What is the best way to learn music theory systematically?
Remus Badea, Executive Director, American Music Institute
If you are looking forward to learning music theory or taking music classes, it is important to know that there are many ways to go. However, it is equally important to remember that not all methods will work for everyone. Every student has to find the best way for them.
Before I describe the different ways to systematically learn music theory, I will first define what I mean by the term: music theory. It is the study of practices and possibilities of music. It is derived from the observations of how musicians and composers make music and it also includes hypothetical speculation.
It describes the academic study and analysis of fundamental elements of music such as pitch, rhythm, harmony and form but also refers to the descriptions, concepts and beliefs related to music.
A course in music theory will introduce you to the theory of music, provide you with the skills needed to read and write musical notation, as well as to understand how to analyse, and listen from this critical perspective. It will provide the basis for the further study of music both from a theoretical and practical point of view: musicology, pastiche and free composition, analysis, performance, and aural skills.
The study of music has been made easier by the availability of apps, websites, blogs and social media. These media are helpful in the learning process.
Basic methods for learning music theory
There are different ways to learn music theory and it is essential to know them, particularly if you really have a passion for music. Let us discuss some of them below. It will certainly go a long way in helping you understand what music is all about.
Learning the basic elements that make up music theory:
- The musical alphabet – The musical alphabet goes to the letter G of the English alphabet. One has to learn all of the alphabets and where the half steps are and are not.
- Scales – Learning the scale is equivalent to having mastered the song. Every song is based off a scale. The scale helps in figuring out what notes belong where when playing a song. For a guitarist, for example, they are necessary when playing a solo performance.
- Intervals – The creation of moods and feelings in a song or with music is done by combining, isolating and switching combinations of notes. A change in intervals will most certainly alter the mood of the song drastically.
For example, a chord progression that goes from the 1 chord to the 2 chord sounds different when the 2 chord is played on its own.
This approach of learning the music theory should be used while the earner is focusing on his/her goals.
Learning for an individual who knows the notes, names and values involves the following:
- Learning the key signatures: this involves the major key, the minor key, and the scales.
- Basic triads – on this the learner should learn how to deal with the triads in the lead sheet.
- Functions of chords – the tonic, dominant, and predominant chords are the most common and useful. They help when one goes to the chord progressions.
- Common chord progressions – these are the commonly used chord progressions.
Another recommended skill to ensure that the above method is effective is getting the aural skills (ear training). These help in identifying the structural elements in the music you listen to.
The procedure involves:
- Interval identification – this is mostly up to the learner.
- Melodic dictation – this involves the learner listening to a simple piece of music and writing it down.
- Bass line dictation – this involves listening to any type of music and writing the bass line.
- Harmonic dictation – this involves listening to music with multiple voices. The learner can write down all of the voices or write the melody/bass and the chord progressions.
It is recommended that to learn well, the learner should focus on listening to a lot of music and studying different books and reading music theory blogs and websites to understand the various approaches to music theory.
To understand music theory, one should also study ear training. In this case, the learner chooses what procedure to use when doing music theory.
These are the topics a learner should consider in learning music theory. Please note the order in which they are written.
- Basics of musical notation: these are the symbols a student must learn to read music. They include the staff, clefs, and notes.
- Advanced notations include key signatures, time signatures, advanced clefs, dynamics, and combinations of notes to create chords and complex rhythms.
- Ear training and dictation: this involves jotting down written music as you listen.
- More advanced harmonic theory: these include non-harmonic tones, borrowed chords, and secondary dominants.
- Scales and their relationships to melody and key.
- Musical form (the overall structure of a piece of music) and its relationship to harmonic areas.
- Counterpoint – this is the relationship between voices that are interdependent harmonically yet independent in rhythm and contour.
Music theory is not a modular course when studying. Since it is speculative, it is recommended that an individual uses what works for them. The above-mentioned methods of study are just some of those that have worked for other people and they may or may not work for the student. However, if they don’t the learner should not give up. Continuous study and research from the internet and books can produce a way that would better coincide with their goals.
The student should utilise all avenues until the best, simplest and most effective way is found. Listening to music is a very appropriate way to practice.
Remus Badea is Concertmaster of Southwest Symphony Orchestra, adjunct professor at Elmhurst College, and Executive Director of American Music Institute. He teaches violin, viola, cello, and piano.