Music Theory doesn’t have to consist of boring drills and endless busy work. Easy Music theory is in every piece so why not teach it as you go?

I majored in Music Theory and Composition in college and I happen to find the subject fascinating, but I realize I may be in the minority. Most piano students would rather just play than study Music Theory. In order to teach Music Theory effectively, three questions must be asked: What is Music Theory? Why should students bother learning it? And what about Music Theory do piano students really need to know? Once these questions are answered we can begin to devise a strategy to teach Music Theory easily and effectively.

What is Music Theory?

The subject of Music Theory is incredibly vast. According to Wikipedia, Music Theory is the Study of the practices and principles of music. I think of  Theory in music as the study of how music works, what makes the music we hear… well, the music we hear.

Why Study Music Theory?

Understanding music makes us better musicians.  Theory helps with learning and memorizing pieces, and it is imperative for composition and improvisation.

What Theory of Music do piano students really need to know?

Piano students need to know how to read music notation and understand basic musical terms. But I do not consider these things “Music Theory” per se. Music Theory goes deeper it deals with how the music is put together. Here is what I teach my students:

  • The definition of music.
  • The elements of music (Pitch, Rhythm, Timbre).
  • How sound is made.
  • How pitches are made.
  • Timbre.
  • Understanding rhythm. (Music is organized sound, the sound moves through time; Rhythm is the timing of music.)
  • The hierarchy of beats within the measure.
  • Half steps and Whole Steps.
  • How to make a Major Scale.
  • Key Signatures (Well Memorized).
  • Relative Minor Keys and Scales.
  • The formula for creating Chords (Major, Minor, Dominant Seventh, Diminished, etc.)
  • Time Signatures.
  • Musical Form.

I like to teach Music Theory along with the pieces the students are learning. I make it a natural part of the lesson using the pieces the students are studying. I use the music Theory Lessons on the Paloma website as a jumping-off point for discussions about theoretical concepts or to help reinforce things like intervals or Key Signature Memorization. I do not assign Music Theory “homework”, instead Music Theory is an ongoing part of the piano lesson. Concepts are presented again and again on an ongoing basis so that the students learn them thoroughly.

In my studio, I begin lessons by asking the student questions about the piece/pieces he is studying. For beginning students I will ask:

  • What are the names of the notes, and clefs?
  • Explain the Time Signature.
  • How is the rhythm counted?
  • How many measures are in the piece?
  • Explain tempo marks and dynamics.
  • Intervals (Half Steps and Whole Steps)

For my intermediate students, I ask all of the above plus:

  • Explain the Key Signature.
  • Play and explain the Scale associated with the Key Signature.
  • How is the Scale made? (WWHWWWH)
  • Name the Relative Minor Key
  • Talk about other Key Signatures (Review the ones the student has worked with)
  • Talk about basic musical form (ABA etc.)
  • Find Intervals within the piece.
  • Chords (Beginning with I, IV, and V7)

I have the students do some written work at the lesson to reinforce the concepts that need memorization such as Key Signatures and Intervals. I also work in ear training by having beginning students sing, instead of saying, the note names. With intermediate students, we work on recognizing chord qualities and playing by ear. My goal is to have students understand the music they are learning. I want them to be able to improvise, read a lead sheet, and learn some popular music or church music by ear or by watching covers on YouTube.

These are the basic requirements I have for my students. I have found that by working Theory into the lesson, students learn these concepts easily and naturally. I occasionally have advanced students who want to go further with Theory. At that point, I will present more advanced concepts. But for most, a basic working knowledge of  Theory is what they need to become confident pianists.

How do you teach theory? Leave a comment below.

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