Improve your theory

Improve your Music Theory!

Featured publications are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

ABRSM’s CEO Michael Elliott has reportedly said:

While this is a great soundbite for those promoting theory courses, the obvious irony here is that ABRSM have themselves, for generations, separated music theory from practice in their own examination syllabus and published materials.

Paul Harris’s new series ‘Improve your Theory!’, written for students preparing for ABRSM Theory Grades 1-5, aims to change this situation for the better. Introducing the series, publishers Faber Music explain that:

The books have already been awarded “Best Print Resource 2016” at the Music Teacher Awards for Excellence, so let’s see if they live up to the hype…

Some background

Let me state from the outset that in my opinion, ‘Improve your Theory!’ is indeed a great resource, and a significant step-improvement compared to most other music theory resources I have seen, whether in print or online.

To understand why, we need to take a step back and consider the context in which it has been published. Let’s start by asking three important questions:

  1.  WHY teach music theory?
  2.  WHAT should be included?
  3.  HOW should it be taught?

It is when we consider Question 3 that we can properly determine how radical ‘Improve your Theory’ is, because these publications require a rethink about HOW we teach music theory, and propose an exciting solution.

But before we explore that in more depth, we must remind ourselves that Paul Harris has effectively answered the first two questions by linking ‘Improve your Theory’ to the ABRSM exam syllabus. 

Conforming to the ABRSM exam syllabus unfortunately means that the books may have less appeal to musicians looking for a more general overview of music theory, as I will explain.

Following the Syllabus

Ask a variety of musicians what they think “Music Theory” is, and you will perhaps hear some of the following:

  • The school child might mention the pentatonic or blues scale they have learnt in classroom music;
  • The violin student might instead talk about the Natural Minor scale they have been practising for their ABRSM grade exam;
  • The guitarist will discuss different chord charts and modal scales;
  • The keyboard player might mention jazz chords and extensions;
  • The percussionist, meanwhile, might talk about drum tab or the difference between Latin and Rock grooves;
  • The composer will perhaps reference the software programmes that have become the standard way of producing notation.

These are all basic and undoubtedly important aspects of contemporary music theory; remarkably, however, none of them are included in the ABRSM syllabus.

Instead candidates are asked to transpose parts for a cor anglais player, write in the tenor clef, and memorise more than 300 Italian, French and German terms (many of which are rarely used in music, and which in a real-world context musicians can easily check using a dictionary or smart phone).

If I have laboured this point, it is because ‘Improve your Theory’ is designed to specifically cover the particular content needed for exam preparation.

Let me be honest: as I unwrapped the package containing the books, it was with some skepticism that Harris would be able to apply his “simultaneous learning” theory to the more arcane elements of the syllabus, giving them relevance to today’s pianists.

‘Improve your Theory’ unpacked

The five books in the series are attractively presented, with eye-catching covers and a great layout. Each book features chapters (or “Stages”) focussing on specific core topics, but learning is consolidated and integrated throughout the series. Instead of lengthy sections repeating similar exercises, plenty of variety is offered at each Stage, and this allows for each concept to be understood in a “connected” way.

It is quickly apparent that these books are a huge improvement on the ABRSM “official” workbooks ‘Music Theory in Practice’, written by Eric Taylor in the 1980s, which are still the market-leading competition despite being as dull as dishwater.

In fact, flipping through the pages of ‘Improve your Theory’, these books are inviting in a way rarely seen in music textbooks elsewhere, and I found myself drawn to the various elements that make up each “Stage”:

Fact Boxes

Rather than lengthy prose explanations, Paul Harris provides simple “Fact Boxes” which introduce vital concepts and important information in a succinct and easy-to-access way. These are ideal for revision, as well as providing a reference point for the teacher when explaining each topic. Nor is there any need or recommendation to buy an additional supplementary textbook.

The books also include “theory box of fun” sections giving additional background information. These mostly provide historical insights that position music theory in its broader context.

“Theory boxes of fun” make the books more engaging, and will undoubtedly inspire inquisitive minds to look more deeply into music history, immediately adding to the relevance and interest of music theory.

Exercises and Puzzles

The exercises throughout ‘Improve your Theory’ are generally quite short, with the author providing a varied approach to working on each topic. Alongside traditional theory exercises there are crosswords, quiz questions and puzzles, which provide an excellent and rigorous way of engaging with important theory concepts.

This approach and layout gives the books the appeal of a puzzle magazine rather than that of an old school text book.

The exercises and puzzles probe deeply into the student’s understanding, providing ample and engaging material to help them apply their growing knowledge. Paul’s gift for making learning both enjoyable and effective is certainly very impressive!

“Making connection to your pieces”

More radically, in each “Stage” the student is invited to find a piece of music that they are currently learning or can already play, and which matches relevant music theory criteria. Having identified a suitable piece, they then copy out a short section before answering questions testing their understanding of the theory concepts.

I initially wondered whether this approach might simply be an elegant conceit, but having picked examples from each book I have found it to be a useful way of making music theory more relevant to practical music making, and careful thought has obviously been given to each question.

However, I note that as the series progresses there are increasingly times where Paul adds the rather telling disclaimer:  “Ask your teacher or a friend for a suitable piece or song if you can’t find one…”

And in use, I suspect that after a couple of grades, this ongoing tactic might lose its sense of freshness and fun.

Aural / Listening

Each Stage also includes a section for aural/listening, and while this only takes up a small amount of space on the page it should not be overlooked (although I rather suspect it might be).

Short questions here relate to audio clips that can be freely downloaded from the Faber Music website, and generally involve matching what is heard in those clips with theory concepts and with printed notation.

This seems to me highly beneficial and a two way street. Answering the questions correctly proves that theory knowledge has made proper musical sense, but will also help the student develop and prepare for aural tests in other contexts.

This is another creative and novel way of promoting the idea that music theory teaching can be properly connected to a student’s overall musical development.

Using this material

It is important to underline that, though planned around the syllabus, ‘Improve your Theory’ is not simply a “quick fix” that can be used to swat up for an ABRSM exam. The material here is far too rich and genuinely useful to serve that narrow purpose. The level of integration with other aspects of musical development is such that this material really must be used as an ongoing part of a student’s learning.

That said, there is a lot of content in the books, and working through them could easily become so absorbing that theory takes over music lessons. Teachers will need to work out whether this exhaustive approach ultimately fits comfortably within the context of their own studio practice.

I must add that teachers should be alert to the occasional misprint and error; actual examination candidates would have lost the odd mark here!

Depending on the maturity and independence of the student, the books could perhaps be used as a self-learning tool, with recourse to the teacher where needed. To help with this option, full PDF books of model answers are offered online. While in some contexts this might seem ill-advised, I would say that it is a hugely useful aid to those who want to monitor their own path through the material.


In my opinion, Harris has once again succeeded in demonstrating the benefits of his “simultaneous learning” approach.

These are publications which fit with a style of learning that today’s students are far more likely to engage with. They not only encourage holistic integrated learning, but also arouse a sense of curiosity which I believe will nourish a student’s ongoing musical journey.

Harris has done us all a huge service with this innovative series, demonstrating that we can properly realise the true purpose of teaching music theory by making it interesting, useful and above all genuinely relevant to a player’s musical learning.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.