This Summer, Breathe Some Life Into Your Music Theory

Although I am often hired to teach music theory, I am never quite comfortable with that term. Of course, there are many interesting theoretical questions we could ask about music: How does music convey emotional meaning? What are the origins of music? Why is music so important for so many of us? Like all theoretical questions, there will never be definitive answers to these. And while they may inspire wonder in us, and perhaps point the way to discoveries about human nature, and maybe even lead to new directions in music itself, the curriculum for music theory courses is most often unrelated to this type of exploration.

I think it’s more useful to think of the work of a typical music theory class as being closer to the study of language arts. A thorough understanding of grammar, syntax and form are essential to understand what another has written. The way something is said can have a profound effect on the way an idea is received in the listener. Real communication with another requires a very specific set of listening skills. We rightly do not call work to develop these types of skills ‘Language Theory’. It is simply the study of reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Translated into musical behavior, this is the act of sight reading, composing, improvising and listening.. Some children learn to read without any explicit instruction. Others need a slow and steady approach. The same is true for music. Some hear and play far more than they can write and read. Some can write and read far more than they can hear and play. This is true for both adults and children. Music we all know and love deeply has been – and will continue to be – made by people from both camps. Most of us are a mix of the two, but I sometimes wonder whether those with a special musical aptitude start out strongly in one or the other.

In my teaching, I simply want to give opportunity – and sometimes create the necessity – for as many modes of musical communication as possible. Key signatures move from theoretical to practical knowledge when my improvising partner is using a different scale from the one I am using. If the rhythms that I have written – which feel so right to me – cannot be played by my friend, I am finally forced to do the math: too many beats in this bar… not enough in that one… There: just right!

Summer ‘music theory’ projects can put this theory of music learning to the test. Choose a foggy area and create a path towards the light. Can’t remember a key signature rule (e.g. 2nd to last flat names the key)? Write a short melody in a major key every day, and you won’t need the rule. Don’t know the difference between a binary and ternary beat (i.e. quarter vs. dotted quarter)? Make a list of the rhythms for both, and improvise phrases using a rhythmic language in every possible meter. Take a simple song in either binary (e.g. Frere Jaques) or ternary (e.g. Row Row Row Your Boat) and translate it to the other mode. Sight read for one week only in 6/8, the next week in 2/4.

It is tempting to think that once students can reproduce a fact about music on paper (e.g, ‘there are three beats in a measure and the quarter note gets the beat in a bar of three four.’) that they ‘have it’. Most of us, however, need to encounter a musical subject from many different angles before we understand the fact thoroughly enough to do anything with it. This is the joy of music, though. Where would we be without the obsessive exploration of one or two basic ideas in Beethoven and Bach, not to mention Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk? This is also the central idea (this, and not simply moving to music) of the Dalcroze approach to music education which continues to be so inspirational for me as a musician and teacher.

For my Special Music students this year, I will be sending home completed work. Look through their folders, manuscript books, and workbooks to see where they’ve come from and where they are going.

Happy exploring and happy summer to all!

Michael Joviala

June, 2015