"...music theory is always easier to understand if it can be placed in a musical context that is familiar to the child."
I often get asked, “Why are you getting my child to take Grade 5 theory?” by parents.
Actually, there are a whole range of reasons to do theory, but my answer is simple. “Even if your child doesn’t want to progress through the practical grades or is using an examination board that doesn’t require the qualification, music theory is a gateway to understanding music rather than just playing it.”
It has been interesting to see that those students who have gone with my advice and studied theory have undoubtedly become more rounded musical players. Understanding theory also improves sight-reading – simply knowing what intervals are helps one read them and recognising a cadence enables one to play it. And of course, if your students can’t remember a scale from the muscle memory (not the safest way to recall them), being able to write it down gives them a means of working it out.
That is why in my new book, The PianoTrainer Scales Workbook, there are theory activities for every scale, major and minor. Students are encouraged to write out the scales and key signatures and there are easy keyboard charts, notation and activities to help them understand scales from every angle.
A few years ago, I was not only teaching music theory to my students but also supporting two of my children as they both prepared for a theory exam. The daily interaction whilst supporting them was an interesting one. It again firmed up my belief that so much can be gained from the study of music theory. What became particularly obvious was that music theory is always easier to understand if it can be placed in a musical context that is familiar to the child.
But what can you do to begin to support theory in your music lessons?
Time signatures and rhythm
If you ask your student what time signature their current piece is written in, could they tell you? Here are a few ideas of how to establish this knowledge.
- Invite your student to find the pulse in a piece of music while you perform it (or they listen to a recording) and clap along. Then ask them to clap the rhythm.
- Take this one a step further and ask them to write down the rhythm of one bar. When you do this, warn your student to take great care with the organisation of the beaming. Beaming is tricky for students and it usually requires lots of reinforcement. Discuss the rules.
- Then you could ask the student to remove some of the notation and replace it with rests.
- A further exercise could be to double or half the note values, rewriting the rhythm accordingly.
There are a whole range of activities to reinforce time signatures and rhythmic understanding in The Intermediate Pianist books, including the difference between simple and compound time (Book 1). This concept is often misunderstood by students, so it is useful to spend some time on.
I have noticed that scales are often taught by relying on the aural and tactile memory of students. Having explained the order of tones and semitones we presume that our students understand scales, but I have discovered the hard way that a simple explanation is not usually enough. Throughout The Intermediate Pianist books, students are invited to complete a progression of activities that help them discover and understand scales for themselves (without being spoon-fed). This is taken even further in The PianoTrainer Scales Workbook, where they are expected to notate the scales of every key they learn.
In the Grade 5 Theory examinations, students must be able to write (or recognize, if a digital exam) the major, harmonic and melodic minor scales. Here are some suggestions for how I make sure they’re able to do this:
Using a piece the student is playing:
- Provide a paper copy of the piano keyboard big enough to write on and invite students to plot the scale of the key on the paper keyboard.
- Using the scales of C major and A melodic and harmonic minors as models, ask the student to identify the tones and semitone patterns in the scale they’ve written, checking the order against the model scales.
- Transfer the notes of the paper keyboard scales onto manuscript paper (ascending and descending), using the correct key signature. I always have a diagram of the circle of 5ths on my piano and I encourage students use this to check what the key signature is. In time, they will be able to memorise the diagram. A free copy of the circle of 5ths is available to download from The PianoTrainer Scales Workbook product page. Follow the link here.
- For more advanced students, ask them to play their piece in major, harmonic and melodic minor keys.
Chords and cadences
I have found it’s very useful to introduce students to the idea that a major scale can be harmonised with just three chords (initially). As students advance, I introduce the other chords that can be used, but the primary triads I, IV and V are a brilliant place to start (see The Intermediate Pianist Book 1, page 33). So often, the link between musical concepts like this aren’t connected by students to another context, such as the questions in their theory exam. They fail to link the chords and cadences questions to aural activities such as identifying cadences that they practise, for example. Aspects like the approach chords to cadences (that are needed in later grades) are also not identified and discussed enough. More worryingly, I’m sure there are times when we’ve all taught a piece of music and not mentioned the cadences in it at all!
So again, using a piece the student is playing:
- Identify all the cadences in the music, aurally.
- Provide just the melody line of the music and ask the student to suggest what chords should be played underneath.
- Discuss approaches to chords. Looking at what other composes do can really help if your student plan to compose in the future.
The Intermediate Pianist Book 2, Chapter 6 has a whole range of activities on cadences. Each cadence is introduced in a musical context and students are encouraged to identify the cadences in any piece they are playing.
Music terms and beyond
It sounds obvious, but instead of just telling our students about musical terms as they come across them, ask them to provide a summary of the musical terms in the piece they’re learning for their next lesson. I try to do this with all levels – with beginners, we discuss them 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 the perfect place to list all these terms. Doing this on a regular basis has made this element of the exam so much less daunting!
Ornaments can be a particularly tricky thing for a student to understand – and it can be awkward to find them all in a piece of music at the right moment! The Intermediate Pianist Book 3, Chapter 9 has them all laid out in musical context. They are explained in a simple way that will hopefully mean when they occur in a theory question they are obvious and easier to identify.
I love the phrase ‘teaching music through music’. The actual music a student is practising is our most powerful tool in enabling theory teaching ‘as we go along’. By using current repertoire, our students will not only find a Grade 5 theory exam easier to prepare for, but also that their musical interpretation will blossom, thanks to their understanding of the music they are playing.