AMI Blog


A friend of mine who teaches tertiary students confessed the other day that he is absolutely sick of teaching students who can’t or won’t read staff notation, and dismayed that the institution in which they study seems to turn a blind eye. I have often heard teachers and lecturers debating the level of music theory that their courses should require. In South Africa, Trinity, ABRSM, and UNISA graded syllabi tend to frame the way we think about music theory and they are commonly used as a benchmark for qualifications, or for entrance into secondary and tertiary music programmes.

One reason we teach theory is to help students learn to read printed music scores in staff notation. This is pretty important if they are studying western classical music because the repertoire is in score form. Although it’s not uncommon for students who have passed Grade 8 to have learned all their repertoire by ear (and still be lost when trying to decode a score), sooner or later, their lack of reading skills will come back to bite them. Not reading makes a lot of stuff more difficult or impossible for performers – for example playing in groups that perform a wide range of music, or getting work in a recording studio.

I think it’s worth pointing out that the examining bodies graded syllabi are designed for children to learn progressively. Grade 5 theory is well within the abilities of a 12 year old if one compares the conceptual difficulty with other school subjects. Many students really struggle with it however, and I argue that this is not to do with conceptual difficulty, but because students are alienated by the syllabi, their design, and the way theory is often taught, decontextualised from musical experience.

This is a problem because it is very difficult to learn abstract theoretical concepts when they are not connected to experience.  And let’s face it, the most musical way to learn to play is to listen and to play at the same time; to develop a tight relationship between your ear and your instrument. It is a far more intuitive process than learning to decode music from the lines and spaces on a page.

Music theory gets to the nitty gritty of musical structure in the same way that grammatical rules lie beneath spoken language. When you speak a language fluently, you don’t need to know how to explain the grammatical rules, your intuitive understanding of the language tells you what is correct. The same thing happens in music. When you have learned ‘by ear’ or by doing, rather than by reading and learning the rules in an abstract way, you have an intuitive sense of what is right. Intuitive learning is seriously time consuming and it’s unlikely that schools can provide the kind of induction experience necessary for students to learn in this way. Furthermore, music education should aim to give students access to more than an intuitive understanding. It should give students control over the system that underlies the music they perform, the rules that make it make sense. All musics have such a system – a musical grammar. While they don’t all conform to the Western theory spelled out in the examining board syllabi, and they may not rely on printed scores, they have an internal logic that students should have access to if they are to be well equipped musicians.  

Music theory also gives us a language to talk about musical structure, and to communicate with others about it without having to play it. Having words to describe musical concepts can help us to actually hear better: to hear what it is that gives music its groove, to discriminate between the movement of the bass against the chords, and the rhythms of the drumkit, and the different instruments that bring a nuanced sound palette. Especially for students, training themselves to hear more accurately is a crucial part of becoming a better musician. Hearing well is why music education programmes have so often included ‘aural’, a curriculum area that is probably as hated as music theory. Both are hated because they are decontextualisedand miles away from the visceral experience of musicking. Music theory is not music, it is a bunch of abstract terms and symbols. In my experience, students find it difficult to connect this kind of information with the sound they experience in their ears and bodies.

If decontextualization is the problem, then students should learn abstract theoretical concepts in tandem with learning to play them and hear them on instruments, in real musical experience. But timetables and limited lesson times seldom allow the luxury of time required for this deep learning. Often, students in a class all play different instruments with varied levels of skill – yet they’re all in the same theory class. So what do teachers do? They pull out Unisa Grade 1.

If you’re a South African teacher and you’re following the CAPS syllabus, Marimbas are one solution to this problem because the CAPS music theory concepts can be demonstrated, played, experienced on them. They’re easy to play, so students don’t have to deal with instrumental skill at the same time as they are building conceptual understanding. They can focus on making the links between the music in its sounded and its theoretical forms. This is absolutely key: we need to encourage a fluent relationship between the musical, sounded experience and the conceptual, theoretical framework. This is slow work, it takes time for the brain to build those neural pathways, but it is crucial work.

A couple of years ago I interviewed a number of well-known South African performers who played South African pop or jazz. They had a range of educational backgrounds and several had learned informally. I asked them whether they had had significant ‘aaha!’ moments – when something fell into place for them that allowed them to turn a corner in their musicianship. Without exception, they spoke about mastering theoretical concepts, for instance, learning about keys, their relationships and harmonic progressions. This is a great example of practicing musicians drawing on the underlying conceptual framework of the music they play – of mastering music theory. These musicians felt limited until they made the breakthrough and got conceptual control of music, which supported their practical control of it.

So, in my opinion, giving in to students who resist learning music theory is not going to help them. But instead of reaching for UNISA grade 1, perhaps we need to design programmes that teach the concepts underpinning the genre we teach, using instruments that are accessible and empowering.