Is music theory really an unnecessary evil?
Everybody that begins to learn to play an instrument will usually start because they have a vision of how they are going to be really good at trumpet or tuba and that they will be able to play loads of amazing stuff. When someone starts to play an instrument there is a lot of focus on creating a sound and it is generally quite an exciting time.
It is of course necessary for some new instrumentalists to learn the basic rudiments of theory, such as how long a particular note lasts for, and how to read the pitches of certain notes. However this can be easily bypassed by having a good ear and some fortunate guesswork. In the first months of learning an instrument, or even first year, it is very often not absolutely necessary to put pencil to paper and begin work on some theoretical understanding.
This is generally a good thing – sometimes theory can come across as being a little dull and uninspiring as it seems like all you have to do is repeat exercises over and over again. This can of course be quite off-putting and a number of new starters may well feel that music is not for them with this kind of approach.
I guess this poses a couple of important questions:
- When is it good (necessary) to start music theory?
- How is it best to approach music theory?
When is it good (necessary) to start working on music theory?
I believe the correct answer to this should really be straight away.
Most teachers will cover this immediately in lessons through teaching their students how to read rhythm values, pitch and other musical markings. It is easy for some things to be missed out and there will often be fairly significant things that may well (and with good intention) be completely over looked or missed out.
It is very easy to miss out, or forget about, additional markings in the score that show dynamics, articulations or other signs or symbols. It may be that these have been covered within a previous piece and the student may completely have forgotten about them entirely. There is always the possibility that a student may not have applied the previous learning to a new piece. The majority of teachers will usually spot this and will provide immediate help as and when required. But when a student is learning independently this may well be something that is entirely missed out.
Studying theory on its own can be fairly unproductive and although there are numerous resources available, it is always useful to have someone that can just explain what something means and demonstrate what they are saying.
How is it best to approach music theory?
To quote the words of George Odam it is always important to approach any music through the mindset of:
sound before symbol
Music theory should always have a practical purpose and the real point of learning theory is to provide a better foundation for practical music making. I feel that this should always be at the heart of developing any musical skill. The main aim is to make sure that the actual act of music making will benefit from any of the work that is undertaken.
So the question is really how does music theory become received in a practical and musically relevant way?. This will often depend on the individual and their current musical awareness and ability. It is often seen that the practical ability of a musician is far advanced than their theoretical understanding. Quite often this can make it seem that the learning of the theoretical music is fairly unimportant and that as it is more fun to just get on and play some stuff, forgetting about the theory that goes with it will simply be fine.
Learning music theory simply from copying out or completing exercises in books is not really the way forward. People that are learning, or have learned to play an instrument are very often put off by the idea that when you reach a certain stage, you need to refocus on writing out copious numbers of exercises that feel entirely divorced from anything that you have done, or are about to do, practically. This is where the real problem is.
For any real learning to take place that has significance, it is important for the activity to have a practical and musical focus. Everything that you do should ideally be related to real examples of music, and have the opportunity to be understood practically. Any written work should be based on the understanding of sound, and how the learning has developed the practical music making that will be undertaken.
It is of course very tempting to think of music theory as a means to an end and the only point of developing an awareness of theory is so that you can pass the Grade 5 theory exam with the ABRSM before you can move on to taking your grade 6, 7 or 8. But the understanding of music theory is an intrinsic part of musical awareness and is so important to developing musical interpretations with a real understanding that it seems a little backward looking to think of it as simply a box to tick to get to the higher grades.
Starting with music theory is always something that is possible to do on your own. There are a number of course books available written by the ABRSM and a number of music teachers. It is also possible to get lessons privately or via Skype to help develop your understanding more fully.
Always try to keep the learning as practical as possible and you will find that the study of music theory is no longer that boring activity with little point to what you are playing. You never know, it might start to become something you begin to really enjoy…