Learning Music Theory in Lessons

Question: I am 67 years old and returned to piano less than a year ago. My teacher is a world class pianist who doesn’t have much time for me. But then too I don’t feel I need lessons every week as I practice 2–4 hours every day on the Bach invention and Beethoven sonata she gave me. I have terrible performance anxiety and can’t play for her as I can at home. On the few times I’ve been with her she pretty much focuses on how I’m playing one of these two pieces she gave me six months ago and it’s taken me all that time to learn them reasonably well. The lessons have not included any music theory at all with the exception of giving me a book to learn on my own. What I’m wondering is whether I should have more frequent lessons with a less daunting teacher and to what degree should I expect music theory to be included in lessons? Do you think a teacher would approach lessons with someone my age any differently than he/she would with a beginning child? Would a teacher just assume I already know music theory? I can read notes and note values but have no idea of keys or intervals, chord inversions, etc. I hear it makes a big difference in knowing how music is constructed and I am left wanting in this regard. Any advice in what kind of teacher I should have and what kind of lessons I should be having?

Your website is amazing and I’m so grateful for it.

– Loni Ellis (Silver Spring, Maryland, USA)

Albert’s reply: I believe music theory needs to be integrated into music lessons from the very beginning. After all, what we call music “theory” isn’t (in most cases) a theory at all, but simply the music itself. How can we expect to interpret something if we don’t understand it?

What’s more, if theory were integrated into a learning methodology from the beginning of studies, students wouldn’t find it so daunting, as most music students do. Instead, it would just be a natural part of their musical reality. Not only that, but they would also almost automatically be better players because they would understand the music they play. This analogy is a bit stretched, but it would be possible to be trained to pronounce, say, French without understanding a word of it. The diction might be perfectly clear and the pronunciation good, but how much better your performance would immediately be if you understood the words!

If your current teacher is unavailable for regular lessons, you might consider getting a music theory tutor. These are almost always pianists, since the piano is a polyphonic instrument, meaning that it can play many voices at once, and a large part of music theory consists of the study of harmony in the form of chords.

One of the main reasons it has taken you so long to learn your pieces is because you currently don’t know music theory, either abstractly (purely intellectually) or concretely (chords and scales at the piano). All of the most common chords and scales, in all keys, should be so familiar to you that you no longer need to think about them. If your teacher says, “D-flat major-minor (dominant) seventh, first inversion,” you should immediately be able to play it with either hand, without having to stop and think about the notes. You can gain this familiarity simply by studying all arpeggios.

Trying to learn a piece of music without understanding it would be like trying to learn to speak a language one letter at a time. Language is so much easier when you know the syllables, the words the syllables form and the phrases the words form. Music is no different!

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