Music theory for a 14 year old?

August 8, 2008 at 06:57 PM · My son has been playing violin for almost 8 years (he's 14) and I believe he's a pretty good sight reader. However, he's never had a formal music theory class and I think he's pretty weak at such things. (Though I know next to nothing about it) I was helping my 11 yos with his cello practice and there were 3 flats and I asked my 14 yo what are 3 flats, and he couldn't tell me without looking! Even my 11 yo finally remembered "bead" (but we both forgot what order the last 3 are) So, I'm thinking he needs to learn music theory. Won't this help his sight reading and violin playing? He won't learn piano after a disastrous 6 months of lessons from my mom so he's weak at reading other clefs.

So, my question is, should he just take musicianship and then music theory at the community college where he is currently studying? It's pretty cheap here in Ca. Or, can this be something we can do at home? A friend gave us a book with companion CDRom entitled, "A Creative Approach to Music Fundamentals" by William Duckworth. I'd rather him not take up his lesson time with it. I think it would be better as a separate study or am I wrong?

Any suggestions would be appreciated!

Replies (51)

August 8, 2008 at 07:45 PM · BEAD Gum Candy Flower, I believe.

Fat Cat Goes Down And Eats Breakfast

Aside from learning key signatures and the like, I never had any actual music theory training until I got into college. I was blessed with a good ear so the aural skills part of the class was pretty easy, but other than that if you just study and work hard you'll do fine.

August 8, 2008 at 07:45 PM · Rebecca,

Basic music literacy (of which there is nothing actually "theoretical") is the responsibility of either the school orchestra teacher, or the private teacher, or both. Many school teachers don't teach it, often because theory doesn't fit in with all the other stuff they have planned, like concerts or all-state, etc. Many don't because they don't feel comfortable teaching it. Then it falls to the private teacher, and if they're not constantly reinforcing it, then THEY ARE NOT DOING THEIR JOB!

Students MUST know their intervals, keys, and rhythms. It's amazing how many students that start with me that don't know the most basic things, like how to define what a major scale is, or what the word "gavotte" means.

August 8, 2008 at 08:38 PM · I wouldn't take up violin lesson time with theory. You can self-study from a book or do a community college course. Learning theory and harmony will definitely help his understanding of scores and the structure of the pieces he plays.

August 8, 2008 at 08:39 PM · I agree 100% with Scott. My first violin teacher always implemented theory stuff into the lessons - easily and painlessly done with the usual scales/arpeggi, musical terms on current piece being studied etc. Sometimes I'd get a question and be told to find out the answer for the next week's lesson.

In Britain you have to pass Associated Board Grade 5 Theory before you can go onto the higher practical exams on your instrument at Grades 6-8, so we were all packed off to theory classes for a term or two, but I think most of us already really knew the basics from our instrumental lessons.

There's an excellent description of progressive theory abilities here:

August 8, 2008 at 09:35 PM · I have never met a good musician that does not know theory. Piano skills are also helpfull. I meet mediocre musicians everyday that say theory doesen't matter... Do they have good jobs? Rarely.

August 9, 2008 at 12:25 AM · In my experience, the fact that he hasn't much knowledge of theory puts him on par with most 14-year-olds (not to mention the occasional freshman). If you want him to have an advantage, sign him up for an informal, low-pressure basic theory course, but don't bother with the really abstract, esoteric stuff; there is a reason it isn't often taught until the second year of college. I learned it three years ago and as my mind ripens, certain concepts are ever so gradually beginning to make sense. This leads me to think that an intimate grasp of theory is probably a lifelong pursuit.

August 9, 2008 at 12:57 AM · For the 2 years (from age 10 - 12) that I studied at the MSM ("kids program") I had a 30 minute vioolin lesson and an hour of "music theory" that started an hour later. The "music theory" was taught in a class, which I think is good, because the students get it in the context of what others at a similar level of musicianship are getting it.

I ut the term "music theory" in quotes, because as a physiicist I don't see it rising to the level of a theory. But it is definitely a systematic ordering of musical variables that are related to the way people listen to (hear music) music. Like poetry, where explication of a poem may not tell you how the poet came to use the symbols/metaphors in the poem, music theory does likely not tell you what an inspired composer did to create a musical work, but it does allow you to understand how it is working on the listener.

Other aspects of music theory (the physics aspects of music) will likely be ignored in a Teen or Community College music course. But learning "music theory" will not detract from the student violinists musicianship and will probably enhance it.

When I teach violin and cello, I try to get a bit of theory into the students - up to their ability to accept it. Actually, the music theory leads into the physics/physiology/psychology of music when you try to bring the two together into performance techniques.


August 9, 2008 at 01:23 AM · "I wouldn't take up violin lesson time with theory."

Unfortunately, this attitude guarantees yet another generation of music illiteracy. As a teacher of music theory at several colleges, I've seen the result of this attitude: after 2 weeks, half the class has hit the "theory wall" and is failing. They can't calculate a diminished 5th or explain a minor scale. There are tears and gnashing of teeth and kids actually quit the music major.

I think it's unrealistic to expect a kid to do self-study.

August 9, 2008 at 01:39 AM · Scott wrote:

"I wouldn't take up violin lesson time with theory."

Unfortunately, this attitude guarantees yet another generation of music illiteracy. As a teacher of music theory at several colleges, I've seen the result of this attitude: after 2 weeks, half the class has hit the "theory wall" and is failing. They can't calculate a diminished 5th or explain a minor scale. There are tears and gnashing of teeth and kids actually quit the music major.

I think it's unrealistic to expect a kid to do self-study.

Becca is a homeschooler from way back-- I think she and her son can handle the self study. She also mentions community college class. I disagree that the violin teacher should spend lesson time on theory. Better to learn from a theory teacher. Also, when violin lessons with a good teacher cost as much as $150 an hour, I'd rather see that time spent on violin technique and musicianship and learn theory in a less expensive setting.

August 9, 2008 at 01:30 AM · Hey Andy, I just had to respond after looking at your bio. You seem like my son's kind of person. :-) My son has a huge love of physics and took a physics class at a local university last year. This year, he's taking mechanics at the community college so I'm *hoping* he understands the physics side of music. (PS. My dad was an engineering physicist for Kitt Peak Natl. Observatory during the hey day of the space program and was also a professional french horn player...I think there's a connection, don't you? )

I really would prefer not to make any suggestions to his teacher as far as music theory during the lesson goes. They're really beginning to understand each other and I think I'd to interrupt the "flow", as it were.

My son tends to understand advanced stuff pretty well (intellectualizes music too much and his brain moves faster than his physical abilities which aren't great), so perhaps he might do ok taking a musicianship class at the CC next year when he turns 15. I was just wondering if he decides to apply to a camp like Interlochen, if it would help him to have more theory under his belt. Like I said, I don't know what he *should* know at his level.

Thanks for the input, everyone!

August 9, 2008 at 01:59 AM · Scott,

Below is a description of the class at the CC that my son would need to start with before he takes music theory. They call it "musicianship" and it's a 3 unit class. Does it seem ok?

Yes, we are homeschoolers and music theory at home would be a doable thing since all of us (my two older sons and I) could benefit but he likes taking classes at the college so that would be perfectly fine for him. There are also AP Music Theory classes available online but I think my son needs to start with more basic stuff first!

"This course is designed for music majors as well as non music majors. It enables the student to develop perceptions in sight and sound as related to the symbols of rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic notation. It will also enable the student to develop skill in writing, major, minor and chromatic scales, chord construction and intervals; and to identify terms used to indicate tempo and dynamics."

August 9, 2008 at 05:24 AM · 99.9% of the professional symphony musicians in the world couldn't tell you what chord they were just playing. The only music theory he _needs_ to know is things that pertain to what he's doing. If he's playing scales, he ought to know what a scale is, for example. Have a music theory book laying around that he can read if he takes an interest in it. There's enough illiteracy of various kinds around that illiteracy ain't no shame.

August 9, 2008 at 05:42 AM · " I was just wondering if he decides to apply to a camp like Interlochen, if it would help him to have more theory under his belt. Like I said, I don't know what he *should* know at his level."

Unless he is applying as a composer, knowing theory won't help in get into music camp, and won't make much of a difference while he is there. The performance camps focus on performance-- solo, chamber, orchestra and/or all three.

August 9, 2008 at 06:57 AM · order online the entire ABRSM series.

this is all the theory anyone will need to know.

if you sit the exams, you will have certified progress and graduation.

your student is long overdue.

good luck.

August 9, 2008 at 10:04 AM · Hmm, interesting points of view here. I find it really hard to decipher how one can have successful violin lessons and develop fully as a violinist unless the teacher is frequently referring to/introducing aspects of music theory as the lessons progress. How else would one analyse the chordal elements of the solo Bach repertoire, or develop accurate rhythm whilst playing, or be able to produce perfect ensemble with an accompanist, or know that you should have played an F natural in Bar 666 because that scale passage was a melodic minor and not a harmonic minor one...

August 9, 2008 at 10:25 AM · Ron's post reminds me that what your kid really needs is an electric guitar and some Pink Floyd records.

August 9, 2008 at 02:38 PM · One of my opinions about music theory is that it's essential for good phrasing.

August 9, 2008 at 03:41 PM · Rebecca.

You are very wise to facilitate your son's interest in theory. It is really fun to learn and very useful. We live in a rural area and therefore faced the theory question early on. We decided to use a combination of piano lessons and software to get our little guys going in theory and they really like it. The piano teacher's "job" is to focus on theory, and let the actual piano playing come out of the theory lessons. So compared to vioin, progress is very relaxed and slow on the piano. We also purchased a Yahaha digitial Nocturne Keyboards. This has weighed keys and is always in tune. I learned on an old out of tune piano, and I think my intonation suffered as a result of studying on a piano that went out of tune and was not tuned often enough. It has taken years for my ears to get fixed! Piano lessons for theory has worked very well as the teacher is very competent in theory. The violin teacher teaches theory as well, but remember violin is limitted in that you only read one clef. To understand scores, or compose, you really need bass, and alto cleff along with much, much, more.

When they are older, our guys will go to a college class as well, or one of the conservatory on line classes. For basics though, you can do a lot at home. We found Practica Musica, very useful for practicing basic theory, but it gets a little cryptic once you are past the basics. It is great for ear training though. I hear there is one software named "Sibelius" (spelling????) that is more comprehensive and costs much more. I will look into those when they get past Practica Musica. I am going to look into some of the other idea posted here as well. There is software for sight singing, theory, and counterpoint, but I recommend a class for counterpoint combined with some music history. If we had classes near home, we would do them supplemented with software to practice. I am also looking at letting the boys "audit" a theory 101 class at the university. Based upon the the course description they would probably do alright and enjoy the process.

I disgree with those who say it won't make a difference at camps. The boys will get so much more out of it if they know what they are doing. Kids that know theory usually emerge as the informal leaders in because so many kids need to follow someone due to their uncertainty. You will find "first reads" for new music. As they attend camps they get more difficult music that they need to learn faster. If they can read what the cello is doing, they have a more comprehensive understanding of the phrasing and how all the pieces fit together. In my opinion, too often violin teachers focus on solo work to the exclusion of playing with others on a regular basis. Limitted lesson time I suppose. Our sons' interest and urgency to learn theory exploded the more they played chamber music. You need it to play successfully with others and deliver your part.

PS: If you know an opera singer or choral singer, they are also a good place to start for sight reading and theory too if you don't have a piano.

Good Luck

August 9, 2008 at 04:01 PM · I think music theory is important for those who wish to study music in college/conservatory.

My 14-year-old son studies composition, which is a fun way to learn music theory. He also works with a program called Auralia for the development of aural skills. There is a very useful website called virtual artists that has all sorts of links to music theory tutorials. It is well worth visiting.

August 9, 2008 at 05:36 PM · My, what a lively discussion! :-) Hmm, let's see, I've got those Pink Floyd albums ordered. What next?

Seriously (well, maybe not that seriously), my son has done some composing with Finale Notepad and he does play the guitar a bit and he can read music and his teacher does obviously spend some lesson time in theory doing scales, arpeggios, etc. (the books he's currently using for these things are Mazas, Hrimaly, Introducing the Positions Vol. II, and Bach Sonatas and Partitas); otherwise, as someone stated, he couldn't be making progress in his music and he is progressing.

However, I think for his own benefit-since I haven't a clue how important the violin will continue to be for him-he should have some formal music theory and I'm leaning towards doing some at home until he takes a few classes at the CC. When he's ready to go full time to college and *maybe* double major in physics and music, I'm sure he'll get a lot more theory then.

I wish I could get him to take piano but alas, I don't have that power over him. (We were given a very nice piano for free that was owned by a former opera singer but many days it sits and collects dust) I suggest it from time to time since it's so inexpensive at the CC but so far, it's a no go. He spends too much time playing his violin I guess (though after seeing Mark O'Connor, I think he's spending too much time fiddling instead of doing what his teacher has assigned), to settle down and learn piano at this point. More maturity would help. :-)

Oh and Danny, my middle son's cello teacher taught him, "fat cats get drunk at Ernie's bar"!

J, I'll look into Practica Musica. I've never heard of it but it sounds good.

Thanks again, all.

August 9, 2008 at 06:52 PM · Hi Helen,

I will read the article today and I thank you for it. Can I ask a few questions before I read? I'm very music illiterate so forgive the ignorance.

So, my son spent 7 years as a Suzuki student, playing a lot by ear and slowly learning to read music. His understanding and reading took a jump at age 12 when he joined a symphony (though he was in a strings ensemble for 7 years and did a certain amount of reading the whole time) and is expected to learn pieces in 6 weeks or less and expected to be able to at least sight read a piece roughly the first time through. He is able to identify notes by ear. IE. If I play a note on the piano, he can usually identify it (I don't know if he can do it %100 as I'm sure he doesn't have perfect pitch, if that's what that means). He can hear a song and depending on the level, can usually play some of it without music and he's pretty good at improv.

So, it seems he has a good ear but is that not what audiation is?

What I was thinking music theory is good for is so when he get a new piece or a symphony piece, he can look at time signatures and all the other things in a piece and have a good sense of what the piece will sound like before he begins to play and will have a sense of its musicality. He has a certain amount of this ability but certainly can't play difficult pieces off the bat without fingerings and discussion and lots of practice.

Sorry if my question(s) don't make sense. I'm trying to understand what "music theory" means and how it applies to life as a violinist.

August 9, 2008 at 08:50 PM · Rebecca,

I see that you wrote: "What I was thinking music theory is good for is so when he get a new piece or a symphony piece, he can look at time signatures and all the other things in a piece and have a good sense of what the piece will sound like before he begins to play and will have a sense of its musicality. He has a certain amount of this ability but certainly can't play difficult pieces off the bat without fingerings and discussion and lots of practice.

Sorry if my question(s) don't make sense. I'm trying to understand what "music theory" means and how it applies to life as a violinist."


As you know I had a couple of years of "music theory" from ages 10 - 12, but since it was at a venerable NY institution, it was not trivial. But I don see that it helped me sight-read music much at all.

My sight-reading growth came when I was about your son's age and started orchestral playing and buying and reading all the music at my level and above that I could get my hands on. My technical growth actually suffered from that point on for the next 20 years or so, because I would play whatever I read any way I could - and this included a number of the major concertos. So I never set out to work over improving fingerings and so on (although, in the very same time frame, I was taking cello lessons and reading everything and playing that with proper fingerings and bowings (proper fingerings are much more critical to playing ceello at all -- it's to big to slop around with bad fingering) - and I think this actually helped my violin playing too - I was my HS concertmaster for 3 years in that time frame).

Nothing helps sight reading like just DOING IT. I had stopped violin lessons when I was 12 and started to play again when I was 13, so I didn't have to satisfy anyone but myself (and the sometimes-audiences I began to gather) so I could do what I wanted, trying to get to sound better and play faster.

The scale/arpeggio program I suggested to you privately will give your son the background he needs for much improved sightreading. (It is some of "music theory.") There is a lot of faking going on in sight-reading (especially at performance tempos) and just being in the right key will always help you get by -- even if you don't hit the right notes every time, you are still playing in the right key. This is especially helpful in minor keys.

OH -- and HELEN (Hi), I must agree with you that it is critical to be able to look at the music and know what it is going to sound like (if not the exact perfect pitch, at least the intervals). I gave my 14-year olod granddaughter her first 4 violin lessonsm on successive days 3 weeks ago (then she had to go off to 2 weeks of chorus camp) and we will resume this coming Monday. She made it half-way through Suzuki book 1. She especially delights in playing both the regular parts and the accompaniments - yes she can sight read pretty well already. But then, after over 6 years in the San Francisco Girls Chorus (and 2 years of their solid music theory program) she not only sight-sings, but delights in singing harmony (what else is a 2nd alto to do?). So when we play duets on the violin her learned "instincts" force her to play in tune (or at least in harmony).

Perhaps it is a curse as well as a blessing that those of us who started the violin when very young can do it without thinking about it (I can't remember a time when I did not have and play a violin), because to continue to improve, we have to think about it and what we are doing all the time we have it in hand.


August 9, 2008 at 08:39 PM · E. Smith,

I don't mean all kids won't get anything out of self-study, just that the average one won't. Also, most kids don't study with $150/hour teachers. One who is would presumably be highly advanced and studying with a prominent teacher--if my kid was studying with Perlman, then I wouldn't expect a theory lesson.

But the average violin teacher teaching the average student can easily fit in theory in just a couple of minutes per lesson. It adds up.

Jim: based on my experience, I don't think you're right. Most professional musicians do know their theory.

August 9, 2008 at 08:46 PM · Rebecca,

The class you described sounds good. It seem like you may have the impression that "theory" is a thing apart from the music-making. It's a poor choice of terms for what is simply the ABC's of music. There is very little that is theoretical about theory. It simply means understanding everything about our system of western tonality and everything notated on a page of music. All I can say is that a serious musician, and one that hopes to survive in the current state of music, must know as much as possible. One can't arrange even a simple song for a wedding gig, for instance, without knowing to avoid perfect 5ths. Every bit of knowledge is used eventually.

August 9, 2008 at 10:13 PM · Rebecca,

I think of "theory" as a couple of different things and you can get as deep as you want. First basic theory is like learning the alphabet, rhythm, keys, circle of fifths, chords and different chord systems, scales, intervals, and things like that.

Ear training trains your ears to hear intervals, scales and all of the above. You learn intervals based upon relative intonation or perfect pitch. You learn to recognize notes too. I always needed a starting note, but my kids can sing any note without any reference point. Usually they give you a starting note though when you take a class. I always found this really tough because you have to listen and write music down by just hearing it. Rhythm, notes, key etc. so you need to know some theory to do this. This is where Practica Musica gets tough.

Sight singing is where you mix the theory and reading to singing the notes off a sheet you have never seen before. This is often taught to choral singers and is associated with Solfege with movable or fixed do. Kodaly is an approach to it and there are many others, but it is a very practical skill for sight reading.

Counterpoint is often used as a general term for composition, but you learn about different musical forms, harmonies, etc. The term was first used in the 14th century and Bach is often credited with inventing counterpoint or at least making it popular. These days it is often used synonomously with composition which would usually be a class or series of classes that includes counterpoint and a bunch of other stuff. Prior to Bach, for example, there were Gregorian chants, madrigals and other forms we assoiate with older forms. So in a counterpoint class you would study and then maybe write a canon, minuet, etc. to understand the conventions of the form.

That is my laymans summary of all the pieces of theory. I hope it helps you. But from what I have learned theory is a few different areas of study that overlap and are not really a "theory" at all as our resident physicist duely noted. Theory is more of a study of different systems of putting music together and understanding how others have put it together so you can play it and write it. It helps you understand the conventions.

Counterpoint, theory, and composition get a bit blurred together in the end. When we learn to read and write English, we have to know the rules so I think of theory as the alphabet, grammar, spelling, and composition. In music, many do not think they need to learn composition, but at your sons young age, it couldn't hurt him to understand "why?". As one not so technical parent to another, this is my non-musical point of view and the real music theory people are way beyond this. I know some arrangers and they are all composers and music theory guys. They know what a canon is, a reverse canon, and all these different musical structures. They can make a simple melody into an amazing arrangement and it is no accident.

August 11, 2008 at 12:36 AM · Helen,

Based on your last answer, and your answers on the thread on repetition, it seems to me that you are using this forum to pitch a product.


August 12, 2008 at 12:32 AM · Scott,

I don't think that's quite fair. I know Helen, personally, and she is a fine person.

She had two choices - to either send private messages to the inquirers, or reach the broader interested audience posted here. The level of interest led her to write here.

The more limited, specific questions had led me to write more details privately to Rebecca.

I think Helen's intent and mine were very similar in this case. (Despite the brief memos presidents and military generals like to get their information from, most real information transfer takes more exposure and submersion.)


August 12, 2008 at 01:14 AM · She may be a fine person, Andrew, but every post she makes seems to be a thinly-veiled advertisement for services sold on her website.

August 12, 2008 at 05:46 AM · Andrew,

I didn't say she wasn't a fine person. However, I don't think that people should be allowed to peddle products on the forums.


August 12, 2008 at 05:29 PM · Here is an idea for improving your son's understanding of practical music theory, based on what you've shared of his goals and progress above, in a way that might be more appealing than a "formal" theory class:

-Buy a copy of the Fiddler's fake book: this is a great source for all kinds of fiddle songs that includes guitar chords and also specifically tells you the key of each song.

-Pick a song: start with one in a major key with no accidentals.

-Thoroughly familiarize yourself with the scales and arpeggios for the song's key.

-Learn the melody of the tune.

-Learn to play the guitar chords for the song. Strumming on the rhythmic pulse for the particular time signature (4 strums per measure for common time, 2 for cut time, 3 for 3/4, 2 for 6/8 etc.)

-Now play the guitar chords on the violin, substituting root position arpeggios for the guitar chords. (ie. if the chord symbol says C, play C-E-G-C, if it says f#m play F#-A-C#-F#)

-Record yourself playing the guitar chords and practice improvising over the recording using both these same arpeggios and the appropriate scale for the key of the song.

-Transpose the song a fifth lower and do all of the above again. If you start with a song in the key of A Major, this is fairly easy on the violin- simply play everything on the next lower string, if possible.

If you do all of this for one tune you will come away feeling a lot more comfortable playing in the key of the song. Experiment by trying to sight read a song in the same key, your fingers should feel much more comfortable making the correct intervals within the key.

If you continue learning songs this way in a variety of keys and time signatures you will find that you have a deeper understanding of basic music theory and of the common ways that songs "work".

Additionaly, you will be well on your way to having an instant, intrinsic understanding of musical structure that is common among pianists, guitarists and jazz musicians, but sorely lacking among most violinists.

PS- I also suggest you review the first few pages of Hrimaly with the goal of really understanding the cycle of fifths, Paying specific attention to the patterns that emerge as we change keys by adding successive flats or sharps. These patterns may by more apparent if you start with A major, then D major, then G major, then start at the beginning with C major.

August 12, 2008 at 08:40 PM · Hey again!

Obviously Jesse has a remarkable ear and reading skills however he is getting to a point were he does in fact need to know basic music elements like what key "3 flats" is. He's getting to a point where he is starting to play advance literature and with that level of music comes constant key changes and accidentals. Having theoretical knowledge will help him significantly and he'll have a better understanding of the music overall.

I know most kids at least in the public school start music theory around high school level so he's certainly not too young. I was fortunate that my school even offered music theory. I started taking it at 16 then didn't quite grasp the material so I reviewed the material again at 17. I'm glad I had those two years of going over theory because by the time I got into college it was much easier for me and I had an advantage over the other students.

Since Jesse is home schooled, I think what you COULD do is have him take some music theory at the community college level. Depending on your area I heard Mesa College is pretty good but I enjoyed going to Grossmont College myself. The down side is that classes are generally about two hours long about 2-3 times a week so it can be a bit tedious with balancing everyones schedule. There's also plenty of music theory resources out there on say or I know the public schools and college university use the text "Tonal Harmony" by Kostka as well as the ear-training software "Practica Musica"

Good luck and let me know how it goes!


August 12, 2008 at 08:27 PM · Rebecca, if you are in the So. Cal area, go to the local universities' music departments and post a "tutor wanted" sign for a graduate student in either music composition or music theory. You may also ask the music departments directly, as sometimes they keep a list of students looking to tutor.

Also, realize that many graduate/post graduate students and PHD's appreciate homeschooling---there is quite the homeschooling movement within academic circles involved in higher learning. Many of these "unconventional" academicians love bright home-schoolers and will bend over backwards to help them along!

Theory can do nothing but help your son. It is never too early to start learning it, too.

August 12, 2008 at 09:08 PM · Btw, on a side note...I was at the Mark O'Connor fiddle camp for the third time this year. I really think you should look into Jesse doing it next year if he really likes fiddling that me. He'd probably fare out better than it. I'm a good reader however terrible at retaining melodies by ear. There were many Suzuki kids at those type of camps. Also a program like Interlochen with other advanced kids would do him a lot of good as well.

August 12, 2008 at 10:38 PM · Hey Paul,

It looks as thought that may have been the last fiddle camp here in San Diego this year! I had heard rumors but I thought was just adding New York. If you go to his website, he lists New York and Tennessee but there's no mention of San Diego. :-( If the camp does still come to San Diego, I still have the problem of having a guardian for him.... Still, I think he would enjoy it very much and would learn so much. Well, if there's no fiddle camp, he did mention Interlochen (on whose dime, I have no idea!)

I am looking at having him take a course at Mesa since it's so close to us. We could fit it in our schedule pretty easily. However, Andrew D. gave me a good idea as far as contacting local universities. Jesse audited a physics class at Pt. Loma. I wonder how they'd feel about a music theory auditor? :-) He also is a member of the U of San Diego Symphony. Maybe I can work something out with the director of the symphony? :-)

Randy, I appreciate your ideas and will share them with my son. I think he would welcome the idea of doing more formal stuff on the guitar since he's totally self taught and clearly, it would help him with violin. He's got lots of music time in the next month and I told him (as per Andrew V's good suggestions) it's time to pull out the Hrimaly again so that his teacher won't be screaming when he gets into town at the end of the month and finds he's not practiced any scales. :-)

August 14, 2008 at 12:02 AM · i just felt i had to respond to this

"From Maria Weronika

Posted on August 8, 2008 at 09:35 PM

I have never met a good musician that does not know theory. "

I've met hundreds upon hundreds. But of course they aren't classical musicians... Even then, classical musicians and especially violinist usually tend to have a very basic grasp of music theory. I have a degree in music theory and am always amused when a violinist makes mistakes with enharmonics (that happens a lot on diminished chords)...

anyway, in my opinion, it's not a question of learning theory. What's important is for your son to know what he wants to do with music. At 14 yrs old, it's probably not easy to decide).

I think as someone mentionned above, music theory can mean a LOT of things.

to me, the most important thing is "understanding the music" you re playing. that doesn't necessarily mean knowing music theory. It means first of all, having a really good ear. Knowing how to interpret music, ie how to shape a phrase, where to play soft, where to play loud. A lot of times, you can get a feel for these things by listening to the piece or trying to understand what kind of piece you're playing... Zigeunerweisen by Sarasate is a gypsy medley which draws its inspiration from the hungarian gypsy violin tradition... that means the player needs to use a dramatic vibrato... and not be too square with the timing...

if you're play a light dance piece, you need to be square with the timing, light with the phrasing, etc....

if you`re playing a baroque piece say a bach piece for solo violin, it comes handy to understand that there usually multiple voices even though it`s all played on one instrument. that`s the study of counterpoint, but that doesn`t mean you have to be familiar with every single details of counterpoint; you should just be familiar with the basics.

these are things that don't necessarily involve music theory, i'd say it's more a question of culture...

Like I said, most classical musicians i've spoken to, only have a superficial knowledge of theory, even those who claim to have studied it.

if your son is really serious about music , then I would suggest prioritizing Ear Training (musicianship) over any other theoretical sugbjects because a good ear training course also includes basic concepts of music theory namely harmony and melody.

if your son wants to learn how to improvise and play other styles, understanding harmony can be quite useful, and he would probably have to start working on basic arpeggios and scales... but even then, improv is far more than just arpeggios and scales...

August 14, 2008 at 01:45 AM · Erm... have you asked your son?

He's certainly too old to be treated like a child! (My Dad likes to remind me that he was working at age 14.)


Scott: My violin teacher didn't have the resources to teach theory, so I wasn't taught music theory until age 12 (I think). Before that time, I had no problem calculating intervals, because I'd seen a piano keyboard. I had the best of both worlds: a great violin teacher, and a great theory teacher. Music theory should be part of a comprehensive education. Violin teaching doesn't come cheap, and should not be squandered by teaching dots and Italiano.

August 14, 2008 at 03:36 AM · Rebecca,

I am not surprised that he got fast-tracked by playing in an orchestra. He will learn things there that he probably won't anywhere else.

Absolute (so-called "perfect") pitch is a skill that he can hone just like anything else. Now and then I mess up if I have to do it early in the morning while I'm still groggy. I never really needed any motivation other than my own curiosity; is your son like that?

The way I understand it, audiation is a little more specific than just having a good ear. I think it refers to holding a pitch in your mind (with or without context). It must be this ability that allows us to remember what a friend's voice sounds like, so I bet almost all people have it to some degree.

August 14, 2008 at 07:11 AM · Richie,

Funny you should ask.:-) I asked my son, "How do you like getting so much advice?" He said, "It's ok, sometimes it's a little too much." LOL We sort of have an interesting dynamic. He's very independent in many ways but in other ways, I need to take the first step. For instance, at 13 last year, he didn't want to leave his teacher of 7 years. I knew it was time (overdue, really). He wasn't happy auditioning for this new teacher and his first 4 lessons were so difficult, he cried. He wasn't used to working so hard and not getting pats on the back. 9 months later, he admits that he's glad he changed teachers. He knows he's grown as a player and he continues to really love to play violin and be involved in many different music projects with his violin.

So it was that I asked about music theory. He was agreeable to taking music theory at some point in the next few years, but I didn't know at what point it would be appropriate for him and how to go about it.

Does that make sense?

August 14, 2008 at 07:20 AM · Dennis,

My son's teacher seems to be communicating what you've said in terms of "understanding the music". I remember him telling my son as he began learning the Vitali Chaccone that he should make his audience cry if it's played well. My son is just beginning to understand the music. He says he has flashes of "getting it" but he's early in the journey, I think. I believe his teacher will bring it out of him slowly. I think my son was encouraged when his teacher said, "You have the music in you. You need to bring it out."

Thanks for the other suggestions, as well. He pretty much enjoys any musical endeavor so I'm sure he'll enjoy working on ear training among other things.

Nicole, he says he can heard some pitches and he improves with practice and we'll play around with that sometimes.

Music is so complicated but that's what makes it so wonderful!

August 15, 2008 at 06:43 AM · hi rebecca

i wanted to add a few other things. As I and another poster said, theory definitely can mean a lot of things.

At the most basic level, you can learn about basic chord formation, key signatures, time signatures, etc...

this is extremely basic theory; knowing such things can be helpful depending on the situation : ie if your son is big on sightreading, it can probably help him figure things out a bit faster. But knowing such things does not mean "understanding the music" (re: my previous post)

Usually that's as far as most performing classical musicians go.

A professional musician (and again depending on which direction he/she goes) would probably benefit from studying elementary counterpoint and elementary harmony.

These are actually first year college courses. This is helpful for understanding the technical details of a composition, it can be helpful in learning more complex songs, it can even help in interpretation to a certain extent (especially when it comes to baroque music); but again music is far more than just theory...

and truth be told, most musicians only remember 30 percent of what they learned from these college level courses; and they get by with great careers.

anyway, i dont know your son (does he play for fun, how serious does he take it etc...), so i can't decide for him... But i really do think that music, even for professional musicians, is about having fun...

i really believe in immersion, and your son can benefit from most (and happens to be fun) is playing with other people, watching musicians play, or listening to musicians talk about music.

There's a maxim vengerov documentary/masterclass on youtube, try to look it up. it's very fascinating because in the masterclass, he talks about "understanding the music", the way i described it to you

here's a clip

look at how he explains the piece without using any theory at all

August 17, 2008 at 09:01 AM · I like to sit down with my violin and pluck through various chords and intervals. If you don't have a piano, your son should be 100% sure of the intervals when playing in a C major scale on the violin - everything else can be worked out from there by a logical brain.

August 20, 2008 at 07:40 PM · When I read the threads about who the great violinists are, I see mention of intonation, articulation and great bow control, etc. I never read "oh what a fine understanding of music theory they have".

Sure, I suppose all the greats understand music theory, but unless they're composing I don't see that it contributes all that much to making them great.

August 20, 2008 at 08:06 PM · Dennis - your comment about non-classical musicians not knowing music theory surprises me. Any good jazz musician has to have an exceptionally good grasp of theory, particularly harmony and chords. When you are improvising, you have to know where you can go next. There have certainly been some great musicians (e.g., Irving Berlin and Paul McCartney) who could not even read music, but in almost any kind of music, some knowledge of theory (harmony, chords) is essential. However, it is difficult for me to imagine a really good classical who lacks a knowledge of theory because I do not see how you can play a piece decently if you do not understand its deeper structure.

I know of one good website for basic theory: It is a good place to start.

August 20, 2008 at 09:32 PM · Maybe people don't praise players for their understanding of music theory, but they've been impacted by a great player's understanding of music theory whether they know it or not.

For one thing, and there are other things, an understanding of music theory allows for a deeper understanding of the music, and therefore allows for an intelligent approach to phrasing and dynamics, which allows for heightened musical expressivity.

A few quotes from "Sound in Motion" by David McGill:

"One only serves the music fully by giving one's self completely through study, not by feigning false modesty, by abdicating responsibility, or by exercising blind faith in one's feelings. Players do serve the composer, but not by negating their intelligence."


"In preparing for the musical performance, one should be able to identify the function of each note (appoggiatura, passing tone, neighbor tone, etc.). This is the first step toward revealing the muisc's grammmatical structure.... The grammatical function of the individual notes having been determined, identifying the skeletal strcuture of the music, often obscured beneath hordes of ornamental notes, is the next step. When this underlying framework is understood, then the phrasing and articulation of music become clear in almost every instance. Defining this grammatical structure leads one to communicate the music's true meaning."


"Music making is more than showing what you can do. It is the art of showing what the composer has done, by reanimating and communicating his or her message to the listener through the heart and the mind."


"A true professional is driven by a sense of accountability; driven to do justice to the music by carefully analyzing it in order to discover what is correct in its performance. John de Lancie said, 'Whenever you play anything -- even at home -- if there was a puff of smoke and Beethoven or even your teacher were to appear and ask you, Why did you just play that phrase that way?, you should be able to clearly justify and explain what you're doing.'"

August 20, 2008 at 10:25 PM · hi tom,

it's true though.. at the same time it really depends on how you define music theory.

i'm not saying that these musicians are magicians and are making music out of nothing... quite the contrary, but a lot of these people learned the street way, by listening, imitating, assimilating, innovating... etc... the same way one speaks a language, to be honest, i went to french school, i learned english by watching american tv and movies... i probably make a lot of mistakes and know NOTHING about english grammar, but you still understand me right?

that's the same with a lot of jazz musicians... they know how to make music, but they don't know how to explain nor do they know the technical terms...

i've been with musicians who didn't know what a G7 is, but when you play it on the piano , they light up, and will respond to it...

btw i'm not saying music theory is bad at all... and i'd like to repeat , that it also depends on how you define music theory... i think the most important thing is ear training though (and to some; that's considered music theory as welll...)

August 20, 2008 at 11:30 PM · Sean, a lot of that seems to me to take care of itself, with people doing by ear what McGill is doing by thought. I think the actually important part is what keeps two people from sounding alike, after they've done McGills analysis; and two people will not sound alike. I like what he says, though.

I've been listening to a station that plays a lot of electronic music, stuff that could never be notated. But a good "notation" for it is the recording itself. A good part of what we do with theory and notation, as it applies to how perform a work at least, comes from the fact that there were no recordings around while it evolved.

August 20, 2008 at 11:07 PM · Jim, I suspect that's true -- at least for those who become accomplished musicians. In fact, McGill recalls something his great teacher, Marcel Tabuteau, said that was pretty much in line with what you just said.

The other day, coincidentally, I happened to be watching TV, a show featuring Daniel Barenboim performing Beethoven sonatas and also leading a few masterclasses. At one point, Barenboim asked the young (extremely talented) pianist why'd he'd chosen to play a certain phrase a certain way, and the young man shrugged and answered "Because I like it." He got a laugh from the audience, but Barenboim said (nicely) "With respect, that's not good enough." I can't remember all the details, but in a kind of Socratic dialogue with Barenboim, the young man was able to think through and better articulate what he (not Barenboim) regarded as the important aspects of the phrase and in so doing arrived at the opposite conclusion regarding how to play the passage. Good stuff.

So I don't believe the sort of analysis McGill is talking about (which is based quite a bit on Marcel Tabuteau taught him at Curtis) necessarily results in identical approaches to a given piece of music, but potentially more thoughtful approaches to music.

One last McGill quote (sorry, I just finished reading it, so it's top of mind):

"Sadly, most young musicians are not taught that there are musical principals that can guide one's phrasing choices. They are most often led to believe that in order to be a good musician, all one needs is to get control of the instrument, learn how to read music, and then just feel it. Because of this lack of understanding, many musicians have very little to say about the music itself in performance. They make guesses at how best to express emotion. But there is a better way to make music than by simply groping for 'what feels good.'"

I agree with that statement. And yet I know musicians who are rather inarticulate verbally but nevertheless display exquisite phrasing and other aspects of great musicality. Hmmm. Nice to end a post in a state of seeming contradiction.

August 20, 2008 at 11:39 PM · I might argue that ultimately it is "groping for what feels good," but agree with him insofar that it's informed groping :) Informed by listening, pondering his book, everything.

August 21, 2008 at 02:47 PM · You should expect that a certain amount of theory can be introduced and reinforced in private violin lessons.

- musical symbols (#, b, p, ff, >, etc)

- forms (concerto, partita, sonata, etc)

- keys and time signatures

- Scales

It's really not too much to ask of a teacher to enforce these concepts in a lesson. I mean really, when I'm about to assign a concerto to a student for the first time I make sure they know what a concerto is. It's common sense really.

If your son tends to be analytical by nature I think that he would enjoy theory. There are many aspects to theory that don't seem to make much sense in the beginning and intermediate stages of learning. But eventually they make you into the musician you want to become.

When I was in high school I had private violin lessons and had a basic understanding of some of the above concepts I listed. Of my own accord I found a theory book at a yard sale and decided I would teach myself. I kept a notebook and studied for 1/2 hour a day. Eventually I began to experiment with ear training (which is of immeasurable value!).

What was the point? When I entered college as a music major I placed out of all Level 1 theory and ear training classes which really gave me a leg up!!

OR.... you could do what every professional musician does to ensure that their child understands theory - give them piano lessons.

August 21, 2008 at 02:59 PM · Craig, you said

"When I read the threads about who the great violinists are, I see mention of intonation, articulation and great bow control, etc. I never read "oh what a fine understanding of music theory they have".

Sure, I suppose all the greats understand music theory, but unless they're composing I don't see that it contributes all that much to making them great."

I do not usually snarl at advice that is given by non-musicians because I think everyone has a right to voice their opinions. But this statement is not only ignorant, it also belittles these so called great musicians you are describing. Do you really believe that Heifetz would stand on a stage and perform a piece of music that he has no understanding of?

Great musicians are not like supermodels who strut around in beautiful priceless clothing without having the slightest clue to how the garment was constructed.

August 21, 2008 at 09:30 PM · Marina,

I think my son's teacher definitely does what you have laid out, so I know he's on the right track. I am hoping to have a short conversation with his teacher when he's back in the country and ask what he recommends for my son. (I hope he says piano lessons! LOL)

I will say that my son gets so busy with performing (or, ironically, helping to teach music and very basic theory to children as he's doing for 3 weeks this summer with the director of the Univ. of San Diego Symphony and a few other musicians) and can get sidetracked from practicing his scales and such. That's why I think a formal class next summer is the target right now. The local CC has a 4 week, 5 day a week musicianship class (might be too easy but hey, it's only 4 weeks long and I know he'll learn something) during the summer session and that would be doable for him and still leave him the rest of the summer to attend a music camp if he decides to do that. Nothing like planning ahead. :-)

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