10 Reasons to Study Music Theory and Aural Skills

10 Reasons to Study Music Theory and Aural Skills

About a month ago, my professor and mentor, Brian Head, asked me to come up with the 10 most important reasons for an undergraduate music student to study music theory and aural skills. He and I (mostly he) are reworking the freshman and sophomore theory curriculum at USC so that it can serve the diverse educational goals that exist at this school. This is no easy task, as USC offers majors in music industry, popular music, composition, as well as the usual (and some unusual) performance-oriented majors. But I come from a background that emphasizes the liberal arts, which to me means that learning ought not to be a means to an end, but an end unto itself. In other words, we best serve ourselves as learners and musicians when we learn as much as possible without an a priori agenda. I’ve seen in many of my own students a selective approach to learning that often leads to failure. This happens because 18- and 19-year-old students cannot know what any one piece of their education will mean to them five or ten years in the future. I made similar mistakes as an undergraduate and will do anything I can as an educator to break that trend. So with that in mind, here are my Top 10 Reasons to Study Music Theory and Aural Skills:

  1. To understand how music works. It really doesn’t matter what your particular field of music will ultimately be, music theory and aural skills gives you insight into how all the notes and rhythms are put together in a composition. Understanding this opens up doors to your own enjoyment of music as well as your comprehension of something that is mystifying to everyone else. If there is anything a graduate from a music school should know, it is a basic insight into how and why great composers and performers do what they do. This includes everything from rhythm, notes, and scales to harmony, voice-leading, and form.
  2. To be able to critically listen to music. We can all hear music. That is one of the greatest things about the art. But music students must learn how to listen critically to what he or she hears, identify what it is, and be able to speak intelligently about it. For me, this is what defines an expert. Of course, there is a wide range of nuances to listen for – should we stop at major and minor scales, or do we work for an aural understanding of Schoenbergian tone rows. Popular music producers may not need to identify the German sixth chord in the middle of a Beethoven sonata and classical pianists probably won’t need to identify Renaissance instruments, but who are we as educators to limit that knowledge. In any aural skills course, we should be teaching students how to listen for and identify the vast majority of what is written on the score, and the tools to research that which is not immediately obvious.
  3. To write and perform music accurately. This is a point that I think may be overlooked in many theory classes. But theory class was always the most engaging for me when I was asked to be creative. Performance majors practice for several hours every day, so why not allow them the chance to shine in their academic class (and be held as accountable as they would be for their private teachers). Composing in the styles being discussed is perhaps the best way to internalize concepts such as harmony, voice leading, counterpoint, phrase structure, and all the other details of music. Regular composition and performance exercises in theory and aural skills will not only improve understanding, but it may also make the abstract concepts meaningful in a real-world context.
  4. To be able to detect errors (and other deviations from the score). I had an interesting experience in a music history class this summer. Listening to and following scores of works that relied on musica ficta, I noticed on several occasions that performers often disagreed on how the ficta ought to be executed. This generated a great deal of conversation about performance practice and the amount of control performers of Renaissance music had and still have over compositions. Conductors, educators, music producers, and recording artists need the same sharpened listening skills. But the point is that you never know, as a musician, when error detection will come in handy. We can focus on this from day one in aural skills and hone it regularly.
  5. To be able to sight read well. This is so important for musicians of Western music because ours is a written tradition. Even if one is not on course to be a performer, everyone will benefit from being able to read accurately and effortlessly. Obviously, there is a mechanical element to this for instrumentalists that will only be achieved through hours of practice on one’s particular instrument, but the core of sight reading is being able to hear what you see. Sight singing class is the best place to focus on this strength, but in theory and aural skills, we can sing through examples and follow scores as much as possible to supplement it.
  6. To understand the styles and genres of Western music. Individual instructors will have to set practical limits on how much to include in their curriculum, but having an understanding of the styles and genres of the common practice and modern pop and jazz is a good place to start. Music is an elegant history of the evolution of cultures and the styles and genres in which composers write can tell us a lot about what was going on in society at large. Look at, for example, the way in which opera grew along side the emerging middle class, or how the hyper-rational serialist works of post-WWII Europe reflect a disillusionment with human passion. These connections to real human events, through a discussion of styles and genres, sew music into the fabric of human history.
  7. To be exposed to unfamiliar music.Exposing students to music they have never heard provides an opportunity to not only familiarize them with the literature, but also to practice unbiased listening. Early music and non-Western styles are often omitted from time-restrained theory classes, but an occasional sampling of these and other unfamiliar works can lead to discussions on how music operates outside the bounds of tonality. Exposure means nothing, however, if there is no fruitful discussion or writing, so listening should accompany the lecture or writing assignments.
  8. To be familiar with the masterworks of Western music. Music theory is nothing more than a codification of the works that are the most meaningful to us. If we neglect to show why the rules and procedures are so important – that is, how they produce effective works of art – we miss the point of theory entirely. But we cannot limit the canon to the works of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. We must also include Bill Evans, the Beatles, and Billy Joel. The masterworks can be used as either a point of departure, works for analysis, or a summation of the concepts discussed in class, but their presence must be ubiquitous to keep students focused on the crux of music theory.
  9. To improve critical reasoning skills. Though this is not specific to music (and admittedly stemming from my own liberal education), I believe we cannot consider music theory apart from the greater academic objectives of higher learning. College students, especially freshmen and sophomores, are struggling to recover from the “monkey see, monkey do” education of high school. In every college course, including music ones, we need to invite students to think beyond the exam and maximize their learning skills. Music theory classes are especially good places to sharpen critical thinking because we have a great deal of information that needs to be processed in a short amount of time when listening to or writing about music. Music theory classes can benefit greatly from one or two high-stakes writing assignments that ask students to make strong statements and back them up with evidence. Class discussion will multiply that effect as students will certainly have much to say after putting their thoughts into words.
  10. To develop excellent scholarship. It is important for music theory instructors to help students learn how to learn. Theory and aural skills classes are among the few academic classes a music major will take within the music curriculum. And it is often the very first academic class an incoming freshman will enter as a college student. It is therefore crucial for theory and aural skills instructors to set the bar high for mastery and learning, to guide the student through the rigors of higher education, and to continually communicate with them on how to improve their performance. Music theory instructors see their students with more frequency than many private teachers do, so they are in a unique position to hold their students accountable on a frequent and regular basis. Good scholarship learned early will set every student up for success in whatever area of music they ultimately decide to pursue.

What did you feel were the most valuable things you learned in college theory/aural skills? Did I miss anything here?

8 Comments
  • Eric Knechtges
    Posted at 00:40h, 07 July Reply

    I got asked in a bar last week, “What is music theory?” by a non-musician. There’s a tough thing to explain.

    What I came up with on the spot, which sort of fits into a few of your categories, was “studying patterns in music so that you can predict what might happen next, and what it means if that thing DOESN’T quite happen.” I think that sort of definition of music theory can transcend genre.

    The problem is, of course, that you have to decide at some point what you can reasonably include and not include. And there’s also the issue of how much gets lost by fixating on harmony, as most theory sequences do. I always am struggling with whether I’m doing my students a disservice by spending a day on the common-tone diminished seventh chord versus a day on pop-music examples of non-harmonic tones and blues inflections… or form in different pop genres…

    Incidentally, I miss you. 🙂

    • David
      Posted at 01:15h, 07 July Reply

      Eric! Thanks so much for the insightful comment. And I miss you too, man.

      I just spent a few days at a family reunion where almost no one was a trained musician. I found it really difficult to explain what I do. When I say “I teach sight singing,” I get blank stares. Trying to give a nutshell of music theory would be way beyond me, but I think you hit the mark pretty well. I wonder myself how important it is to focus on the minutia of harmony (something that I think most theory instructors probably do), but I feel we can’t forget some of the broader issues, like the ones you mentioned. But of course, freshman and sophomore theory is only the tip of a very large iceberg of musicianship.

  • Felicia Behm
    Posted at 07:16h, 07 July Reply

    Hi David! I think your article is great, and really well-written. My comment probably goes along with your point #1, but I thought I would share it anyway.

    I taught high school music for the first time last year near Sacramento. There was no music theory class, so I established a music theory club. It started strong but quickly dwindled and died completely by spring break. I did manage to keep music theory as a constant hum in the back of my band, guitar, and piano students’ minds all year.

    Music theory is essential no matter what aspect of music one is studying. Guitar students with no understanding of theory cannot get away from memorized licks or the all-too-familiar I-ii-V-I progression. I had on several occasions students ask me: “I really like this, but how do I take it into a new key?” They walked away 20 minutes later with confusing diagrams of harmony, not quite sure that they knew why I took so long to answer the question, but intrigued nonetheless. Inevitably they came back the next day with the same question, refined, wanting to understand all the jibberish I threw at them the day before.

    We had a “Blues Week” in piano, where we stopped lectures and practicing, and spent the entire week with the drumset out, a few guitarists and bassists, and the piano students learned (or pretended) how to improvise. I gave them the very basic triads for the necessary chords in F Blues, and let them run with it. Most students had a great time just with three notes per chord, but when I gave them the whole scale and explained how to use it in improvisation, several lightbulbs went off at once. Many students said this was their favorite week of the trimester.

    Simple things in the band rehearsal, like why the third in a triad needs to be carefully adjusted in order to remain in tune, took our band from a below-average performing group into a well-received intermediate band. Learning scales and arpeggios was monotonous for most, but greatly improved finger dexterity and sight reading skills. They didn’t even realize they were learning theory most of the time, but they were benefiting from it.

    I always loved music theory, and wish I had stubbornly completed my counterpoint class to complete my major. But even without the degree, music theory is definitely one of the most important skills I learned as a musician. As a performer, an educator, a composer/arranger, it is essential. I don’t think it is necessary to understand music theory to succeed, but I do strongly believe that for those musicians who are determined enough to do well in the field, music theory will only make it easier, and will certainly take them farther.

    • David
      Posted at 14:45h, 07 July Reply

      Thanks a lot, Felicia! I thought a lot about adding improvisation to the list, and I’m sure any jazz musician would place it near the top, but I wanted to stay as broad as possible. You’re right though, improvisation (and composing) can really only be done with a good knowledge of theory and aural skills. I wonder how much aural skills you get to with your high school students in addition to the tuning issues you mentioned. I’m not exactly sure what the best way to balance the two, especially for younger students, but I know you can’t just do one of them. I’ve noticed that with my freshmen, most of the them seem to feel a bit more comfortable using their ears before they try understanding the concepts in the book. But that takes a lot of experience and I’m sure you know better about how high school students would respond to that.

      I think it’s great that you’re able to use so much of your knowledge of theory to teach. I’ll pass on what you wrote to my professor. Stay in touch!

  • Terrence
    Posted at 14:28h, 07 July Reply

    I agree with everything there. There’s two broader things I would add:

    – the potential to lead.
    – confidence.

    I had a high-school trombone student who studied privately with me this past year. After a few lessons I decided I wanted to give him a more meaningful experience. I decided that I wanted to add a music theory element to my lessons, and started writing single-sheet assignments that I would bring every week. I like to keep the parents informed about what I cover in lessons, so I was also forced to to wrestle with the challenge of explaining music theory and the values of music theory to someone who was not a musician.

    The big reason why I wanted my student to study music theory – and the best way I find to articulate it – is that I wanted to do my best to equip him to be a leader among his peers. Good leadership stems from a thorough knowledge base, and the total comprehension of a subject matter. I feel that the reason all of us should study music theory is to enable us to be leaders in our field. For my high-school student, I believe that giving him the basic knowledge base to be a leader in one field is giving him the potential to be a leader in all fields, for the very reasons you listed above – to think critically, see how different things are related, etc. And that’s how I try to communicate it to the parents.

    The other item I would add, specifically with regards to the sight-singing component, is confidence; I believe sight-singing, being forced out of one’s shell and the subsequent ability to sing anything on the spot, builds confidence.
    A lot of students at high-school age (but also at college age) are incredibly self-conscious. Many young instrumentalist have never sung before, and will be fearful of singing in front of other people. To break them out of that shell, putting them in an uncomfortable position from which they then grow – ultimately gaining an ability they didn’t have before, I believe builds a special sort of confidence, confidence that will suit them well in all challenges of their early adult life.

    • David
      Posted at 15:03h, 07 July Reply

      Those are good points, and I think they both fall under the umbrella of mastery. I think it’s great that you are applying music theory in your instrumental lessons, because, you’re right, it will make it a lot easier for your student to excell as a performer. This is definitely a hard point to sell to students (and parents, I’m sure) because they can’t really understand how knowing about music in general is going to make them better performers. But you and I know better! I read an article once that discussed how self-efficacy will improve motivation to master, and that leads to better self-confidence in what we do, and a good knowledge of theory will help with that. Thanks a lot for the great comment!

  • Orlando Music Institute – Classical Music School for Youth | Why Study Music Theory? • Orlando Music Institute - Classical Music School for Youth
    Posted at 21:28h, 25 August Reply

    […] question students in particular raise is “why study music theory at all?” The answer is simple: to be a musician, it is essential to learn to work with its complex material. This is […]

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