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As a broad field which combines various disciplines and skills, including ear training, music history and technology, the teaching of music theory can be approached in different ways. (Rogers, 2010) Through the study of music theory, one can better understand several aspects of music, including pitch, dynamics, rhythm, intervals, harmony and different musical forms. Therefore, music theory in simple terms is the study of academic possibilities and practices of music. During the past two decades, music theory pedagogy has been affected by the advent of new technologies and by the growing popularity of multidisciplinary methods, which have emphasized the relationship existing between music and other fields, including psychology and sociology (Rogers, 2010).
In view of these considerations, this essay will evaluate how music theory is taught today in order to determine whether it is useful for music students and identify any areas of improvement.
Salvatierra (2014) explained that music theory is an essential part of the study of music, which is why those who wish to approach the study of music and/or wish to work in music would benefit from it.
By studying music theory, in fact, one can learn how to read music. Musicians, for example, can benefit greatly from theoretical lessons as they can apply their musical knowledge to music composition in order to create specific melodies which will be more likely to captivate the audience. (Meyer, 2002) However, it should be noted that unlike music teachers and other professionals whose jobs require a deep knowledge of music theory, as of today musicians are not required to study music theory in order to play music.
(Schüler, 2005) Nevertheless, through the study of music theory one can acquire and/or strengthen one’s arranging, composing, improvising and performing skills.
When music lessons were first introduced in European and U. S. schools in the nineteenth century, it took several years before people started taking them seriously. (Volk, 2004; Somervell, 2003) In fact, music education was first introduced to promote musical literacy and focussed on the basic notions of music theory. (Volk, 2004) As American and European education experts became more interested in the effects of music education, music teachers developed different, at times conflicting views on how music should be taught to students. As Schüler (2005) noted, today music theory teaching is usually based on a few basic concepts and does not cover other disciplines, such as psychology and musicology, which are closely linked to it and would probably engage students more.
Different points of view about the importance of music teaching also emerged and are still being discussed. (Wojcik, 2014) On one hand, many people viewed music as something inborn or talent that should not be studied; on the other hand, others argued that understanding music means knowing the language of music and that language can only be learned through the study of musical theory. (Wojcik, 2014)
During the past few decades, technology has become an important part of music theory teaching and, today, it plays a very important role for modern music students. In fact, most schools allow students to choose from among different music instruments and music technologies, such as software programs and effects units which can help them to understand and create music.
As White and Lake (2002) noted, an excellent way of teaching music theory is to integrate practical exercises and real instruments in music theory lessons. To be more precise, they argue that by letting music theory students pick an instrument, they may apply what they learn in practice and find the subject more stimulating.
With regards to the teaching of music theory, Rogers (2010) pointed out, that it is important that music theory teachers understand that as important as scales, key signatures and other basic notions may be, music theory is a much more interesting field. From an analysis of the music theory course programmes offered by numerous colleges and universities across the world, it is evident that they focus almost exclusively on the fundamentals of music theory, including notation, scales, rhythm and intervals, leaving little time to the topics which could make this discipline truly appealing to students, such as its relation with psychology, musicology, sociology and ethno-musicology for example. (Rogers, 2010; White and Lake, 2002)
With regards to how music theory should be approached by teachers, White and Lake (2002) noted that educators should take into consideration the main scope of music theory when developing their teaching methods, in order to ensure that all students are provided with adequate musicianship skills. To be more precise, White and Lake (2002) pointed out that a music theory courses should focus on a limited number of skills and sub-disciplines which every music student should learn, regardless of their chosen specialization. The aforementioned skills and sub-disciplines include ear training, chords, pitches, basics of composition, harmony, notes, intervals, sight singing, rhythm and music analysis. (White and Lake, 2002) Similarly, Blatter (2007) argued that the teaching and learning of music theory revolve around three main concepts, namely musical notation, structure and organization, which can help students to gain a sufficient understanding of music theory. In other words, Blatter (2007) suggests that music theory can be effectively taught by simply focussing on a limited, fixed number of topics.
However, the main limitation of the approach suggested by Blatter (2007) is that it does not introduce students to the complexities of music theory. As Rogers (2010) noted, teaching music theory by simply focussing on its fundamentals is just like teaching literature by focussing exclusively on grammar. Therefore, considering that music theory is a dynamic concept which keeps evolving and embraces an ever-growing number of fields, music theory pedagogy should become more flexible in order to respond to these changes. As Arnold (2001b) noted, for example, the integration of practical exercises involving musical instruments would be a good way to bring new life to the teaching of music theory and would help students to ingrain each concept not only in their minds, but also in their hands. Also, music theory could be analysed in relation to other disciplines and fields, such as musicology, ethnomusicology and psychology, so that students can appreciate the many implications of music.
In this regard, Deutsch (2012) argued that while music composers have always explored new means of communications and expressions, music theory has always been static and its relationship with other disciplines has not been given sufficient recognition. According to Deutsch (2012), music theory is often seen as incompatible with experimentation, which is why its deep connection with other subjects, including psychology, has not received particular attention and is not usually included in music theory course programs.
In order to teach music theory more effectively, it is crucial that teachers should appreciate the impact that motivation and engagement can have on students’ ability to learn and retain information. As Arnold (2001b) noted, explaining to students the usefulness of music theory and how they can practically benefit from it is an excellent way of motivating students to pursue the study of music theory, as well as of musical instruments. For example, it could be pointed out that knowing how music is constructed and being able to analyse music allows people to enjoy playing instruments and listening to music even more. It could also be clarified that for any music student to start a successful career in music, a deep understanding of theory is essential. In fact, most professionals who work in music, including music theory teachers, performers, analysts and critics, need a deep knowledge of music theory in order to advance their career. Trinity College of Music based in London is one of the recognized institutions where understanding the usefulness and benefits of music theory represents an important part of music theory courses. (Trinity College of Music, 2009) In fact, music theory teachers at Trinity College of Music (2009) ensure that the learners truly understand the concepts that they are taught by integrating practical lessons, tests and exams.
Mixed lessons involving both theory and practice in the form of musical instruments, exercises and tests are an excellent way to test how deeply students have understood the topic. They also allow tutors to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each and every student while for students they can act as a neutral ground to realize or discover themselves. Once all these things have been put into consideration, the exchange between the two groups involved can be very easily more so to the side of the students.
Trinity College (2010) indicated that music teachers are supposed to be updated about any new theories, methods and approaches related to music theory. As Deutsch (2012) noted, these include multidisciplinary approaches and new, experimental empirical methods which may be developed by experts and researchers. Human beings are dynamic, and they can quickly adapt to new changes in their environment. Therefore, both the students and the tutors should be flexible to adopt and respond to new changes instead of limiting themselves to strictly following fixed academic programmes and syllabi revolving around a limited number of concepts, such as notation, music organization and structure.
Music theory teachers should also be given the freedom to teach the topics that they are comfortable with. As Lange (2005) noted, this is because when teachers are given partial freedom over the organisation and structure of their courses, they will be more likely to coach the students according to their interest, skills and at their own convenient pace. Making the teachers teach topics of their interest can help the students to be at the same level by the end of the lesson but mostly it depends with the level of seriousness of the student. When this is achieved then cases of some students lagging behind can greatly be reduced.
According to Deutsch (2012), music theory could become more dynamic and interesting if only music theorists approached music with the same curiosity and need to express themselves as musicians; this way, they would adopt a more experimental and productive approach which may lead to the proposal of new, effective teaching methods and music-related theories. As far as teaching is concerned, it would help if music theory teachers didn’t simply focus on theoretical notions but also encouraged students to play musical instruments, such as the guitar or the piano, in such a way to integrate theory with practice. This way, their lessons could be more practical and students could see how music theory can be integrated in the music-making process. Arnold (2001a) noted that taking integrating music theory with practice makes the learning process enjoyable by adding more facets to the teaching of music theory. The practical lessons also increase the interaction and closeness between students and their teachers. This is a better opportunity for any determined teacher to understand the ability of students that he or she is dealing with. The author also went ahead to explain that a piano and guitar are the best instruments for a starter since they are not very much complicated for the students. Therefore, music theory could be combined with the teaching of specific instruments, such as guitar and piano, which could be used to apply theoretical concepts, including notation, composition and music analysis, to music playing and to appreciate the relationship between music theory and practice.
If a music theory student doesn’t play any instruments, music theory could represent a good occasion to pick one so that they can apply their theoretical knowledge. As for students who already play one or more instruments, they can either pick one they are not familiar with or choose to practice using the ones they already play. As Arnold (2001b) noted, even though some students may be more experienced or skilled than others at playing instruments, this wouldn’t have a negative impact on the overall progress of the class, causing some students to feel bored while others are learning what they already know. In fact, teachers could teach the basics of students’ chosen instruments in a short time, so that beginners, intermediate and experienced players could all start applying what they learned just after a few lessons.
According to Gurung, Chick & Haynie (2009), the teaching of music theory combined with applied music is very important towards the development of learners’ musicianship skills as it turns them into “complete” musicians who appreciate both the theoretical and practical aspects of music. In practical terms, Gurung, Chick & Haynie’s (2009) proposal could be integrated by including both theoretical concepts and hands-on application in each lesson. For instance, teachers could dedicate a part of each lesson to the explanation of chords, intervals and other theoretical concepts and then spend the remaining time showing students how to apply those concepts when playing an instrument.
Therefore, teachers should filter the information that is relevant depending on the level of course. That is, relevant amount of music theory should be taught in correspondence to the level or music course being taught. For example, for entry level music courses, theory should be taught as a stepping stone in interpreting and analysing music, by introducing students to the fundamentals of notation, music organization and structure. In advanced courses, theory should be taught to enhance interpretation, performance and the creation of music, by including practical activities and addressing the relationship between music and other disciplines, including psychology. This way students would be introduced to many different aspects of music theory and will be able to make an informed decision about the direction they wish to take on in their future study. This is one of the aspects that make music theory a success. The main point of usefulness is that the students have the freedom to specialize in the areas that they please. Secondly, the students will enjoy the benefits of both theory and practice and within a short time they will be well conversant with all that they need. The learning process should be as interesting as possible as students get learn how to play certain keys, tunes and rhymes. Therefore, teachers need to get different creative ways of passing the message to the students. Often the disadvantages of music theory emerge because students don’t see the point of choosing and learning how to play an instrument.
In conclusion, the theories and viewpoints analysed in this essay indicate that schools could improve the teaching of music theory by combining theory and practice and being more responsive to external changes and trends in order to achieve positive and impressive results. As Deutsch (2012) noted, if music theorists adopted multidisciplinary approaches and were more open to experimentation, music theory would become a much more interesting, appealing and dynamic discipline. For instance, besides the fundamentals of music theory, sociological and psychological notions, such as cognitive abilities, emotion theory and movement in performance, could be integrated in music theory courses. Also, if practical activities and real instrument playing were included in music theory lessons, students would then be able to apply the theoretical concepts they have learned to actual instruments, which should engage them and motivate them to continue studying music.
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