Don’t Teach Music Theory Unless You Teach the Practical Application!

Now let me explain what I mean by that statement. Far too many music students and sadly many music teachers, view music theory on one side, and being able to compose and improvise with their instrument on the other. Many music teachers and even some professional musicians believe that if you play by ear and can improvise, you obviously cannot read music very well or at all. Or, sadly, the exact opposite is the perception. Others actually believe that if you can read and play anything on written paper that is placed in front of you, then, somehow, you must not be able to play by ear, improvise, or know how to use a fake book or lead sheet (this is where you only have a melody line with the right hand where the chords have been written above each measure so you “FAKE” the left hand or embellish and change what is there altogether). Far too many musicians even limit themselves and their own perception of their musical abilities by saying they can’t play anything unless they have music in front of them and don’t know how the “other” people can play without it. Some say they cannot compose music when they have never tried to do so before. Sadly, many times this perception becomes a reality and continues to back up what both sides say and further reinforces how both sides learn music and share their music with others. It’s not correct, but it still happens.

This is a very difficult situation for music educators, musicians, and parents of musicians. The music “bridge” to bridge this gap needs to be teaching the practical application of music theory – what we do with it, not only what it is. We must teach how to use it and make sure students know it, which, as we know, knowing something is very different from actually doing it. We must make sure students know and do what music theory is intended to do for them. It is not only about analyzing pieces, phrases, and breaking apart the musical structure (although that is very important and everyone should know how to do that). It is about knowing how to apply the theory for ourselves to create music of our own. This means knowing how to improvise and compose music and not solely reading the notes on the page.

Before the 1900s most music teachers taught how to create and compose music because the majority who played also composed. Not everyone could compose or improvise on the same level, but the majority were taught how to do it. Many would attend the concerts because the composers would embellish and improvise the pieces they had created. Each concert then became an attempt to out-perform themselves from previous performances and those attending the concerts loved seeing what would be new and different. This must be something we continue to teach all students how to do – not just the ones who “naturally” tend to be more creative or have an innate ability to embellish, improvise, or compose.

My sister-in-law, who majored in music and is a gifted pianist didn’t know I could actually read music until after a few years of knowing me. She heard me play the piano many times during those years, but I would embellish, or jazz up and improvise whatever I played – I usually do. I enjoy doing that and tell my own piano students once they know and can play a piece as it is written, they should make the music their own. My sister-in-law thought I could only play by ear. She knew I could read fake books and play a song in any style or key signature, but she didn’t think I could read music. We were at her home one day and she had a book of Serge Rachmaninoff’s music open on the piano. I began playing Prelude Op. 32, No. 2 and she immediately ran into the room. She shockingly exclaimed, “You can read music”? I said yes and explained that I could read music long before I could play by ear or improvise and compose music of my own. Several people have actually assumed that I only compose or create music of my own. Others have thought I only play jazz (blues, boogie-woogie, modal jazz, etc.) or pop and rock music. Still, others think I only play new age or meditation music, and there are others who think I only play hymns or classical music.

It’s funny how people sometimes box you in to a certain style or genre from what they hear you play at any given time. I believe it is important to learn to appreciate and play all styles of music and be more well-rounded. I believe learning classical music helps you be a better jazz musician. I also believe learning jazz music helps you be a better classical musician. I know a prestigious music school back east that told all of the classically trained musicians they needed to take one jazz related class to graduate. These students became so angry and complained so much and said they shouldn’t need to take any jazz music. The jazz musicians, on the other hand, thought it was funny because they themselves needed to take all of the traditional and classically focused classes on top of their jazz focus and wondered why the classically trained musicians were so against it. We can all learn from and help each other!

I meet with many piano teachers and piano students and do workshops about music theory, improvisation, and composition (however I refer to them as Theory Therapy™, Innovative Improvisation™, and Creative Composition™ – I think it sounds cooler and makes it more fun – especially for the students). I enjoy doing it and try to teach music theory – the FUN way – through original music I have composed. I believe everyone can improvise and compose music of their own, but they must be taught how to understand music theory and apply it. The two go hand in hand. They are not separate entities, even though sometimes teachers treat them as such. Not everyone will be able to improvise and compose at the same level. Some people are gifted composers and it comes naturally. They are just born with the natural ability and then work on refining and perfecting their craft. But all should learn how to apply music theory. It’s the practical application of music theory that brings music to life for the musician and for the music educator. This then enhances our ability to connect with our audience and to perform on much more meaningful levels.

To further illustrate this point, I’ll give you an example of a conversation I recently had with a music department chair at a university. This is a similar topic that has been echoed and stated to me repeatedly with little variation from many university music professors and even high school music educators as well. I am sure many of you have had similar conversations of your own.

Music Department Chair (MDC): “I think one of the biggest problems we have right now, is that on one side, we have talented students who know their music theory so well and are amazing musicians. And on the other side, we have amazing and talented students who want to be in the music program, and can play very well and compose music and improvise extremely well – but they can’t read music very well or at all, and don’t know their theory at all. We can’t allow them to be in the program because they can’t read music at a proficient level and don’t know basic music theory.”

Me: “What’s wrong with having all of these talented music students who are amazing musicians and who know their music so well? Isn’t that what you hope for and want?”

MDC: “It is what we want. But it’s also a problem. These students know how to read music very well and understand their theory backwards and forwards. They can identify key signatures, scales, chords and chord progressions, cadences, motifs, modulations. You name it. They are wonderful! They understand their music theory very well and are fantastic musicians on their given instrument. The problem is that most don’t exactly know what to do with music theory. They learn it but don’t understand how to apply it for themselves. If you take the music away from them, they can’t play anything they haven’t rehearsed and perfected for hours on end. They also have been taught how to play pieces correctly so much, that many haven’t really ever been taught how to interpret or feel the music without having their professor explain it to them. We then are trying to teach them to think for themselves, at a college level, how to interpret the music without being told how to play the music or what to do. Some have become mechanical musician robots who need to be given specific step by step instructions. That is good, but we want them to bring their own personality to the music and not try to play something exactly the way they have heard everyone else play it. We need music students going into the program who can feel the music and have musicality as well as technicality. We then can help them learn how to better breathe life into the music and not just play the notes on the page. In addition, many of them, unfortunately, want to be able to improvise and compose and play as these “other students” do who do not read music very well and don’t know the theory.”

Me: “What is being done to help the music students who know their theory actually learn how to use it to improvise and compose music of their own? What is being done to help the ones who can improvise and compose music of their own to learn to read written music and understand music theory?”

MDC: “We’re trying to figure out how to help them both. Part of the problem we are seeing, is that the ones who don’t have music degrees are actually getting their music out there and many are making money as professional musicians even though they don’t read music very well and don’t know their theory. They don’t have degrees and the trained musicians who do have the training, education, and degrees are struggling to be full-time musicians. Many of these music students who don’t have degrees and who are creating new music are then being referred to our graduate students to help get their music notated. We need to help both be better musicians. Somehow we need to bridge this gap.”

Now, I don’t have the answer – I think it would take hours to better explain and the assistance of discussion panels and boards of experts to identify the problems and come up with exact solutions. I do think there are things we can be doing right now to better help us teach music theory and how to apply it.

Now, to be completely honest and to have full disclosure – I do not have a music degree. I’m sorry. I think it shocks people when I say that. Many assume I do because of the music books I have written and the CDs I have recorded. I enjoy and am grateful to have a wonderful studio full of piano students. My company, Music Motivation®, is set up as a music publishing company and also as a record label. I do write my own music and all the instrument parts for all of the instruments, but I did not major or even minor in music. I do, however, present to music teachers and music teaching associations on a regular basis and present to many music programs at universities with many great music professors.

I do not say that to persuade or dissuade anyone from getting or not getting a music degree. I think a music degree is extremely important and necessary, especially if you are going to teach music at the university or at a music conservatory because it’s required. I personally wanted to get a music degree, but at the time was working 40 + hours per week and had 16-20 credit hours I was putting in at the university. I was working more than full time and going to school more than full time as well. In addition, I was in student government at the University and was the Arts and Lectures Director and Convocations Chair for the University which felt like a full time job itself. I was newly married as well and wanted to see and be with my wife. In order to major in music, I would have had to stop working my full time job, stop doing my leadership position with the university (but they were paying my tuition to school for a leadership scholarship so I could not do that), or stop taking the classes I was taking just so I could practice the 6 + hours required for practicing my instrument (the piano). With all that is required to be a music major, I just couldn’t make it work for me. It was a sad and difficult decision, but it made sense to not major in music even though I knew I wanted to be in the music profession.

Thankfully I took many business, marketing, and sales classes, and I can tell you how important those classes are for musicians. I think they should be required classes for all musicians to take. Music is an art, but to effectively share our music with others, we must focus on music as a business as well. To create music we must think like a musician, but to produce and market music, we must think like a business. We must think of our intended audience we are attempting to reach as well and how we will connect with them. As music educators, our market includes teaching theory on some level or another. It always has and always will. It must.

On one hand, I am a piano teacher and composer. I love it! My music I compose actually has many markets and I am continually creating music for these different markets – not just piano music. Eventually I would love to branch out to many musical markets – there are hundreds and each one has its own wonderful rewards. My piano music, however, is primarily geared to and created for teenagers – especially teenage boys. The weekly “Cool Songs” I create are all created with teenagers in mind. I want them to learn music theory the fun way and be able to take their understanding of music theory to the next level by creating music of their own. It’s what I enjoy doing, but not everyone needs to or wants to create music to teach music theory. You can help students learn the music theory from the music they play in their lessons. Dissect and analyze the music. Have them teach you everything they can about the music they are playing – measure by measure so they can tell you what they are doing and then, if they want, they can do something similar in making music. I tell my own students that being able to read and play anything that is placed in front of you is only the beginning. It is not the final destination. After you are able to read and play anything, you can then learn how to embellish, improvise, and compose music of your own. It is taking music – your music – to the next level.

For my own students and their parents, and to better help piano teachers and other music educators have a musical road map to help them teach music theory, I created what I refer to as the Music Motivation® Mentorship Map. It is something I created to help my own piano students, piano teachers I knew, and parents of my piano students have a road map of what I feel they should and could learn each year.

On the left side of this Music Motivation® Mentorship Map it states: “This is only an outline or suggestion – add to it or subtract from it! If you are doing something different all together that works, keep doing it. This is meant to give you ideas and supplement what you’re already doing.” The repertoire includes my books from my Music Motivation® Series and presents them in sequential order according to difficulty.

Click on the image below to download what I refer to as the Music Motivation® Mentorship Map.

This is what I suggest we should do to help teach the practical application of music theory:

Before any piano student plays their piece, I believe they should be able to do the following (this is what I try to have my students do with their music):

  1. Tell their music teacher the key signature and time signature
  2. Identify all of the sharps or flats in the key signature and name them
  3. Play all of the intervals created from the major key signature of the piece they are playing – this is more for piano students and possibly guitar students as many instruments only allow one note at a time. If the student is younger or new to their instrument they can play the intervals created from the pentascales, or five note scales created from the first five notes of the major or minor scales.
  4. Play through the major scale of the key signature of the piece at least 1-2 octaves up and down the piano (parallel and or contrary motion). If the student is younger or new to their instrument, as stated before, they can play the pentascales, or five note scales created from the first five notes of the major or minor scales.
  5. Play or be able to play what I refer to as the “Essential Exercises” from each key signature. Here is an example from the key of C major (this is for piano and is a page from my book “Essential Piano Exercises” – Intervals, Scales, and Chords in all Keys and in all Inversions).

Once a student can do the above five essential “getting started steps” in any given key signature (and many times I will do the following steps even if they can’t do the above steps in every key signature), I then challenge them to do the following five essential “music theory application steps”:

  1. Once the student has learned and perfected the piece, ask them to take the song up half a step and down half a step. In the beginning this is a good start. Later on, when they are better able to do so, have them play the piece in any key signature. Start with simple pieces like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. Have the students try playing these in all key signatures.
  2. Ask the student to come up with at least 5-10 variations or arrangements of their piece. Watch this video of me teaching students how to do different variations of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star: 
  3. Ask the student to compose 3-4 motifs (or single melodic line or phrase), and then put them together. This can be the beginning of creating a simple piece or song. I have the students begin using scales and skipping notes here and there. We then have them take a simple pattern created from the notes of the major scale (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8). Click Here to read a blog post I wrote on teaching composition to students.
  4. Ask the student to “Play a Rainbow”. When I say this to students, I then begin to ask them to “play” anything. I may say: “Play me a shadow”, “Play me a swing set”, “Play me a thunderstorm”, “Play me a puddle, a rock, a tree, a meadow, a light, etc.”. The sky is the limit. I first begin with tangible objects and eventually move on to intangible ideas and concepts: “Play me loneliness”, “Play me disturbed, agitated, angered, humbled, pensive, schizophrenic, etc.”. Again, the sky is the limit. It is wonderful to see what students can create – even if they don’t know all the rules of composition, terminology, etc. Everyone has music within them.
  5. I have students begin notating their music. I enjoy and prefer Finale, but that is because I have used it for so long and am very familiar with it. There are many great programs available. After we have their music put down on paper, I then export the music from Finale as a midi file and open the midi file in Logic Pro. We then begin having them add additional instruments so they can create background tracks (this is how I create all of my weekly “Cool Songs” from my subscription” – you can watch all of the videos of the monthly “Cool Songs” with the minus tracks to get an idea of what I mean (I’ve included the videos at the end of this post). The students then have a PDF copy of their composition and an MP3 “minus track” to accompany them as they play. Talk about music motivation!

I have found that the above 10 “essential” steps help students take the theory to the next level and know how to create chord progressions, how to use the scales to create melodies, and how to make the music more meaningful by creating music of their own. When I was younger, I had a piano teacher who allowed me to play one of my own compositions at one of the piano concerts. Most piano teachers frown on this – I actually encourage it! At the end of the concert, a few people came up to me and said, “You wrote that? I loved your song.” To hear those words as a teenage boy meant so much more than all the times I heard someone say, “You played Bach beautifully,” or, “The interpretation of Mozart’s movement was so well played.” Those are great to hear, but it was more meaningful and made a bigger and better impression on me personally to have others encourage me as a musician. When a piano student, or any music student for that matter, can connect with music on a personal level and make music of their own is when music comes alive and the student takes off on a wonderful, magical, and musical adventure. Those are the kinds of experiences I hope we all can create for ourselves and the music students we mentor!

I hope you have a wonderful day today. Make it matter. Make it count. Live life deliberately, intentionally, and purposefully!

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