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A preponderance of music theory publications currently exist which are specifically tailored for those preparing to battle with the somewhat arcane requirements of compulsory exams. And yet, for those who simply want to understand notation and written music in a way that’s useful and relevant to today’s piano players, the market has long been wide open.
Finally we can welcome a simple textbook which is clear, concise, and of practical benefit. While not entirely eschewing the testing regime, David Hall’s excellent self-published There’s More to Playing the Piano offers a thorough explanation of music theory which is for all, and which has two very special selling points.
In the author’s own words:
- Each chapter ends with an activity to try at the piano. These activities will bring the theory topic to life and show you how your new theory knowledge can be applied to develop your skills of composition, improvisation, analysis and performance.
- Scan the QR Codes to gain access to online videos where David explains each topic again and demonstrates the piano activities.
Could this be the ideal music theory primer for pianists of all ages?
In a word, “yes”. Whether you are searching for a better understanding of the music you play, a returning pianist refreshing your knowledge, or a student wanting a crash course or revising for an exam, I think that this book could well be for you. So let’s take a closer look…
A Simple Guide to Music Theory
Hall’s book offers the most straightforward outline of music theory concepts that you could hope to find. We teachers know how challenging it is to explain highly developed concepts in the most easy, accessible terms, so hats of to Hall for succeeding with such aplomb.
Hall certainly knows his stuff, both academically and as a teacher. An alumni of the Royal Academy of Music and of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University, he is now Director of Music at Twyford School in Hampshire, a role he combines with freelance work accompanying, conducting and composing. Adult learners may also know him as the Musical Director of Finchcocks Piano Courses.
Within this book’s 84 nicely presented pages, Hall packs in the following lessons:
- Note Values
- Naming Notes
- Sharps and Flats
- Bars and Bar lines
- Intervals (part 1)
- Key Signatures
- The Cycle of Fifths (part 1)
- Major Scales
- Traffic Light Diagram (piano chord shapes)
- The Cycle of Fifths (part 2)
- The Good Chords
- Chords and Cadences
- Ties and Dots
- Simple Time Signatures
- Compound Time Signatures
- Switching Time Signatures
- Intervals (part 2)
- Minor Scales
- The Chromatic Scale
- General Knowledge
- Musical Terms
- History of Music Theory
Most of these lessons receive a mere two well-illustrated pages, while even the more knotty topics get four, tops. There is of course a cumulative breadth of understanding that makes the later chapters easier to approach, and Hall’s sequencing of the material is quite simply masterful.
Inevitably, his explanations aren’t always the ones I use in my own teaching (sometimes his are much better). And Hall’s occasional simplifications happily never cross over into misleading territory.
As such, this books already fulfils a wonderful brief in providing a whistle-stop tour of theory topics that are essential for the notation-literate musician. But there is more…
The Author’s Video Lessons
Supporting each lesson, the printed QR code takes you to the relevant video of Hall’s YouTube channel, where you can watch his personable explanations which go over each topic in a little more detail. At time of review, just a couple of the later QR codes in the book didn’t work, but the author tells me this will very soon be remedied.
If Hall’s concise explanations in the book are superb, so too are his videos, in which he comes across as the highly informed and approachable music teacher that you wish you had at school (and perhaps, of course, did).
The presentation is professional and entirely on point, with a virtual whiteboard on which Hall is able to illustrate and develop his points with supreme clarity. I think that it would be possible for any teenage or adult learner to use the combination of book and video as comprehensive and effective tools for self-directed learning, without the need for a teacher.
And I would be quite happy for my own students to do just that, with only a minimal amount of additional input from me, the latter taking the form of some written work (no exercises are included here). Graded workbooks could happily be used alongside Hall’s book or perhaps better still, teacher-directed activities using blank manuscript.
But there’s still more…
The Piano Activities
As promised each lesson concludes with a short piano-based activity, and these prove to be the icing on an already impressive cake.
As well as consolidating the understanding gained from each lesson, these activities stimulate improvisation, composing, and investigation of scores that the player is currently working on. In all cases they are imaginative and musically engaging. In short, they bring music theory to practical life!
This is perhaps where the input of a teacher comes most into its own, bearing in mind that those working alone “don’t know what they don’t know”.
A basic approach I intend to try with students is to set them a lesson to read and watch during the week, and then in their next lesson spend a few minutes looking at the piano activity with them.
What better way to check understanding and progress in a piano lesson than actually at the piano? This is an impressively sensible and relevant approach!
I believe that taken as a whole package, this resource provides an excellent solution to the vexed question of how best to fit sufficient music theory content into students’ learning when lesson time is rather short.
I can’t imagine a better theory teacher than David Hall to guide my own students through these topics, with minimal practical input from me in lessons. And I’m not just being lazy… honest! There’s More to Playing the Piano is a great achievement, and I am grateful to Hall for writing and publishing it.
Finally, although the asking price may seem a bit cheeky for such a slimline book, the wealth of content in my view justifies the cost, which is in any case far less expensive than any comparable course, or even a standard lesson fee.
Why not check it out for yourself, and let me know what you think in the comments below!
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