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 facet 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 (we all know the benefits of music lessons), 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 (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 (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


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Why is Grade 5 Theory so important?

 

Image courtesy of www.semiahmooacademyofmusic.ca

In the last few weeks I have repeatedly been asked about the Grade 5 theory exam, so much so that it has inspired me to write this post. I am talking about the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) theory exam. To those who haven’t yet taken any piano or instrumental tests,  this exam board is the most popular in the UK and the world (according to the ABRSM).

The Grade 5 theory exam is significant to pupils because according to the ABRSM’s rules once a grade 5 practical (i.e. piano exam) has been achieved it’s not possible to take a further exam (grades, 6,7 or 8) until you have passed the theory test. Many view this as a major drawback to taking ABRSM exams and I know plenty of teachers and students who have purposely switched boards to avoid this. Other boards don’t have a grade 5 theory requirement to take higher exams. Some pupils go to TrinityGuildhall, The London College of Music or Victoria College of Music exam boards instead.

Whilst I can understand the logic here, I can’t help but think this to be a major mistake. Yes, Grade 5 theory is tricky for many, but it has so many benefits for those wanting to go beyond Grade 5 level that it really shouldn’t be ignored. Music theory is bascially learning how to write music down or the ‘study of how music works’. It distils and analyzes the fundamental parameters or elements of music—rhythm, harmony (harmonic function), melody, structure, form, texture, etc.

The exam contains some valuable exercises and for those considering skipping this test here are a few reasons to make you think again:

1. In Grade 5 theory you will need to recognise all 24 keys and learn how to write them down. This will prove extremely valuable when taking higher exams (scales are based on these keys!) and for those going on to study A level music.

2. You will need to recognise intervals (a very important part of the exam) which will prove useful in sight reading development (especially sight singing) and will improve note reading in general. It will also help you grasp melodic movement quickly too.

3. Transposition is another beneficial exercise. That is, transposing music from one key to another. Woodwind and Brass instruments sometimes play in a different key to the rest of the orchestra and it’s useful to be able to ‘move’ or change their parts. Learning Alto and Tenor clefs are important as well.

4. Chord recognition. I think this is possibly the most crucial Grade 5 test. Understanding basic chord structure or harmony and cadential points (musical endings) is vital in writing or analyzing music. Assimilation of this exercise will prepare pupils for higher exams like music A level or practical music exams (piano, violin etc).

5. Writing or composing short melodies is great practice for the would-be singer songwriter or those merely wanting to express themselves musically. It also makes students adhere to writing logically in musical patterns.

6. Grade 5 theory also demands analysis of a short piece. This is an excellent exercise. Analyzing music will help you to grasp many musical elements swiftly. You need to know time signatures, rhythmic patterns, ornaments, as well as  dynamic and articulation markings.

There are so many advantageous exercises in this important exam and it really isn’t too difficult when you apply yourself. Do get a good teacher – one who is able to patiently explain everything and do make sure you complete all available past papers – this is the key to passing in my opinion. Don’t skip it – what you learn whilst studying for Grade 5 theory is far more important than passing. Good luck!


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.