How to teach music theory ‘in context’ in piano lessons - by Karen Marshall

I often get asked the question from parents “Why are you getting my child to take Grade 5 theory?” This is for a whole range of reasons I believe - not least that if the student is doing practical exams with Trinity, it’s not a requirement to progress through the grades. My answer to parents is simple: “Even if your child doesn’t want to progress through the practical grades or is using an examination board that doesn’t need the qualification, music theory is a gateway to understanding music rather than just playing it.” It’s interesting to see that those students who have taken this advice and studied theory have also become more all-rounded musicians. Understanding theory has helped to improve reading: simply knowing what intervals are helps one read them; recognising a cadence enables one to mark one; and pretty obviously, if you can’t remember a scale from the muscle memory, being able to write it on paper gives you a means of working it out.
This month I am not only teaching music theory to my students but also supporting two of my children as they both prepare for music theory exams. This daily interaction with the subject has been an interesting one and has firmed up my resolve that so much can be gained from music theory study. What has also become staggeringly clear is yet again, music theory is so much easier to understand if it can be used in context. Here are a few examples of how this can be made possible.  
Time signatures and rhythm
If you ask your student what time signature their most recent piece is in, could they tell you? What can you do to support this in music lessons?
  • Always invite your student to find the pulse in a piece of music and then clap the rhythm.
Using one bar of rhythm:
  1. Take this a step forward and write down the rhythm of a bar.  When you do this ask your student to take great care with the layout of the beaming.  Beaming is a tricky problem for students  that might require  re-enforcing.  Discuss the rules.
  2. Get them to try removing some of the notation and replacing with rests.
  3. Invite them to double or half the note values and re-write the rhythm.  
There are a whole range of rhythmic activities in The Intermediate Pianist, including the difference between simple and compound time (book 1).  This concept is often misunderstood by students so is useful to discuss.
I have noticed that scales are often taught using the aural and tactile memory of students.  We can presume like I have that our students understand the order of tones and semi-tones but I have discovered the hard way that perhaps my methods of teaching this haven’t always been successful.  Throughout The Intermediate Pianist, students are invited to complete activities so they can discover scales for themselves (without being spoon fed), so they actually understand them. In the Grade 5 theory exam students have to be able to write the major, harmonic and melodic minor.  
Using the piece a student is playing:
  1. Get them to play the major, harmonic and melodic minor scale of the piece on the piano.
  2. Provide a paper copy of the piano keyboard big enough to write on. Invite the student to plot the scales on the keyboard.  
  3. Using the scales of C major, A melodic and harmonic minors as models, get the student to identify the tone and semi-tone patterns in the scale they’ve written. Check this order with the scale the student has plotted on the paper keyboard.
  4. Transfer the notation of the scales onto manuscript paper (ascending and descending) - using the correct key signature.  I have a diagram of the circle of 5ths always on my piano.  I regularly let students simply use this to reference what the key is.  In time they memorise the diagram.
Chords and cadences
I have always found it very valuable to introduce students to the fact that the major scale can be harmonised with just three chords (initially).  As my students advance, I later introduce other chords that can be used, but primary triads I, IV and V are a brilliant place to start (book 1 - page 33).  The chords and cadence question (always question 7 in the ABRSM Grade 5 theory paper) should be related to aural activities that students need to do (such as cadence identity) or approach chords needed in later grades.  Scarily, have there been times that we’ve taught a piece of music and not mentioned the cadence in it at all?
So again, using the piece the student is playing:
  1. Identify all the cadences in the music aurally.
  2. Provide just the melody line of the music and ask the student to suggest what chords should be given underneath.  
  3. Do discuss approaching chords. Looking at what other composes have done here can really help if your student in the future plan to compose.
Music terms and beyond
It sounds totally obvious but really instead of informing our students about terms written on the page, perhaps asking them every time to provide a musical terms summary of a piece they are playing for their next lesson can be good practice. I try to do this with all students - beginners we discuss in the lesson and I only ask for perhaps one term. I invite students to use my music dictionary in the lesson. Having a repertoire diary – a book listing all the pieces students have played – is a good place to list all these terms. Doing this over and over I have found has made this element of the exam so much less of a nightmare! 
The ornaments can be a particularly tricky thing for a student to understand - book 3, chapter 9 has these all laid out in musical context. They are explained in a simple to understand way which will hopefully mean when they occur in a theory question they are so much more easily identified.
Concluding thoughts
I love the phrase - ‘teaching music through music’. The actual music our student is playing is our most powerful material to provide theory teaching ‘as we go along’. By doing this our students not only will find a Grade 5 theory exam so easy to access, their interpretation truly blossoms with the theoretical knowledge of music they are playing.
The Intermediate Pianist is available to buy now. 

Book 1 | ISBN: 0571540015 | Price: £8.99
Book 2 | ISBN: 0571540023 | Price: £8.99
​Book 3 | ISBN: 0571540031 | Price: £9.99