The phrase “Better Music Through Theory” is an adaptation of the old DuPont advertising slogan from 1935 – “Better Living Through Chemistry”. In my experience, studying music theory can transform your musical life. I entered my undergraduate studies completely focussed on studying the piano, but I quickly found that studying music theory improved my skills as a pianist and teacher, and it eventually led me to composing music.
But it didn’t start that way for me. I started formal piano lessons at 11 and added guitar at 14. By that time, I was, of course, familiar with the basic structure of chords and scales, and I remember my guitar teacher tried to take things a step further by introducing me to the idea of “tonic” and “dominant”. I got so hung up on the words “tonic” and “dominant”. I wondered, shouldn’t the dominant be the home note, because it’s DOMINANT?
Thus ended my first lesson in music theory.
Fast forward five years later, and I was studying music at West Chester University. Specifically, I enrolled to study piano performance with a pedagogy emphasis, but all music students had to take four semesters (two years) of music theory and ear training. Those studies, along with two semesters of music history, were in support of my main goal at the time, which was to learn to perform classical music and learn to teach it.
But a bit like a Trojan horse, music theory advanced my goals at the piano, most notably my ability to sight read and to learn and memorise music quickly. Because when you understand how music is put together, your musicianship improves quickly. Specifically:
• You become a better listener. I was always an avid listener of music, but that was on an abstract, emotional and intuitive level. That in itself can be fulfilling, but when you understand what you’re listening to and can engage with it on a deeper level, things change. I found myself becoming curious to listen to more and different types of music.
• You can discuss music in specific and tangible terms. This leads to an intellectual engagement with music that has its own dividends to pay – discoveries about new and familiar music; an evolution and expansion of your own musical practices;
• You become a confident teacher. When I very first started teaching piano, I was scared that someone would come to me with a piece that I had never seen, and I wouldn't know how to teach it. This fear disappeared completely after I went through my music theory studies, and in my teaching career, I have confidently and successfully taught piano to undergraduate students interested in studying and performing contemporary music, some of which I was unfamiliar with prior to the lesson. But music really is a language, and when you grasp it fully, you can literally go
anywhere with it.
• You can learn music more quickly and memorise it more reliably. Studying music theory can transform the way you read a score - reading musical architecture and structures, rather than reading just notes strung along a page. I was a terrible sight reader as a young piano student, and my way through that was to memorise my pieces as quickly as possible. Only I memorised them in a purely tactile way, which meant if I played these pieces in a recital and felt nervous, my jittery hands interfered with my muscle memory! It was a very insecure feeling. But this went away when I learned to pair harmonic understanding with muscle memory, and while I still suffer from performance nerves, my performances are now much more secure and memory much more reliable.
• Your sight reading and quick study skills greatly improve. The first clue that my music theory studies were working for me in ways previously unimagined happened one day in a practice room at university. I was learning a Beethoven sonata, and all the harmony I’d been learning in music theory classes suddenly clicked into place. I could sight read the score, because I could see harmonic structures where previously there would have just been a thick texture and many notes to learn. I recognised motif, I recognised phrase structure, I recognised cadential structures underpinned by a strong bass line. I learned the first movement of that sonata in a week and could play it at my very next piano lesson. A massive light bulb had gone off in my head. This was not the Lona who had entered music school a year previous. I was sight reading – I was learning my music quickly. This was nothing short of a personal revolution, and the floodgates opened. I took every music theory seminar on offer, and I started composing. I became a music theory major along with piano performance studies, and I eventually studied composition in graduate school.
This month, I will be spotlighting other specific moments in my journey from sight reading failure to professional accompanist! But the main point I want to make here is when you understand music theory, you can fully command the language of music. My music theory studies were a key component in my own musical transformation from an avid teenage piano student and keen listener of music to a professional player, teacher and composer. And I love to witness the same transformation in others.