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piano music theory

Music Theory is essential to becoming a better piano player. Knowledge of music theory helps the most beginner to advanced pupils. We will survey the necessity of learning music theory starting from the beginning to advanced pupils. For piano lessons across the country, Lessons in Your Home has wonderful in-person and virtual instructors.

What is music theory? Music theory is the study of understanding musical language and practices. This goes into the rudiments of recognizing musical terminology, such as the duration of note values and key signatures.

Music theory is, as the name implies, a “theory.” The ideas and techniques composers use to express themselves change over time. Johann Sebastian Bach used a system of counterpoint, whereas 20th-century composers such as Arnold Schoenberg used a non-traditional technique. Schoenberg developed a tonal “Matrix,” sans Neo, but that’s a deeper discussion for another day. Let’s first start with the basics and why the starting player needs to know music theory.

From the Beginning

The piano is a great instrument for players to start on. Its mechanism is simple. Twelve keys (five black, seven white) repeat over different octaves or pitch registrations. It doesn’t take much strength to strike a key that creates sound, even tiny fingers can do this remarkably! I start students with playing books, where they learn songs, and theory books to understand the musical terminology. This is important because students should understand what they are playing. Imagine being able to pick up any music book and read it on your own!

Is Learning Music Theory Actually Necessary?

You can play a piece of music without understanding theory or how to read music. The term for this is learning by “rote.” Learning by rote is studying a piece of music, and memorizing the muscle patterns. Now, there’s nothing wrong with muscle memory or repetition. Of course, it is commendable to do such practice. In fact, rote learning can be quite gratifying for the student. They can learn songs they love that may have complex theoretical patterns they haven’t learned yet.

However, this comes with limitations if one learns exclusively by rote. Eventually, the missing gaps in “understanding” will lead to some frustration. For one, the student won’t be able to start anywhere on the score. Exclusive rote learners may only be able to start at the beginning of the piece. Every single time.

Limitations of Exclusive “Rote Learning”

The beginning pianist who’s exclusively reliant on their muscle memory can develop tense habits. It’s easy to become accustomed to solely learning this way. This deadens the desire to seek knowledge to learn pieces by reading, listening, and understanding, not just muscle memory. Learning how the system of musical notation works gives the student the most important thing they can have as a musician, and that’s independence. Every bird needs to fly on its own. Music Theory gives the pianist wings.

Intermediate through Advanced Applications

First, learn the rudiments of music theory. You will enjoy the fruits of your labor as you apply this to deeper artistic musical understanding. This can be knowing the form of the piece and the harmonic language. Is the composer using key changes to signify a change in mood, or to progress to a different section? Does this section of the piece feel unstable, or is it peaceful, moody, or resolute? Which theoretical techniques does the composer use to express the musical story?

Music theory is the vehicle that the composer uses to drive the composition to our hearts. It is the language that they use to speak to us. Understanding music theory is a way to delve into the mind of the composer. As an artist, it helps me connect to the composer as I try to get into their thought process. One critic wrote Beethoven saying that he liked a particular work except for one note. Beethoven wrote back a several-page response as to why that note was “theoretically” correct!

There are many wonderful theory books, games, and apps that make learning music theory easy and fun! It is best to go through these materials with a qualified instructor. For more information on virtual or in-person musical lessons, contact Lessons in Your Home to start or continue your musical journey today!