Theory Matters

Sometimes a colleague of mine comes into the music office at our school to spend a bit of time learning music theory. I don’t teach him, he just wants a bit of time to do the theory book and will ask me some questions if he gets stuck. He’s quickly working through the theory series by Ying Ying Ng, which we use with our students from Year 3 onwards. I thought he might find it a bit too child-like for an adult but he likes it because it is clear, concise and easy to understand. A couple of things you need to know about him; he is a good musician, plays guitar, bass, piano and drums and has a degree in sound engineering. So why is he doing this?

There is a sub-section of the music education community who seem to be quite anti-theory. It’s a spectrum but I think it is fair to say that there are teachers who think we did too much theory in the past, some who think it gets in the way of music education and some who think any talk about theory is plain wrong. There are those who are really uncomfortable with the term and wish it would go away – they seem to be the same people who dislike the word “drill” and want that to be eradicated from the music education lexicon as well. So I don’t want to suggest that there is some sort of conspiracy against the humble theory book but there is certainly opposition. What I think most people are suspicious of is any attempt to make Music a subject where you sit at a desk and go through theory grades without hearing or playing any music. That certainly was not my own experience but it does seem to have happened many years ago. I hope it doesn’t happen today.

Does theory matter? It’s an interesting question because there are a whole host of musicians who do not have formal music training who have been incredibly successful. However, talking to them often results in understanding that they do take theory to be important but possibly in a different, more informal manner. One classic example is Paul McCartney and the “Jimi Hendrix chord”

I’ll tell you exactly where I learned that chord: from Jim Gretty, a salesman at Hessy’s music shop in Liverpool … I remember George and I were in the guitar shop when Gretty played it, and we said, Wow, what was that, man? And he answered, It’s just basically an F, but you barre the top two strings at the fourth fret with your little finger. We immediately learned that, and for a while it was the only jazz chord we knew.

2004 interview with Guitar World Acoustic

People will say – “but this isn’t music theory, it was practical and nothing is written down”. However, if Paul McCartney could have found the chord without going to the shop he probably would have. He says in the same interview he was always excited to learn new chords and even crossed Liverpool in a bus because he knew a friend knew one he wanted to learn. He was certainly very interested in music theory because of its practical applications.

I have also been to workshops with the London Community Gospel Choir and watched how Rev. Basil Meade used spoken theory to teach both choirs and the band. Most things are in his head but he does have a notebook where he writes down lyrics, structures, keys and anything else he might forget. He often talks using standard terminology about chords, intervals, key signatures, scales, flats and sharps, doubling and musical structures. The only main difference is that the music is not written down on paper using standard notation, which other people then read.

So what I think people are against is not music theory but written out music theory in a book, or with worksheets which you complete with a pencil that has no relation to any sound. Is there a role for this? Well, in a word the answer is yes and this is to do with the practical constraints of teaching large numbers of children in a big group which is the reality for most music teachers. I am sure Jim Gretty at Hessy’s music shop in Liverpool would have been overwhelmed if thirty children turned up at his shop and demanded to learn how to play the Jimi Hendrix chord. He would have probably chucked them out to be honest but if he was a kindly fellow interested in music education he might have sat them down and instructed them how it works. Then, as the kids couldn’t see his hand position or perhaps not have enough instruments to go round, he might have written down a diagram on a piece of paper for the children to copy. You have to change your delivery according to the quantity of people in the group and of course their musical experience. I think many music academics seem to forget this crucial aspect when there is criticism of music teachers teaching music theory – they forget the quantity of musical amateurs in the room and their motivations.

Basil Meade has a similar problem with a large group of people but his advantage with the choir is that he has them already seated in three parts and the choir is used to the melody being with the altos, with the harmony in the sopranos a third higher and the tenors a sixth lower. Of course it is more complicated than this but this is the default for much of their repertoire. There is also a huge amount of repetition with Gospel Music so Basil can teach almost everything by rote. If there are lots of words to learn he will often give that to a soloist. He would have to completely change his approach if he was going to teach any choral music by John Rutter and if he had to teach Mozart’s Requiem I think he would have to use the dots.

Learning music theory is really useful when you are teaching lots of people together. North American band teachers would find it incredibly difficult to teach their band programs if students do not know music theory including standard written notation. There are too many children to teach all individually, the common language of music theory means that all children can participate together. If we are teaching keyboards to whole classes, again without basic music theory it is going to be hard to get all children to participate. I find the best place to start is with recorders in Year 2 – the basics of treble clef notation are best learned with recorder as the first note you learn “B” is smack bang in the middle of the treble clef. With good, regular instruction many children can learn music theory and not remember how they learned it, especially if you learn it at an early age. Theory is also a good settling activity – I have made workbooks for students from Year 3 upwards and there are some basic theory activities that are related to things we will learn in the lesson or lessons to come. It means that the children can get on with some work while you take the register or sort out why Johnny punched Harry in the playground without the children going wild whilst you are trying to work out what happened. I think all children should be able to read and write treble clef notes, rhythms and learn about melody and harmony, chords, intervals and scales in primary school. I would even go as far as giving children the option of taking Grade 1 Theory at the end of Year 6 if they wanted to. Teaching theory through instruments and singing is the ideal of course but if they want to get a certificate for their efforts in a written exam I am fine with that. I wouldn’t make it compulsory.

Joni Mitchell in an interview said that she was told you should always resolve a sus chord but she said that she liked to go from a sus chord to a sus to a sus chord as it mirrored the unresolved dilemmas in her own life. For many people, Joni is talking a foreign language and I want students to be able to fully understand what she is talking about. My colleague is learning the basics because he wasn’t taught it at school and he wants to understand what the circle of fifths is and why Rick Beato thinks it is important. It really shouldn’t be Rick’s job or Jim Gretty’s – it’s ours. If we don’t teach it then we subject students to ignorance or having to work it out for themselves. It may no longer take a bus journey of discovery with the invention of the internet but the fact remains that it is our role as music teachers to teach theory and it really does matter.