Someone must have taught me the "stem rule," for example, but I had learned it so long ago, I simply followed the rule intuitively. My students, however, did not. I had never known how confusing the the directions of note stems was for some of my students until then! As my students progressed, music theory empowered them to figure their pieces out for themselves. They could identify key signatures, time signatures, complicated rhythms, and different kinds of intervals on their own. This allowed them to explore more music, and some of my students started searching music stores or the internet for more pieces to play. Music theory also gave them a clear understanding of the patterns underlying scales and arpeggios, which seemed to improve their scale practice.
I'd also forgotten that music theory includes aural skills. I think it's important that students learn to listen, and I try to teach kids to play by ear as well as read music. The books I use have online ear training exercises, which I supplement with some useful iPad apps, or with fun listening games. Ear training helps students improve their intonation and match the written notes with how they sound. I've found that students have an easier time recognizing mistakes and hearing the music in their head when they have had some ear training. Effective aural skills also allows students the opportunity to experiment with different genres of music, like jazz.

Of course, with a good understanding of music theory, students can start to compose their own music! Advanced students can write down the melodies they hear in their heads, or correctly notate  their own rhythms. To often, composition seems intimidating or too difficult to kids. But effective music theory education gives them the skills they need to express their musical ideas. For kids drawn to creative expression, music theory might be dry in itself, but it is a vital tool for helping them write their own music.

Despite my initial doubts, I'm glad I started including music theory in the violin lessons I teach. It's expanded my students' understanding of music as a whole, and helped them to practice and perform more effectively. Music theory doesn't have to be dry at all, and it can help students learn to express themselves via musical composition.


  1. Alexis - I love how you document what you learn about teaching music on this blog. I know so many self-taught musicians who cannot really read music, let alone write it. I wonder what is out there for those folks, who do not have the benefit of being formally enrolled in classes as children.

  2. There are lots of sensitive teachers who could help those people if they'd like to learn to read music. There are also lots of great resources like books and websites that could help them too!