Music theory is a vast subject, I discover that by teaching piano and music theory here in Derby.
Those 2 words create a feeling of fear and are generally repellent, but why?
Is music theory useful and is it important? Can it actually be fun to learn?
Let answer those question in this article.
Why studying music theory?
Music theory could be considered as the grammar of music. Music is a type of language so we can compare music theory with learning the grammar in German to be able to improve our practice of the language.
Only that if music is a type of language, it is not a language like French, English, German,…
In the language we use every day, we have very strict rules that we need to know and apply.
If you send an application for a job full of grammar mistakes, they’re very small chances that your potential employer takes you seriously.
In music, it is a bit different… It would have been too easy otherwise.
Rules are there, to be used, but also to be broken.
In music, if a composer only respects rules learned in a composition school for composition, then it might end up good, but with no personalities.
The first thing to develop is instinct, Then you can learn the rules and see how your instinct is reacting with your playing/composition.
The good news is that instinct is something g that we can develop, but that will be another article subject.
I love Abrsm for many many things, but I have to say that the way they provide music theory separating practical grades and theory grades, doesn’t help students to link music theory with their playing.
Music theory should not be separated from playing your instrument; in fact, you should be learning it with the piece you play from a very early stage.
The best way to do this is to analyze the current piece you play and straight away look at the way the composer plays with the rules of Harmony.
Now, music theory includes other aspects than Harmony, like the rhythm, how to read/write sheet music, the intention, dynamics,…
But all the other aspects are covered while you are learning a piece of music from your very first piece.
Harmony is the most bigger and deep part of music theory.
Even if you are a professional musician, playing intensively since the age of 3, like Mozart or Jacob Collier, you still need at least 3 lives to be sure that you have learned and integrate the entire spectrum of harmony, which mean that we learn constantly, we discover constantly which is amazing don’t you think?
Ok, but what is Harmony?
In a few words, harmony could be explained by the combination of notes or pitches.
If you play one note on its own, it will have an atmosphere, mostly created by your brain or your mood of the moment. If you combine that note with others, it will create another atmosphere, depending on the note you choose.
The options are endless!
“Mary had a little lamb” that can sound, sad, mysterious, jolly, bright, suspended, scary,… just by playing the exact same melody but adding different notes to it.
Everything is a question of context, what sounds good in a certain context can sound totally off in another situation.
How to learn harmony? How to make it fun?
Well, first of all, we need to understand the fact that harmony or music theory has to be learned from an early stage by analyzing the piece you play. As a teacher, I help you by explaining why the composer chooses those combinations of notes instead of others. Exploration is very important as well. What if we change those combinations?
A very good way is by improvisation.
Improvisation, with my help, is also very important and helps you to open your ears to this wonderful language that music is.
Improvisation is not scary, and should be taken step by step with my assistance!
When a student comes for a lesson with a very small melody that they created between 2 lessons, I’m very impressed and always very happy!
I remember one of my student, a child who is still having piano lessons with me today in Derby, when I was explaining the blues 7th chords to her and how it sounds like, while I was playing a simple G7 chord, she said “That’s so beautiful!” and she was playing that G7 chords for weeks after that on each lesson!
For me, this is the most beautiful gift and proof that what I believe about Harmony is correct! Never dissociate it from playing!
Music is art, creation, something that express the very best and beautiful part of our personality, and as a piano teacher, I feel like it is my duty to try and find your inner voice, your own very personal way of expressing yourself through that language.
This is what music theory is. Not a repellent and scary subject!
And finally, would like to share a Bernstein video talking about the evolution of Harmony in the last century in 6 minutes. Enjoy this from a master!