In this week’s guest post, David Hall, discusses the benefits of understanding music theory and introduces his theory course There’s More to Playing the Piano, of which the first few chapters are now available on the Online Academy.

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I think we can all agree that there are benefits to music in every sense. Music stimulates the mind, the body and the soul. It garners social cohesion and it provides much-needed therapy to the individual. Music harbours strong memories and emotions of formative memories (who doesn’t think that the pop music from when they were 16 – 19 is the best ever!?).

Understanding music theory gives us a wonderful insight into how music has its effect. A knowledge of music theory goes hand in hand with “feeling” the music and in no way stifles our emotional connection with the performance. For us performers, there are several benefits to developing our knowledge and understanding of music theory:

We can understand our repertoire more fully

If we can identify chords and cadences – if we can pick out passages of intervallic counterpoint – if we can condense a whole passage of music into one concept – then we can learn repertoire more quickly and we can memorise it more quickly.

As an example, I’m sure that we have all encountered a chromatic scale in our music, read it carefully once, and then played it from memory ever since. On a larger scale, we can learn whole pieces in that way. Instead of saying “this is line 1” and “this is line 2”, start saying “this is the F major phrase” and “this is the D minor phrase”. You’ll soon find that the notes sink in a little more quickly.

We can interpret our music better and more authentically

If we understand the pushes and pulls of harmony, we can judge our rubato and our dynamics to convey the harmonic tension to the listener. If we understand which chords are prosaic and which are exciting or particularly calming, then we can pace our performance accordingly. My favourite piece for demonstrating this idea is the well-known Bach C major Prelude BWV 846 (Well-tempered Clavier, book 1) where the chromatic chords give a fantastic indication of how to shape the piece.

music theory example - Bach Prelude and fugue

Of course, music theory is not just about harmony; it is equally important to understand the rhythm of our music. Printed time signatures give us a fragment of a clue about the rhythm of a piece. Further study guides our accentuation and phrasing to convey the essence of the dance that informs so much of our music.

We can understand composers’ thought processes

Knowledge of music theory helps us to understand music in the same way that composers understand music. Baroque music is often based on simple intervallic patterns and motifs that pervade the piece. Classical music is inundated with question-and-answer phrases which can be identified by cadential formulae. Romantic repertoire has a wealth of chromatic chords that purposefully generate tension or excitement, bewilderment or drifting aimlessness. The twentieth century music of Stravinsky, Berg, Bartok and Messiaen is often inaccessible at first sight, but reveals its wonders when you discover its distinctive scales and rhythm divisions.

We can learn to improvise and compose our own music

Two hundred years ago, piano lessons were very different to today’s typical piano lessons; sheet music was hard to come by, live performances were few and far between and recordings were unknown. Back in the day, music teachers would have spent a lot of time teaching the skill of improvisation to their pupils. Music students (and I include the likes of Bach, Haydn and Mozart) were taught harmony, counterpoint, style and structure from an early age so that they could perform at the keyboard with or without a printed score.

There’s More to Playing the Piano

I’ve recently developed a theory course There’s More to Playing the Piano which provides an interactive guide to music theory for pianists, covering everything from the very basics through to a point just beyond Grade 5. The material is ideal for anyone who wants to pass a theory exam as a self-study or is looking for a refresher and to fill some gaps in their knowledge.

Screenshot of music theory course

Each chapter of the course has a practical keyboard activity that will develop your understanding through play and a summary video. In addition to developing your understanding of music theory, the course will help you develop their keyboard skills of improvisation, harmonisation and transposition.

The course is available in print book format and is being published on the Online Academy, starting with the first five chapters which look at the basics of music notation. Click here to view on the Online Academy or click here for the print version.

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