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Benefits of Music Theory

When I first started teaching piano infinite moons ago, I taught music theory, specifically the ABRSM graded music of theory curriculum, to my students. I distinctly remembered a teenager who “negotiated” with his mum to stop piano lessons and take on guitar lessons when he passed his grade 5 music theory exams.

Later on I went through one of my teaching transformations and decided that the benefits of music theory are limited from a practical perspective (although if theory is taught from a practical basis, it can be useful). What I found was that students complete the music theory workbooks like worksheets without really understanding them. Of course I could spend precious lesson time to make those theory exercises practical (unless each lesson is an hour each and maybe then it’s doable).

And recently I went through another one of my teaching transformations and decided that music theory shall be reinstated in my 30 minutes shared lessons (2 students occupy a time slot and I will have one-to-one lessons with them during that slot. There are times where I will also teach them together e.g. musicianship skills). I had the vision that students will complete music theory exercises while waiting for their turn. That didn’t pan out the way I intended as I got the students to practise what I taught them during their mini time slots. On reflection, the music theory idea during shared lessons should “work” if each shared lesson is an hour each.

The question is, even if each shared lesson is an hour or 45 minutes each, do I want the students to be completing music theory exercises?

I was reflecting on my GCSE O and A levels days. The knowledge from physics, economics, mathematics, chemistry, etc – how much of that do I use now (other than Pythagoras theorem where I will decide to take a diagonal path instead of walking along the sides of a rectangular path)? I fear that music theory, even though it’s part of the traditional music curriculum, falls into the same fate as my students’ studies of subjects that they may not utilise later on in life.

You may argue that some of them may do music as a college subject or as a subject in the Irish junior cert or senior cert. Yes, music theory may be essential for them then. But surely they are taught that in schools anyway?

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