In this first of two articles about Music Theory, I will be considering the important issue of whether music theory should be a compulsory element of a well-rounded music education. A second article follows, examining in more detail how we might re-imagine a Music Theory curriculum and syllabus for the 21st century.
The Context of the Debate
One of the topics most regularly discussed on music teacher forums relates to the value of providing separate music theory teaching and assessment alongside practical tuition. Two questions are often asked about this:
- Firstly, is learning music theory really an essential element of becoming a well-rounded musician?
- Secondly, should all instrumentalists be required to pass a Grade 5 Theory examination before being allowed to progress to Grade 6 on their instrument?
This second and more particular question arises from a traditional requirement of ABRSM, the world’s leading examination board. Because of their market prominence, and because my own students regularly take ABRSM examinations, my thoughts in this blog article will give particular consideration to that board’s requirements, but readers can easily apply the principles I discuss to other exam boards, and indeed to music education in general.
Before we proceed it is also worth noting that ABRSM have for some time no longer insisted on a Grade 5 Theory pass, but offer a “Practical Musicianship” alternative, and in recent years have also started to accept a pass in Grade 5 Jazz Piano instead of music theory. ABRSM have thus modified their position, simply insisting on players having a wider experience and deeper knowledge of music than can be assessed solely in a short practical grade exam. While this flexibility is highly commendable, I think it is fair to point out that ABRSM have been rather lackadaisical in promoting these alternatives.
Of course the question of formal assessment will largely depend on how we answer the first and more fundamental question: So, is learning music theory really an essential element of becoming a well-rounded musician or not?
Remembering my own journey
As a child I had a privileged music education that included scholarships to a top private school, a Junior Exhibition to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, followed by three years studying for my B.Mus at the University of Birmingham, and finally a year of postgraduate study at the Royal College of Music. During that time I was fortunate to learn a lot of music theory.
But also there were some serious gaps in my knowledge that some might consider inexcusable. Since being a teenager I had enjoyed casually listening to jazz, but never studied it in any detail. The music education path I was on never brought me in contact with the jazz world, and it remained a “foreign language”. While I loved composing and improvising at the piano, I had no idea how to make my playing sound even slightly “jazzy”.
When I was 26 I was playing in a band with a brilliant saxophonist friend. As we worked on a song one day he showed me, with a little exasperation, the formation of a basic blues scale. I had never come across this esoteric knowledge throughout all my training.
Almost from the moment I had grasped the scale formation, I was set free to “play the blues”. For the next several weeks 12-bar blues became my main preoccupation. That which had hitherto been a foreign language had now, finally, been unlocked.
You might imagine that I felt some resentment towards the system that had failed to teach me this very basic music theory knowledge. But the reverse is true. It was in that moment that I understood the importance of all the classical music theory I had been taught, the scales I had been drilled in, and the depth of analytical understanding that I had received from my teachers. While it had not included jazz, what it had included had set me on a lifetime journey as a classical pianist that I continue to enjoy and be enriched by.
So I am passionate about music theory, at least in the broadest sense. Without it, it seems to me, we are lost as musicians. But I realise that around me are many teachers and students who struggle with this issue, who find theory work boring, and who haven’t made that same connection between music theory and exciting music making that I have discovered. Whatever our perspective, it therefore seems to me important for us all to reconsider music theory.
Theory OR Musicianship?
Music theory is promoted by some teachers as strongly as it is apparently resisted by others. Both sides of that debate offer strong arguments, generally leading to a frustrating stalemate when the issue is raised. But all teachers realise they must in practice work out their position if they are to guide students through the ABRSM system.
Within that system, the ABRSM Practical Musicianship grades remain surprisingly little known. This alternative comprises at Grade 5 :
- Repeating back a four bar melody, first by singing it back, and then by playing it by ear and from memory
- a. Transposing up or down a tone or semitone, or
b. Sight singing the lower part of a four bar phrase while the examiner plays the upper part
- Interpreting at Sight – a sight-reading test that includes complex ornaments of the type learnt in Grade 5 Theory, but here placed into a musical rather than academic context
- a. Improvising a melody over a simple chord pattern played by the examiner, or
b. Improvising the keyboard accompaniment using chord symbol notation
- Improvising freely
- Spotting the differences between a written score and the version played by the examiner.
If a teacher insists their students take Grade 5 theory, does this mean that they don’t believe practical musicianship is worthwhile? Of course not. Similarly if a teacher advises a student to take practical musicianship, jazz piano, or even switch to a different examining board altogether (as sadly happens in too many cases) this must not be taken to imply that they can’t or won’t teach music theory, or that they don’t consider it worthwhile.
The important thing to bear in mind is that a fully-formed musician will most likely have learnt, understood, connected and applied skills in both music theory and practical musicianship, irrespective of the examinations route they bought into.
It is perhaps therefore surprising that teachers and students don’t embrace both music theory and practical musicianship with enthusiasm, at least up to a certain level. However, it seems that very few teachers use the practical musicianship option at all, and not many encourage their students to continue learning music theory beyond Grade 5 either.
The danger lurking here is that, quite apart from losing students to alternative examination boards, ABRSM is presenting music theory in a way that students and teachers alike find dull, uninspiring and ultimately resent. As a teacher, most of those who approach me to learn music theory do so specifically to pass the ABRSM exam, rather than because they are interested in it or consider it useful. It seems to me quite sad that the ABRSM assessments could have nurtured a negative perception of music theory. Were their rules to be relaxed, perhaps more students would discover an interest in music theory for its true values and importance.
These, then, are some of the issues that are often raised by teachers, on forums and in person, as well as by students and their parents :
The Issue of Diversity
I have met a huge number of musicians over the years, and I have found that each and every single one of them is unique and individual. Some of those who have seemed to me the most versatile actually had few if any written qualifications. Others who could boast distinctions in written theory examinations, proved woefully inadequate in other important areas, having focused on too narrow a musical curriculum.
It seems to me clear that whether or not a musician is well-rounded largely depends on the breadth of his or her musical ability and experience, and not on their depth of knowledge in one specialist area.
When it comes to learning an instrument, diversity starts on day one. Depending on who the learner is, and the context of their lives, they will start with a different prior experience of music, choose to play a different instrument, come with different expectations and aspirations, have different strengths and weaknesses, and be drawn to different musical styles and genres. Once those elements are in place, our desire as educators to have students conform to a specific, unbending system of education is screwed.
It is an easy mistake to pick a few aspects of musical learning that can be easily, inexpensively and universally delivered, and then over-emphasise those elements at the expense of a more personalised approach. An insistence on taking Grade 5 Theory is often perceived as one particularly prescriptive example of that.
Whether or not theory can help musicians become more well-rounded largely depends on whether the curriculum they are offered caters for and is properly integrated with their particular musical, educational and assessment needs and interests. These will clearly be different for an orchestral viola player, a classical pianist, a rock guitarist, an opera singer, a synthesizer wizard, and so on.
At the same time, the enquiring student may well wish to move beyond learning music theory which has direct relevance to their playing – in due course. This cannot always be anticipated though, and should perhaps never be forced. The concern here is that the present ABRSM syllabus seems to many people to simply lack the flexibility required to meet these complex needs effectively.
The Issue of Relevance
The ABRSM Music Theory syllabus, published learning materials and examinations have – remarkably in educational terms – not actually been revised and updated for about three decades.
When we consider the fact that those three decades have included revolutionary changes in computer technology, composing techniques, educational method, and musical culture, this surely represents a huge problem.
The issue here, for some, is not whether learning music theory will help a musician become well-rounded, but whether it is actually relevant to them at all. We do not after all expect a motorist to study aviation theory or nautical navigation before allowing them to drive a car!
My earlier story about learning the blues scale illustrates the point that an effective understanding of music theory leads to exciting music-making possibilities. To some extent this is down to creative teaching, but the structure and content of the syllabus clearly have a crucial role. Given that music theory can help the development of music reading, literacy, and performing skills, those connections clearly need significant strengthening in accordance with a more modern educational understanding.
The relevance of music theory needs to be re-established, taking full account of the many changes in education, society and music over the last three decades.
With this in mind, my second article is primarily devoted to and exploring ways that this might be achieved.
The Issue of Child Development
Grade 5 music theory is academically demanding. The actual academic equivalence is quite difficult to demonstrate, given that the school curriculum has evolved so considerably in the three decades since ABRSM last revised their syllabus. However, according to the ABRSM website the QCF Level equivalence of any Grade 5 examination is Level 2, thus on a level with the GCSE examinations that children take at the age of 15-16 years.
Any good instrumental teacher will, with a few years experience, encounter a large number of students whose playing ability reaches Grade 5 several years earlier than this. This does not necessarily mean that their academic ability will have progressed at a similar rate at that early age, however.
To many of these students, a requirement to pass Grade 5 Theory represents a significant roadblock, restricting their progress rather than supporting their musical development.
Linking academic development and instrumental playing ability is tenuous at best, and bypasses our contemporary understanding of child development. In the absence of an obvious logic or educational rationale here, many teachers conclude that the ABRSM theory requirement lacks educational coherence and is simply commercially motivated.
Some conclusions, please …
I can honestly say that it has always been my view that learning music theory can indeed help a musician become more fully-formed. But crucially, I also think that practical musicianship, jazz playing, keyboard harmony, figured bass, working from chord notations, playing duets, accompanying other players and singers, playing in an ensemble or band, improvising and composing are all at least as worthwhile. Most musicians will enjoy exploring these many important elements of music making – developing at their own pace.
The specific prominence some give to Grade 5 Theory as a separated learning activity has to be evaluated in this wider context. Sadly, one who focuses exclusively on taking ABRSM piano and music theory grades might never experience some of the most richly rewarding and creative aspects of music making. ABRSM might perhaps point out that this is not really their fault, but some will no doubt find this difficult to square with their stated mission of “inspiring achievement” and “supporting high-quality music-making and learning around the world”.
Ironically, in these cases the real value of music theory is thwarted by the general failure to develop musical knowledge as the foundation for a deeper and more thrilling musical experience. As the widely respected American pedagogue and author Forrest Kinney so succinctly puts it:
“Theory is often taught in a way that constricts creativity, but it can be taught in a way that expands creativity.”
Musicians will inevitably become more versatile if they develop their musical knowledge and understanding in the context of a broad and practical musical education, rather than as a separate academic exercise. Music Theory can be a great contributor to the process, but to be truly useful and effective it must surely form an exciting and connected part of any player’s musical development.
It is ultimately for each musician, in conjunction with a sympathetic teacher who properly supports their goals, to chart the course that will enable them to become fully-formed musicians in the specific context of their lives, musical interests and aspirations.
We must remember that a well-rounded musician is not one who was simply trained to jump through whichever hoops an examination board put in place. Rather, it is the individual who has been encouraged and learnt how to express themselves musically, finding and taking their appropriate place in the musical world around them.
While this may be a little inconvenient to us teachers, and force an adjustment towards a more individualised approach, that change of perspective could perhaps make our work far more worthwhile, lasting and exciting!
In the second of these two articles, I will attempt to answer the questions raised by this one by considering how the curriculum and assessment process for Music Theory might look if we started again from scratch, producing something more relevant, contemporary and musically integrated for students in the 21st century.
Here too is a “postlude” I have written to this article.
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