Studying music theory

November 8, 2006 at 01:58 AM · I'd be interested in any advice about studying theory along side playing. I have been playing for 3 years and, at my teachers advice, recently started studying music theory and am currently about grade 2 level.

My ambition in music is to play as well as I can for family/friends and hopefully some chamber music for fun. Do others think studying theory is appropriate for me or should I focus on the playing? I have to say I'm not really enjoying it but my teacher seems keen!

thank you

Replies (20)

November 8, 2006 at 02:04 AM · For your purposes it might be more useful to study counterpoint, but basic theory is a prerequisite for that. Sorry it's not fun. Probably the teacher's fault.

November 8, 2006 at 02:28 AM · It's not fun, but it's good for you. Like vitamins.

November 8, 2006 at 02:31 AM · Theory is always fun! Yeah, the raw fundamentals can be a bit dry, but once you get past that, it just totally opens up the world of music to your ears... literally...

November 8, 2006 at 03:24 AM · I love theory! I was awful at it at first in college because I didn't have any theory in high school. Once you get the hang of it you'll like it.

November 8, 2006 at 04:45 AM · Whatever the fault, it's always the teacher's. Blame the teacher. Theory should be as fun as eating birthday cake and mint chocolate chip ice cream. It should be as effortless for you as a good nose picking, and as retainable as a cute girl's phone number.

November 8, 2006 at 04:50 AM · Hi John. I think theory becomes more interesting when it is reintegrated into your playing. Often students learn theory to pass tests. In this way theory remains in the realm of numbers, fractions, and mnemonic devices. I'm not sure if it will ever be fun, but I think that's missing the point. The deeper the understanding we have, the more rewarding the experience becomes.

a) Discover the living theory in the pieces you're working on.

e.g name the pitch patterns in each measure before singing and playing them; where are the semitones? where does this fragment fit into the scale? play all the missing notes between intervals (leaps); what scale are you playing with? play the piece in a different key - transpose up or down a tone. Identify all cadences. Identify the form of the piece and how it relates to the keys employed. Later, look for key centres, chord progression, and modulation. Practice from the piano part to put your line back in it's proper context.

b) If you're working out of a book, do your homework at the piano, or if you don't have one, keep your violin at your side. Play everything you write.

c) Learn scales by relating them to your theory.

Write out all key signatures on staff paper (no notes). As part of your daily scale practice, use the chart of keys to play scales from them. E.g. go through the cycle of fifths (or fourths); look at each key and play a) the tonic b) leading tone, tonic c) mediant, subdominant, leading tone, tonic d) whole scale - one octave. Play in different positions. Play in time (e.g. count 1234 play C234, G234, D234, A234, E234, B234, etc., OR count 123B C23F# G23C# D23G#A, etc.)

There are countless ways to learn theory and ear training for what it was meant for, to enable us to imagine and hear what we play (feel), to hear and play what we imagine, to imagine and play what we hear. The more we integrate these aspects of music, the more free we become to interpret the music.



November 8, 2006 at 07:02 AM · John, which theory book are you using? Everybody else, can you recommend a good theory book for my adult beginners?

November 8, 2006 at 01:40 PM · I started studying theory about 18 months ago. It is fascinating. The standard material used in the conservatories is the 10 levels of workbook put out by the British ABRSM and the two-volume accompanying theory book written, I believe by Eric Taylor. Some of it is dry to study, but it really opens one up to a new view of the music one is playing. You get a much better sense of the structure, which is helpful in interpreting the music. Good luck! It sounds as if we could all profit from the same theory teacher Emily had, or maybe she could teach us!

November 8, 2006 at 01:45 PM · Emily - Moms get that, too. Must be the inate optimism about life; done right everything is good, no pain only joy. Do you believe that?


November 8, 2006 at 02:29 PM · Theory can be awful if it is taught as a thing in itself but if it is taught from a functional point of view it becomes thoroughly relevant to the making of music in a much more insightful way. Esspecially when you discover how to break the rules creatively.

November 8, 2006 at 07:34 PM · My actual theory is that much enjoyment can be found in discipline and hard work.

November 8, 2006 at 08:33 PM · I insist that all my students study at least basic theory. If they don't it would be like teaching them to read an english story without studying grammar, puctuation or spelling.

Knowing theory is part of knowing how to make music. It is not a separate thing.

November 8, 2006 at 09:07 PM · I think theory would be good. Since I play in a church setting, sometimes writing my own arrangements comes in handy. I am currently writing one for a friend. But I wouldn't be able to this without my knowledge of basic theory. Especially chord formations. This is useually only for piano and guitar, but you should see if you can learn it anyways. It's useful to know, like for music with tabs on it.

November 8, 2006 at 11:05 PM · There's no enjoyment in hard work for most of us. You enjoy running twenty miles.

November 9, 2006 at 01:52 AM · Come now, pain is fun. Admit it.

November 9, 2006 at 07:27 AM · Any book suggestions for adults with little background in theory? Please...?

November 10, 2006 at 07:14 AM · Nothing?

November 10, 2006 at 07:34 AM · There is a really old out of print book called Rudiments and Theory of Music by ABRSM (aka the little red book) which is a great reference book (and brilliant for insomniacs). It is on sale on british ebay now for £4 if you are quick (not mine though, it's not for sale). Other than that Eric Taylor did some good exercise books for ABRSM.

November 10, 2006 at 08:16 AM · My teacher got for me the Eric Taylor exercise books - Music Theory in Practice. I have already worked through the Grade 1 book and am now on Grade 2. They seem ok to me, but I haven't anything to compare them to!

Thanks everyone for you advice.

November 10, 2006 at 02:41 PM · Several of the current method series for schoolchildren include workbooks/theory books that could be helpful to adults novices. They include basics like letter names, whole&half steps, comparative note-values, terms, scale structure, etc., some in puzzle-style formats which are fun for anyone. Even if you think you know this stuff, just one missing link could be making studying theory from a theory text more grueling for you.

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