Music Theory – Why Bother?

Introduction to Music Theory

Music has always been around, long before music theory. So why bother learning it?

music theoryMusic theory is the rules and conventions of musical language, much like those of any spoken language, like Spanish or German. Just as many people in the world are able to communicate without reading or writing, numerous self-taught musicians learn to play instruments without knowing music theory. However, becoming fluent in language and comprehension improves your ability to communicate thoughts and feelings.

Knowing music theory is similar. It will help you develop and master your musical skills, try new styles and instruments, and become confident in your abilities. As you work through this course, you might find that you actually know more music theory than you realised; you just didn’t have the words to describe what you know and feel.

It would be lovely to be able to pick up any instrument and just play without any prior learning, but most people can’t do that. We need some basic information first about how to understand the language of music (plus how to translate this knowledge to playing our chosen instrument). When we put these elements together, we accumulate a wide range of knowledge enabling us to become better players, readers, and singers.

Analysing music and its forms enabled composers to transcribe what they created long before we had the facilities to record audio. By writing notes on sheets, with additional directions, they knew musicians could reproduce the compositions as they were meant to be played.

If we want to play Classical music it is essential we can read notated music. While not essential for studio session musicians, the ability to sightread sheet music gives us a huge advantage in certain genres over musicians who play by ear. The musically fluent player is able to quickly scan a piece of sheet music and hear it in his head. The best session musicians who play by ear still understand key centres and how to move between tonalities, which is especially important when improvising over a chord sequence, e.g. playing a metal guitar solo or blues saxophone interlude.

Songwriters and composers need to know music theory. Music producers, too, can greatly benefit a fundamental understanding of musical language when working with artists in the studio. Knowing how music is put together will enable you to become a better producer.

All popular music follows certain patterns and forms, and the songwriter who understands how to analyse what makes a song a hit can emulate and develop his own strong material. Catchy vocal melodies are based on scales and arpeggios, and other repetitive riffs that belong in the key of the song. If a songwriter understands how chords are built and which chords work with one another, it makes the job of creating a new song much easier and more enjoyable, especially when writing to a brief and to a deadline.

Becoming a great musician takes discipline and hard work, but it is worth it and it is also a lot of fun. As with all pursuits, our results as musicians are rooted in our efforts. When we understand the basic elements of music theory, such as counting beats, rhythm and a steady pace, harmony, key signatures, time signatures, time values of written note and rest types, we become better musicians.

In this course, we will start with the basics and build upon this foundation to take your understanding of music to a higher level. Even if you have some musical experience but never learned to read music, developing this additional knowledge will add extra skills to your toolbox.

So, let’s begin! If you would like to join my music theory course, please send me a message on the Contact page for more information.

Emma L.M. Sweeney

Effective Practice

(Some of the points I raise here may be more applicable to playing an instrument, some targeted at singers, so use your judgement when reading and apply what you find helpful to your own musical journey.)

A topic that frequently arises when tutoring students is the importance of sticking to a regular practice schedule. Perhaps because it is a reminder of schooldays homework, or because is in addition to younger students’ workload who are still at school or college, but some players who enjoy playing during class and melodic repertoire are loath to practice regularly (and effectively) at home.

Students who shirk practicing think tutors don’t know. We know! Trust me. I’ve used all the excuses in the book to get out of practicing. Tutors who have taught for years are also able to gage the rate at which you should be progressing with a good teacher and regular time set aside for practicing.

If you don’t commit, you are only cheating yourself.

This next sentence is the most important part of this blog entry, so please read and re-read it until it sinks in.

Regular practice is the most important thing you can do to improve as a player.

Let’s read it again.

Regular practice is the most important thing you can do to improve as a player.

Did you get that? Are you making best use of your practice sessions? If not, why not? Think about what changes you need to make in order to better the outcome of your rehearsal sessions.

Everyone who plays should practice and practice can often be fun. For me, as a perfectionist, my fun is in seeing the progress I make, regardless of study content, but students who need a little more motivation (particularly younger learners) may need to find fun material to work with (catchy melodies etc).

Rudimentary mechanics is the basis for all great performance, so take your medicine in the knowledge it will make you a better player. Most importantly, structuring your practice will help you maintain regular sessions.

Below are some ideas I have for you.

 

FOCUS ON THE FINISH LINE

What do you want to achieve from playing your instrument? Close your eyes and visualise it; see yourself doing whatever it is that you want to do, be it performing onstage at the BBC Proms or Carnegie Hall, touring with a live rock band, or teaching others. See yourself already doing it.

Inhale slowly through the nose and then exhale slowly through the mouth, all the while seeing your future self in your mind. Visualisation is half the journey and helps you accomplish your goals more quickly. It is done!

 

SET TIMES

Decide when you can best practice and stick to that slot daily. Maybe you prefer to play as soon as you get home from school or work, or maybe you’d rather have a rest first and then get to it. Whichever works best for you is fine.

Make sure to rehearse for at least half an hour every day. Longer is preferabl for intermediate and advanced students as the first portion of practice sessions merely warms up the fingers/larynx/lips etc and wakes up the mind; I find with busy students, this in itself can take up to an hour to accomplish – especially if practicing at the end of a stressful/busy day – so if time permits, spend another half hour or more actually playing the study pieces. Younger students and beginners can start with twenty minute sessions.

If you have been playing for longer but can only find twenty minutes in your day to practice, do it and do it daily! Don’t beat yourself up about having small amounts of time free to dedicate to your musicianship, just knuckle down and do it. Quieter times will come when you will be able to extend your sessions, but for now, it is better to be consistent and have daily practice than play for an hour or two one day and then do nothing for two or three days.

The mind and body needs repetition in order to make playing your instrument a habit. Think about when you learned to walk or tie your shoes. These activities are second nature now and need little to no thought, but initially, you would have had to concentrate in order to accomplish them. We want wonderful playing and singing to come as naturally to us.

One thing to note:

If you are overly tired, not concentrating, or unable to play/sing (cracked lips, sore throat, sore joints, stop. There’s no point in worsening your state or wasting time. If it is a matter or tiredness or concentration, go and do something that fires up your brain or relaxes you – whichever you need – and then come back to play.

 

FIND YOUR SPACE

There is no perfect space in which to practice. Some people prefer to work in noisy environments, others in quiet solitude.

Find the best place for you.

Set up your music stand, ensure your books are at hand, and try to leave your instrument there so it becomes a dedicated practice space. When not touring, I have one of my violins on a stand in plain view from anywhere in the room; seeing it reminds me to play and I practice more often than I would if it were locked away in a case.

 

MAKE NOTES

I’m not just talking about the audible ones; write down what you do during your sessions. At the end of the week/month/year, you can see visually how much you have accomplished. If you do not have a teacher who provides goal sheets or keeps regular notes in your homework diary – perhaps you are teaching yourself or working with a friend – find your own way of metering your progress. Set goals for the next day and then mark off each goal as you achieve it. This could be a list of scales, a difficult passage in a piece, anything you decide.

 

ACTUALLY DOING IT

Don’t just idly play through your material, give each note or syllable full attention. Practice standing u, if you are able, and breathe regularly and in a relaxed fashion.

 

SWITCH IT UP

If you are practicing alone, play with a friend and vice versa. If you usually start with technical studies, begin with a piece from your repertoire and then play through your studies. Change when you play your scales, or if you start with major scales and arpeggios, start with the minor ones. Whilst the repetition of practice is essential for growth, making changes in how you practice help keep you on your toes. Join an ensemble and better your sight-reading and awareness.

 

START AT THE MIDDLE (OR END)

When playing longer pieces, especially if they are dificult, starting at the beginning can be a waste of time. You may find there is a point at which your mind switches off and you keep making the same mistakes, or there’s a tricky passage that always gets the better of you and so you play something else instead. Sometimes, simple boredom can throw you off.

Attack it.

Start with that section, regardless of page number. If it is tricky, slow down and play it at a pace you can manage. Maybe the bowing trips you up, or position changes. Focus on what makes the passage hard to play and go over it again and again. Repetition is key to muscle/mental memory.

 

HIGHLIGHT MISTAKES

It is tempting to skip past difficult passages that you consistently play in a sloppy manner. DON’T. Go back and try again, taking it SLOOOOOOOOOWLY. Take those few bars and play them until you’ve mastered them.

I will touch upon these points in more depth in a future article. For now, happy practicing!

 

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