The Value of Music Theory

Last year I wrote a post about the importance of the Grade 5 Music Theory exam and it has become one of the most visited articles on my site. You can read it here. The main thrust of my argument is that theory, or the academic, written side of music, should never be side lined in preference for the practical or performance aspect. Grade 5 theory is a significant exam because for some exam boards, namely the ABRSM, it’s imperative before taking the higher practical or instrumental grades such as Grade 6, 7 and 8. Not all exam boards require theory exams to be passed in this way, but irrespective of exams, I believe theory is as important as learning to play an instrument.

The reasoning for this is simple; whilst playing any instrument is great fun and instructive, the construction of music is a very valuable tool. Whether a student wishes to take music seriously and become a professional, or whether they just enjoy playing as a hobby, reading and writing music fluently can substantially change their options and possibilities.

The piano is a fairly universal instrument necessitating a pupil to negotiate two lines of music at once (treble and bass) in order to play fluently, so if you are learning the piano then you will be assimilating both clefs, but for many other instruments, only one clef need be studied. Violinists will learn the treble clef, because the instrument’s sound is limited to playing high-pitched sounds, whilst Double Bass players need only know the bass clef, as the Double Bass produces only low-pitched sounds. Many other orchestral instruments are similar to these examples. Therefore a young orchestral musician will go through all their learning processes in one clef unless they also learn to play the piano. However, if theory is studied there will be no such limitations; pupils will learn to read and write in both clefs automatically.

This also goes for so many other elements which I stated in my previous post; all 24 keys will be studied, as well as scale and arpeggio patterns, transposition, recognising intervals and knowledge of a whole variety of dynamic and expression markings. All important information, but the two crucial components which really need to be studied in-depth (for Grade 5 theory or otherwise), is the analysis of a piece of music and knowledge of chord construction. In my opinion, these are vital elements because they will facilitate the exploration and understanding of all musical genres.

Analysis is the examination of a work’s  complete structure. This will include identifying the formal structure; the form used, whether that be sonata form or a contrapuntal style such as a fugue, it should also encompass the break down of each work. Your piece might employ Binary or Ternary form, for example,  and the thematic material, or how and where the melodies and themes occur. It’s akin to peering into the composer’s world and comprehending their handiwork. By observing compositional techniques, pupils can start to think for themselves. They will perceive how works are written and will have the perspicacity to compose themselves. This may be slightly more advanced than what’s required for the Grade 5 theory exam, but nevertheless analysis is such a vital tool in a pianists box of tricks and for this reason alone theory can prove enlightening.

The second important element in theoretical ‘know-how’ is chord construction and progressions also known as harmony. By understanding how chords are built and more crucially, how they relate to each other and the connecting principles that govern them, a pupil can learn to grasp them swiftly. If a pupil knows what to expect in a chordal progression, particularly with regard to cadences (or the ends of phrases), smooth playing usually follows.  Finding chord positions and their fingerings quickly will make sight-reading that much easier. Chord structures and progressions occur throughout all styles of music from classical to pop, so whether playing hymns for a church service or keyboard parts in a rock band, once the basics have been digested, everything falls into place.

Any student, young or more mature, will benefit enormously from studying the theory of music; it will quite simply open up a whole new world of musical possibilities.

Useful resources;

Music Theory in Practice: ABRSM ( from Grades 1-8)

First Steps in Music Theory Grades 1 -5

The AB Guide to Music Theory

Understand Music Theory


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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