As a parent of a student taking lessons you may wonder, Why do they have to learn all this music reading stuff if they can just figure it out by ear? As a private lesson and music teacher, I hear it all the time.
Understanding music theory is actually a crucial part of a student’s musical development. Without this understanding, it is like being the fastest runner on the football field, but you have no idea how to kick the ball.
Here are 4 key reasons music theory is essential for private lessons.
What is music theory?
Music theory is the understanding of the fundamental building blocks of music. They involve many different concepts that are often forgotten in the heat of study and performance. Check out some elements of music theory below:
- Reading notation (music notes on the page)
- Understanding rhythm and meter
- Reading pitches (A, B, C, etc.)
- Recognizing different clefs
- Knowing how to play and use chords
- Recognizing musical terms that appear in music
- Understanding the relationship between all of these elements and music performance
- Understanding what the composers are trying to communicate in their compositions. As performers, we have the obligation to relate that of the composers’ intentions to the audience.
Reasons to learn Music Theory
1) You build musical independence
At the beginning of a child’s private lesson experience, it is normal for the teacher to teach the students by rote. Teaching by memorization is when the teacher demonstrates how to play something, and then the student copies them.
But as they progress, the pieces become harder and harder. To teach a more complicated song by rote would take way too long to be practical. This is when understanding music theory comes into play.
As your child goes home to practice, if they have been ignoring their music theory concepts, they will have a hard time learning to play on their own. But spending the time to practice those theory skills can help them to learn new pieces on their own. We call this: musical independence.
Imagine this situation:
Jimmy plays the piano well. He practices playing every day and learns the song his teacher tells him to. But Jimmy does this all from memory and without looking at any music notation. When his teacher introduces him to a new song that’s several pages long, he’s told he has to start learning this one on his own.
Jimmy’s meteoric pace slows down. He cannot understand the new music without his teacher’s explicit guidance. It takes a long time for him to learn the piece.
Now this one:
Sally struggles to play the piano, but she still practices every day. It takes her a little longer to learn the songs, but she takes the time to look at the notes and understand what they’re telling her.
Sally gets to the same hard piece as Jimmy a little later on, but when she gets there, she can learn most of it herself at home. Because she knew how to read music on her own, she quickly surpasses Jimmy and continues on at a steady pace.
In my over 20 years of teaching, I’ve seen this exact scenario play out time and again. Don’t let your child slip on their understanding of music theory.
2) Understanding music theory strengthens the brain
According to Psychology Today, training in music can actually enhance the connections in the brain. This can also help kids learn faster and better in all areas of their life, just by performing music.
More than just performing music, they discuss how improvisation builds connections in the brain to the point where it works at an optimal flow. The musicians become super thinkers.
Improvisation is the “on-the-fly” making up of musical ideas within a set of music theory rules. But without an understanding of the music theory rules, improvisation is just making random sounds. Kids can’t access that highest level without a strong understanding of the rules and structure that make up music.
3) You gain a better understanding of what you’re playing
It’s one thing to play the notes on the page. It is entirely another thing to make the music come alive.
The only way to breathe life into the music is to understand the thoughts and work that went into it. There’s a reason that a lot of the highest level of musicians spend time in classes studying music theory, and it’s to understand better what they’re playing.
This works with kids as well. In a piece of music, every note has a purpose. By studying the structure of the notes, your student can find that purpose and give it life.
Do you think an artist like Picasso just started revolutionizing art from the beginning? He studied the basics (the theory) of art techniques and practiced them.
Put it another way: good chefs can follow recipes. Great chefs create recipes and understand the art and fundamentals of food. Believe me, I know – I’m not a good or great chef.
4) You develop better all-around musicianship
Imagine a golfer that was only good at driving off the tee. This person is the best in the world at that, but their putting game was terrible. Would you consider this person a good golfer?
To be “good” at music, you need to be an all-rounded musician. Playing the music on your piano, guitar, or violin is only one part of music education. You need to combine all the following:
- Playing technique
- Expressive qualities
- Emotional connection
- Listening skills
- Notation and reading skills (music theory)
Sadly, it is the last one that is the most forgotten and the hardest to teach in normal music lessons. But you need it to be truly good at your instrument or voice.
How to learn music theory
Hopefully, I have convinced you that music theory is essential. Now the question remains: “How do I help my child learn music theory?”
There are many ways you can go about this including:
- Asking the lesson teacher to help them
- Buying music theory books appropriate for your child’s age
- Trying to read useful articles and teach them yourself.
All of these can work, but you are going to be doing a lot of the work as the parent. But there is another option: you can find a music theory tutor.
Yes! These people do exist, and they are specially trained to help kids at their specific level to learn music theory fundamentals.
One of the coolest parts of this is that music theory applies to all instruments, so it does not matter what your child is studying. Finding a quality music theory teacher can help everyone.
What music theory should my child learn?
Music theory teachers have a well-developed understanding of what kids need to learn at each grade level. Many of them follow and use the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM).
The ABRSM is an association that offers graded exams and guides for music theory and private lesson teachers. With their materials and exams, they help ensure that music students are receiving a well-rounded education in music.
When you go searching for a music theory teacher, you can eliminate some worry about finding a good one if you go with someone who follows this program.
Tests may not sound fun to you or students, but these exams are really applicable to what the students need to know. They also give students clear milestones to work towards.
I know that when a student can say they have “passed with distinction” an exam from such a high-quality organization, they are filled with pride. Your child will be filled with more motivation to succeed and work in music.
From my experience, motivation is the key to student success.
Music theory may not be the most glamorous part of music education, but it is essential to real skill and long-term success in music. Finding a music theory teacher who is familiar with the ABRSM syllabus and making it come alive and fun is the easiest and most effective way to help your child with this.
Keep these 4 key reasons music theory is essential for private lessons in mind. Give your child the best chance for musical success.